One of the District's best young chefs does not work in a restaurant. He works at Glen's Garden Market, where he spends most of his days making salads, pizzas and custom-made sandwiches for the store's prepared foods section.
Travis Olson doesn't mind. He chose this life behind the cold-case counter. "He took a new bride over the summer and didn’t want to work line hours," says Danielle Vogel, Olson's boss and founder of Glen's near Dupont Circle.
Vogel hired Olson last year not long after the chef returned from a three-month stint in the pastry department at Noma, Rene Redzepi's celebrated restaurant in Copenhagen. Not that Olson was limited to desserts; as a chef trained in both sweet and savory cooking, Olson helped prepare the introductory small plates and first courses for Noma diners.
The Arlington native, in fact, might still be in Copenhagen today, working with former 1789 chef Daniel Giusti in the kitchen, if it weren't for one thing: love. "I could have continued there, but being [separate] from my fiancee and realizing how much it would have impacted her life to bring her over there…" Olson trails off. No further comment needed: It's not difficult to imagine the hassle of uprooting your life and moving to Denmark.
So Olson, 32, is here and to keep him happy, Vogel is launching a Tasting Table series at Glen's. Twice monthly, usually on the last Thursday and Friday of the month, Olson will host eight guests who will sit family-style around a table located squarely among the locally sourced products. The first Tasting Table meals will launch on Feb. 27 and 28 at Glen's; the 8:30 p.m. dinners will cost $75 per person, with an optional $25 drinks pairing.
The seven-course dinner, Olson says, will give him the chance to "work with some products that we otherwise couldn’t work with" at Glen's. It will also give him a chance, he says, to test out the multi-course-dinner-inside-a-market concept. "This might be something we could grow to more than once month," says Olson, who worked for nearly 12 years with the Clyde's Restaurant Group, including a stint as pastry chef at 1789.
The first dinner, the chef says, will likely look a lot like the preview meal he served last month at Glen's. It included, among other things, house-made salami and pickled vegetables, sourdough bread with house-made butter, whole oats prepared as risotto, Maryland ring-neck pheasant with grilled onions and a plate that Olson dubbed "Dixie dolmas." The last dish was a riff on the Greek finger food, but instead of using grape leaves, Olson stuffed collard greens with pork sausage and stone-ground grits from Woodson's Mill in Virginia.
The dinner's highlight, however, was dessert, perhaps not so surprising. Olson prepared a popcorn meringue served with sour ice cream and a sauce built from preserved summer berry juice and Dominion root beer. The savory saltiness of the meringue did a little end-zone dance on top of the sweet base ingredients. We couldn't shut up about the treat.
I also detected a Redzepi influence on the charred onions that accompanied the pheasant entree. Compare the photo of Olson's dish (at right) to the Charred Onions in Cheese Sauce, which Redzepi created with local produce when he was in D.C. last year. They look remarkably similar. Olson acknowledges that Noma had a strong influence on him. He particularly likes a philosophy shared by everyone in the Noma kitchen: If a dish is perfect, don't mess with it.
What that means in the hard laws of kitchen supply-and-demand is that you don't change the recipe. You don't substitute an ingredient if you're missing one. You don't add an element just because some sexy-looking produce walks through the door. You don't change the sauce when an ingredient goes out of season; you just shelve the whole dish until next season.
It's a philosophy that clearly meshes with the primary aim of Glen's Garden Market: sell only produce that's in season and only products originating from the states of the Chesapeake watershed (with some notable exceptions). Is it any wonder Travis Olson picked Glen's as his current home?
Glen's Garden Market, 2001 S St. NW. 202-588-5698.