9 millennials influencing the D.C. food scene
Erik Bruner-Yang, 29, chef and co-owner of Toki Underground, partner in the forthcoming Maketto food and retail market.
Bruner-Yang set aside a music career to take a job as general manager of Sticky Rice on H Street NE. In short order, the self-taught chef opened his own place, Toki Underground, a quirky and personal take on a Japanese-Taiwanese ramen shop. Diners, many under the age of 30, wait two hours or longer for a taste of Bruner-Yang’s pan-Asian cooking, which was good enough this year to earn him a nod from Food & Wine magazine as one of the Mid-Atlantic’s “up-and-coming chefs.”
“I think millennials have a different expectation of food quality,” Bruner-Yang says. They have “a ton of food knowledge. They want every meal to be their best.” The chef is now focused on Maketto, which draws inspiration from the night markets of Cambodia and Taiwan. When it debuts late this year or early next, Maketto will further expand the millennial palate, which has already developed a taste for many international cuisines.
What’s your favorite restaurant, and does it cater to millennials? If so, why? Bangkok Golden at Seven Corners. “I think it caters to millennials because we live in a world of modernity, and millennials are constantly searching for [an] authentic experience,” the chef wrote via e-mail. “Bangkok Golden is exactly that thanks to chef Seng [Luangrath]. She is an authentic person, and it shows in her food.”
Rachael Callahan, 29, executive director, Common Good City Farm
Callahan had been keeping tabs on the LeDroit Park community garden, which gives low-income families access to fresh produce and food education, since hearing co-founder Liz Falk (another millennial) speak at a graduate-level food policy class at American University in 2008. With an undergraduate degree in international relations, Callahan had planned on a career in some far-flung locale. “But what she was talking about were some of the same issues — lack of access to fresh food, hunger, things like that — that I was looking at abroad happening here in our little city,” Callahan says. “And some of the same solutions that I was starting to think were a really great idea, she was already in the beginning stages of implementing them here.”
After stints in Belize and Massachusetts, Callahan returned to Washington six months ago for her current job, taking charge of three full-time staff members, one part-timer and about 400 volunteers. She says her pie-in-the-sky hope is that one day more D.C. neighborhoods will have similar spots for congregating and picking up healthful habits.
Where do you think the millennial impulse for social responsibility comes from?
“When I was growing up, poverty was talked about openly. You know, Sally Struthers was on the TV, environmental issues like climate change and the ozone layer and those things were being talked about on the news and in commercials. . . . So there was a dialogue about it, and the dialogue was always related to: Here’s what you can do to help.”
Miles Gray III, 34, managing partner, Smith Commons Public House
Craft beer tastings at Gray’s Atlas District restaurant and bar ditch the stodgy meet-and-greet format in favor of parties that introduce beer lovers to the world of trend-setting local DJs, designers and graffiti artists, and vice versa. Another day, an afternoon rum tasting turns into a chance to browse T-shirts and sustainable goods from the Caribbean.
When the H Street Festival rolled around, Gray, who made his name in Washington throwing parties during Howard homecoming, transformed the adjacent parking lot into a hipster fairground. There was a stage for local hip-hop acts, a half-pipe for skateboarders, stands for local clothing labels and space for craft breweries to pour their products. Skaters wandered in to watch the tricks and stuck around to catch up-and-coming musicians while sipping a pint of Flying Dog. “My goal is to create real-life Venn diagrams that force people who wouldn’t normally interact to grab a beer and chat,” Gray says. “I think that provides opportunities to find out what we all have in common and make new friends. It pushes the culture forward and brings people closer.”
Do you think millennials are more open to cross-cultural experiences than Generation X was?
“People are typically as ‘open’ as the information they have access to and how restrictive their environment is. In many cases, Generation Xers had to physically travel to experience other cultures. Millennials have had the opportunity to experience the birth and global expansion of hip-hop, electronic music and the World Wide Web, which has made the world a very small place — and more empathetic. It’s hard to hate the people that make the music you love, the clothes you wear and the slang you use.”
Roger Horowitz, 28, co-owner, Pleasant Pops.
Horowitz’s first collaboration with Pops co-founder Brian Sykora was during their junior year at the University of North Carolina. They formed a sustainability organization that led them to Kenya to plant trees. It was a given, then, that the ingredients for their uniquely-flavored frozen treats, which they began selling from a pushcart at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in 2009, would be locally sourced from neighboring vendors. The next year, once demand grew, the pair bought a food truck, and in September 2012 they opened a bricks-and-mortar store in Adams Morgan.
