Kitchen Wizards: Rising Culinary Stars Honored at RAMMYs

June 22, 2011


Were you considering casing the grand opening of Mike Isabella’s Graffiato just to catch a glimpse of the season-six “Top Chef” contestant? Do you take your lunch breaks inside a tinted van across the street from We, the Pizza, hoping to see Spike Mendelsohn? Well, there’s an easier way to spot some culinary hotshots: Sunday’s 2011 Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington awards — better known as the RAMMYs — will recognize talent from the front of the house (Employee of the Year) to the back (Chef of the Year). Now in its 29th year, it is “one of D.C.’s most glamorous events,” says RAMW President Lynne Breaux. Gaze upon the five Rising Culinary Star nominees while they’re still in our orbit.

Kyle Bailey, 31
Birch & Barley, ChurchKey (1337 14th St. NW; 202-567-2576, birchandbarley.com)
A Philadelphia native, Kyle Bailey wishes there were more mom-and-pop shops on the D.C. dining scene. “There’s this place right next door to the restaurant called Yum’s,” he says. “After 15 hours sweating and screaming, I splash some water on my face. … I’ve only got $2.50 in my pocket. I go there and get a cheesesteak.” Bailey previously held positions at such notable eateries as Allen & Delancey, a now-closed New York restaurant where he did his first stint as an executive chef.
Cooking philosophy: “I like to make things look deceptively simple. And we never waste anything. It all started with my grandma. If I didn’t finish my plate, she’d be, like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
On fried chicken tucked in a doughnut: “I couldn’t believe how big the New Luther sandwich got. It’s not as sweet as a regular doughnut. Texturally, it’s a lot denser. It’s pretty intense.”
Why being a chef is cool: “I never have to stop moving, to sit down at a desk.”
On the RAMMY nod: “I never saw this coming. I’m, like, ‘Wow, this is great, dude.’”
Favorite kitchen tool: “I have this wooden spoon. It’s great for stirring, basting, smashing, everything.”

Justin Bittner, 30
Bar Pilar (1833 14th St. NW; 202-265-1751, barpilar.com)
Keep it simple. That’s Justin Bittner’s approach to cooking. “With 45 dishes on the menu at Bar Pilar, this not only makes our lives a little easier,” says the mellow chef, “but it’s also delicious.” The Baltimore-bred cook initially went to Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh “to appease Mom,” he says. After cooking for 15 years, it wasn’t until five or six years ago that he started “to get really serious” about food. “I got a little older, I guess.”
Cooking philosophy: “I don’t know what you’d call my style; that’d have to be someone from outside saying that. I definitely cook hearty. I’m not into health food.”
How beer is his creative muse: “My friends and I will sit around and split an 18-pack of Budweiser and we’ll just talk about the dishes we cooked that night. One of us might have a gripe — ‘Oh, this shouldn’t be done.’ It’s too damn hard to get out when you’re busy.”
Favorite kitchen tool: A sharp knife.
On his RAMMY nod: “It’s an honor, but it’s not something you do by yourself. I try to stay level-headed. I just like to cook.”

Javier Romero, 29
Taberna del Alabardero (1776 I St. NW; 202-429-2200, alabardero.com)
At age 16, at his grandmother’s side, Javier Romero discovered he loved to cook. Born and raised in Spain, Romero left his grandma’s kitchen to attend a culinary school in Madrid. After graduating, he worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants. A 2005 visit to the U.S. led him to Washington, D.C. “I wanted to get the professional experience from another country and become more open-minded with the culinary industry,” Romero says. In October 2009, he began blending Old World traditions with New World trends as head chef at Taberna.
Why Taberna was a good fit: “I come from the same traditional roots as Taberna, and I have the same vision of cuisine.”
On being at once authentic and trendy: “I have transformed fresh Iberian products and created a pork hamburger. I’m always interested in bringing organic ingredients to a dish.”
Favorite kitchen ingredient: “I can’t live without extra virgin olive oil.”
Cooking philosophy: “You have to have a combination of skills, creativity and perseverance; and to be humble is most important.”

Will Artley, 34
Evening Star Cafe (2000 Mount Vernon Ave.; Alexandria, 703-549-5051, eveningstarcafe.net)
Will Artley has a chip on his shoulder: “I got kicked out of school my senior year and was told I wasn’t going to do anything.” Sixteen years later — heading up Evening Star’s kitchen (after graduating from sous to executive chef in just two years) and holding a degree from the Culinary Institute of America — the former military brat can gloat a little. “If being nothing is like this, then I’m happy being nothing.”
Unintentional ritual: “I put my chef’s coat on and put my peeler in my pocket. I’ll hang my jacket, and the next day I’m, like, ‘Who stole my peeler last night?’”
Why he doesn’t jump on every fad: “No disrespect, but I’ve never met a farmer who said, ‘This corn is going to make a great foam.’”
Favorite kitchen tool: “My juicer. It was only $89. I bought it six years ago, and I juice, like, 20 carrots a day.”
On the RAMMY nod: “I was actually on line in our kitchen when [Evening Star's] owner called [from the RAMMY nomination ceremony] to give me the news. I was, like, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me? I would have gone.’”
If he wasn’t a chef: ”I’d be a farmer. Hands down.„

Shannon Overmiller, 35
The Majestic (911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117, majesticcafe.com)
Part of a family of avid cooks, Shannon Overmiller discovered her talent in the kitchen as a teen when her father fell ill and her mother had to spend hours at the hospital. “I starting cooking and really enjoying it,” says Overmiller, who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Her dad passed away when she was 16, and her mom died four years after that. A year later, she broke up with a boyfriend and found herself “really alone.” Knowing she had “to do something,” she applied to L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.
On her “home-school” style: “It’s the imperative part of cooking. You can’t go by recipe or school training. You need to understand ingredients to bring out their best quality.”
Cooking philosophy: “Food should taste big in your mouth. Make it hearty.”
Favorite kitchen tool: “My long, slender pate knife.”
On her RAMMY nod: “I really hope I get it this year. This will be my third nomination. I don’t know how long I can keep rising.”
Frequently on her Xmas list: “Pots and pans. I remember my parents were, like, ‘You’re a crazy kid. Uh-oh.’”

» Sun., 5:30 p.m., $300 ($200 for Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington members); Marriott Washington Wardman Park, 2660 Woodley Road NW; Ramw.org

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Darona Williams | June 22, 2011