Will Artley, the chef behind Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church, was just one of many former Kinkead’s employees burning up the phones today, all asking the same question: “Is it really the end?”
Sadly, as Post food critic Tom Sietsema confirmed today, the James Beard Award-winning Bob Kinkead has decided to pull the plug on his namesake restaurant in Foggy Bottom. Kinkead’s, which opened in September 1993, will close Dec. 22.
News of the iconic restaurant’s demise coursed through the culinary world that Kinkead created almost singlehandedly via his eponymous restaurant as well as with his Colvin Run Tavern, the short-lived operation in Tysons Corner.
“Anybody who’s anybody in D.C. went through Kinkead’s at some point,” says Artley. “If you look at what he did for D.C.-Virginia cooking, it’s amazing who went through his kitchens.”
Artley is only partly exaggerating.
Consider some of the names who have worked at either Kinkead’s or Colvin Run: Not just Artley, but also Logan Cox (chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park), Jeff Black (co-owner of the Black Restaurant Group), Ris Lacoste (chef-owner of Ris in Foggy Bottom/West End), Brendan L’Etoile (chef at Chez Billy in Petworth), Joe Harran (chef de cuisine at Woodward Table downtown), Jeff Heineman (chef-owner of Grapeseed in Bethesda) and Tracy O’Grady (chef-owner of Willow in Ballston).
Lacoste is arguably the chef most closely aligned with Kinkead. Following her studies at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris, Lacoste began working for Kinkead in 1982 at the Harvest restaurant in Cambridge Mass. She would spend the next 13 years working alongside Kinkead, helping him open his first two restaurants in Washington: Twenty-One Federal and, later, Kinkead’s.
A couple months after Kinkead’s opened, Post critic Phyllis Richman published a mostly glowing review of the restaurant. “The seafood here is impeccable, so fresh it looks dewy, and each selection has its own distinct flavor,” Richman wrote in December 1993. “Seldom does new American cooking reflect such solid grounding. Lovely pink salmon is coated with crunchy pepita seeds and crosshatched with a spicy squiggle of sauce, and it’s surrounded by a crab melange with chilies that add more brilliance than heat.”
That kind of review does not materialize by chance. Lacoste told All We Can Eat that early in her career with Kinkead, he would have his cooks prepare something unique every day with ingredients pulled from the pantry and walk-in. Then he would meticulously pick the dishes apart, saying what he liked and what he didn’t, which flavors worked well together and which ones didn’t.
“He taught us all how to cook. But more important, how to taste,” Lacoste says.
(Years later, in a May 2011 review, Sietsema would still find things to savor at Kinkead’s, though the critic felt the restaurant’s time had come and gone: “The lobster roll with its field of fries and julienned slaw remains a draw, and the crab cake flanked by a corn salad with pickled green beans still goes down like a day on the beach,” Sietsema wrote. “What has changed at veteran chef Bob Kinkead’s eponymous seafood haven is, well, the times: The restaurant, which set sail in 1993, hasn’t kept up with them.”)
Willow general manager Debra Rubin, like chef O’Grady at the restaurant, is an alumna of Kinkead’s. Rubin began as a server in 1994 but was a manager by the time she left Kinkead’s a decade later. She remembers the place always being busy, sometimes crowded with politicians and celebrities such as Sen. Ted Kennedy and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was no coincidence that Kinkead’s packed them in, Rubin says.
“I just think [Kinkead] demands 150 percent of his people. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to food,” Rubin says. “Ninety-nine percent of the people lived up to those expectations, and customers knew that.”
When you ask Kinkead’s former employees what made the restaurant special, they almost all say the same thing: its refusal to compromise, even when the Kinkead’s kitchen team was asked to cook at a charity event.
“We would just go all out. We wouldn’t put some tuna tartare on a crisp,” Lacoste remembers. “The most important thing I learned was, ‘Don’t short-change it.’ ”
“He did what he did, and it was great,” Artley seconds. “I had some of my best meals at Kinkead’s.”