By Tim Carman
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Jamie Stachowski swears this story is true: One day when he was still running Restaurant Kolumbia, his Old World-influenced American establishment located on the freak-flag-free corridor known as K Street, the chef decided he needed a pastrami or chopped chicken liver sandwich for lunch. So he plopped himself behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry and started searching for a decent one.
Stachowski didn’t stop until he hit Artie’s Delicatessen on Broadway near West 83rd Street, in Manhattan, some 230 miles and four hours away. Then, just because he could, he swung by Katz’s Delicatessen, with another stop for a couple of pizza pies, the food haul as a sort of mea culpa to the family he had left hanging back home.
“He was probably having a mental breakdown,” teases Josef Stachowski as he stands in the new Stachowski’s Market and Deli in Georgetown, where the chef’s 23-year-old son seems to be, somewhat reluctantly, following in his dad’s food-service footsteps.
Breakdown or not, the anecdote underscores almost everything you need to know about Jamie Stachowski: He hates settling for less, and he’s willing to push himself to extremes to secure the best. That internal drive is, as you might guess, not limited to a hunt for lunchtime sandwiches. Stachowski is known for pushing, prodding and even yelling at those around him to meet the standards he has set for himself. Some, even his own son, view Stachowski’s drive as sometimes excessive. Or, if they’re honest, perhaps totally over-the-top loopy.
Then again, ever since Stachowski quit school to work as a cook more than 30 years ago, that drive has served the chef well and has earned him scores of fans who worship his skill at transforming all forms of meat into mouthwatering charcuterie. The siege mentality, in other words, seems to work for him. It’s as if he’s a wartime general locked in a never-ending battle to extract flavor from unyielding ingredients. Enemies are everywhere. Prisoners are optional.
Anyone who knows the 49-year-old Stachowski understands where his inner commandant was developed: at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, the restaurant run with an iron fist by Jean-Louis Palladin, the most dominating figure in Washington gastronomy. Born in the Armagnac region of southwestern France, Palladin brought his two Michelin stars, his demanding technique and his temper to Washington. The chef left his mark on the young Stachowski, who started working at Jean-Louis in the early 1980s.
Stachowski’s volatile temperament “comes from having exacting standards. [Jamie] learned a lot from French chefs, and that’s how they roll,” says wife Carolyn Stachowski, who met her future spouse while they were both working at Jean-Louis. “When Jean-Louis showed up, you would just stiffen up. He was scary.”
Mitch Berliner, a veteran food distributor and Stachowski’s former partner in the MeatCrafters charcuterie business, was a regular diner at Jean-Louis. He knew how small the kitchen was; he also knew that cooks like Stachowski got “their butts kicked from time to time” by Palladin.
“I don’t think there was a lot of fooling around in Jean-Louis’ kitchen,” Berliner says. “I think it was very disciplined.”
Now it’s Stachowski who metes out the “discipline,” as in his penchant for pointing out another’s ignorance, whether during a casual conversation or at the farmers market, where his charcuterie customers can occasionally draw a sharp retort. Among his favorite phrases is this stock question, more criticism than inquiry: “You didn’t know that?” He also has a tendency to mock trends in the culinary world that he views as too precious. It might be small plates. It might be molecular gastronomy. It might be chefs more interested in building an empire than building a great meal.
“Instead of polishing dishes,” he says, “they’re making ‘concepts.’ ”
For all his French training, for all his work in fine-dining restaurants, he remains at heart a working-class guy who grew up in Buffalo and later on a farm outside that city with ducks and calves and capons. His Polish family made its own sausage, corned beef and pastrami, not because it was trendy and they could dedicate a blog to it, but because that’s what Poles from the old country did. Stachowski’s love of cooking and flavor and French techniques comes not from a high-priced cooking school, where half of the graduates want a gig on Food Network, but from old-school, knife-scarred chefs who were more working stiffs than celebs. Stachowski never went to cooking school.
His connection to Palladin also is reflected in perhaps less obvious behaviors: Like his late mentor, Stachowski has the spark of life in him. He exudes energy and attracts it at the same time. Though his slicked-back mane, neatly trimmed facial hair and Redfordesque sideburns sport varying degrees of gray, Stachowski still has a brash exuberance: a two-fisted, tough-guy persona that’s part Joe Pesci and part Ratso Rizzo. Even his most pointed barbs come across as a kind of comedy. He also flashes moments of genuine sincerity and warmth. (Is it any wonder that the History Channel had him host the one-off show “Meat America”?)
“Restaurant people are the best,” he says, almost as an apology for all his criticism of modern gastronomy. “I don’t respect anybody else.”
The feeling seems to be mutual. Like most chefs, Stachowski has worked at many restaurants over the course of his career, among them: Jean-Louis in Washington, Le Perigord in New York, Ma Maison and Le St. Germain in Los Angeles, Pesce on P Street NW, eCiti in Tysons Corner, J. Paul’s in Georgetown and Thirsty Bernie in Arlington. If he has burned bridges along the way, many of them apparently have been repaired. His peers and former employers show nothing but respect for Stachowski.
Take Paul J. Cohn, the founder of J. Paul’s. Before he moved into the restaurant business, Cohn worked in the pop music field, managing the singing duo Peaches and Herb. He likes to compare the people who populate the two industries. “For me, chefs and musicians are the same. They just play different instruments,” Cohn says. “Jamie is one of those true free spirits. . . . He’s very passionate about what he does. He’s a character.”
The word “character,” of course, can be code for less savory terms that professionals don’t like to use when describing a peer to reporters. Cohn doesn’t deny Stachowski’s difficult persona, but the restaurateur says it serves a purpose.
“I think Jamie’s search is for perfection,” he says. “He wants everything to be perfect. . . . That’s more of the drive than just being a jerk.”
Berliner echoes that sentiment. He is still a partner in MeatCrafters, the Potomac-based charcuterie business that was originally built around Stachowski’s talents. The two men parted ways over various disagreements, Berliner says, but it had nothing to do with Stachowski’s character. It’s true, he says, that Stachowski doesn’t suffer fools; that’s a professional necessity in the food business.
“If you work in kitchens, you can’t,” Berliner says. “If you put out bad food, you’re usually not going to get a second shot.”
As he moves about Stachowski’s, in the former Griffin Market space on 28th Street NW, the elder Stachowski rolls out some of his expansive philosophies. They include thoughts on butcher shops (“We don’t do that precious thing where the case is filled with two or three things”), top-quality meats (it requires an excellent animal, good marbling and dry aging) and how to succeed in Georgetown (you must be a fullservice butcher with a wide selection of meats as well as restaurant-quality meals to take home). He sometimes repeats those philosophies a second or third time, either a perfectionist’s need to control the message or an adult with ADD.
Jamie Stachowski is clearly the guiding light of the new business, which is not at all surprising until you learn that the market is registered solely under Josef’s name. Papa Stachowski says there are reasons for that. First of all, the market was Josef’s idea. Second, the younger Stachowski had tried the college route but discovered it was not his thing. “We’re not schoolboys,” Jamie says, a sort of conspiratorial pride creeping into his voice. The market is now serving as Josef’s business school.
“I wanted him to feel the weight of responsibility,” Jamie says. (What Dad doesn’t mention is that the District has a lien against him for delinquent taxes, prohibiting him from securing a business license.)
It’s a responsibility that Josef Stachowski wasn’t sure he even wanted. As the younger of two children born to restaurant parents, Josef grew up in kitchens and dining rooms. “I think it was good for them,” says Carolyn Stachowski of putting their children to work early. “They had to sort of become independent a little younger.”
Josef first went to work at age 11 at Pesce, where he washed dishes and grilled squid. He doesn’t recall being paid. (“No, you don’t pay these kids, they’re family,” Dad says.) At Restaurant Kolumbia, the only job Josef didn’t perform was bartender -- and that’s only because he was underage. He later worked as an expediter at Central Michel Richard.
“After Kolumbia, I said I would never work with Jamie again,” says Josef. “After Central, I said I wouldn’t work in restaurants again.”
But after souring on school, Josef found himself working for his father again, this time at Stachowski Brand Charcuterie, the chef’s protein-based business that sells fresh sausages and cured meats to restaurants and at farmers markets. The son has proven adept at the meat game -- to a point. “There’s still a lot of little issues,” the demanding father told me back before Stachowski’s opened in April. “He’s very smart. He’s a beast, and he tackles everything.”
“The only real issue is me letting him make mistakes,” Jamie adds.
Josef Stachowski seems quite different from his father, both physically and temperamentally. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, Josef has a good nine inches on his dad. He’s also much quieter. Josef calls his father by his first name, a habit that began early when Dad demanded to be addressed as either “Jamie” or “chef” in the restaurant. “I said I couldn’t call him ‘chef,’ ” Josef says.
But if you ask the son what it’s like to work with his father again, the younger man sounds an awful lot like his elder. “He really [ticks] me off,” Josef says.
Josef also has some of his father’s perfectionism. The son was the one arguing that Stachowski’s wasn’t ready to open in April; they didn’t have enough meats to sell yet. But once Dad convinced him that they needed to start earning cash, both father and son quickly discovered the unique thrills of selling their line of dry-aged meats, sausages and hand-made sandwiches to Georgetowners.
One day a customer called to order 18 prime steaks, 14 ounces apiece, cooked sous-vide and seared -- oh, and delivered in precisely 45 minutes, at 7:30 p.m. on the nose. That no doubt came at price, right?
“Yes,” Jamie Stachowski grins. “Close to $1,000.”