The store, which carries the signature ice pops plus salads, sandwiches and local milk, yogurt and cheese, is wind-powered, and the owners have asked the landlord about installing solar panels on the roof. But just as important as the local ingredients are the locals themselves.
“We’re a regulars place, a locals place,” Horowitz said. “The majority of regulars, we know them, they know us. It’s not like, ‘That’s the cashier.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, Brian, did you set a wedding date?’ Especially in the mornings: We know half of the customers’ orders before they walk in.”
On the importance of community:
“Without farmers markets, we never could have built the store. We raised the money from 426 people who donated on Kickstarter. And those weren’t random people. They were people who had been customers for years.”
Brent Kroll, 28, wine director, Neighborhood Restaurant Group
Kroll didn’t set out to be a sommelier: He was studying business administration in college when, faced with the prospect of student loans, he decided he’d rather make a career of his part-time restaurant job. He studied under master sommelier Madeline Triffon and received his sommelier certification at the age of 22. Jobs at the Oval Room and the St. Regis followed. “I haven’t ever worked in a restaurant where a customer hasn’t joked, ‘Are you old enough to drink?’ ” Kroll says.
Now he oversees wine lists at a diverse batch of restaurants that includes Birch and Barley, Vermilion and the forthcoming Iron Gate. He’s known for surprising diners with a cabernet sauvignon and syrah blend from Lebanon, a full-bodied red from Croatia or heritage wines from Greece. “If someone comes in and they’re disappointed that I don’t have a pinot gris on, it’s not because I’m trying to be trendy. . . . It’s about keeping things fresh for guests, so that it’s not repetitive.”
He’s also willing to experiment. GBD's most talked-about menu item is the Luther: fried chicken and bacon between two halves of a brioche doughnut. Asked for a pairing suggestion, Kroll doesn’t hesitate. “I’ve tried it,” he says. “I paired [the Luther] with a sparkling rosé from Michigan that was on tap. You need something dry and sparkling to clean it up.”
Somehow, I don’t think that one comes up on the Court of Master Sommeliers exam.
How does millennials’ taste in wine differ from their parents’?
“When I did Madeira pairings, older people think of Madeira as this cooking wine. If I offer Marsala, one of the most famous wines from southern Italy, some people remember when Marsala came in jugs. I see how certain wine trends of the past have shaped people’s perceptions. With younger people, there’s less preconception and more interest in what’s trendy and what’s new.”
Marjorie Meek-Bradley, 29, executive chef, Ripple.
Meek-Bradley was born and raised in Ukiah, Calif., a small town north of the Bay Area but close enough to Berkeley to feel the ripple effects of Alice Waters’s local food revolution. Meek-Bradley’s parents co-founded the Plowshares Peace and Justice Center, which feeds the hungry with donated foods from grocery stores, restaurants and farms.
“I grew up in the soup kitchen,” the chef says. It “influenced me, even though I don’t necessarily remember it. I think it’s that instinctual thing that food is more nurturing than something artistic.”
Meek-Bradley never abandoned her belief in the comfort of food, even when she worked at two temples of gastronomy: Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, Calif., and his Per Se in New York City. The pressures at Per Se were great, Meek-Bradley says, but the rewards were greater, working under chefs such as Keller and Jonathan Benno. The skills she developed at Keller’s restaurants subtly revealed themselves at Mike Isabella’s first venture, Graffiato, where Meek-Bradley was chef de cuisine. She has now assumed her first executive chef position at Ripple, already landing a spot in Tom Sietsema’s Fall Dining Guide.
“To me, it’s all about comfort,” she says. “It’s about getting away from fine dining.”
Why do millennials embrace offal-based dishes more than previous generations?
“I think it has to be an adventure. We want so badly to be unique. We think that’s a way. I know I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to be boring.”
Gauri Sarin, 25, co-owner and director of catering and special events for Union Kitchen Catering.
A self-described failed mobile vendor, Sarin has turned her tough-luck stories running the Something Stuffed truck into object lessons for the budding food businesses that use Union Kitchen as a base of operations. She has also collaborated with the Union Kitchen founders to launch a separate catering division, which generates extra revenue for these start-ups by providing them work at special events.
Sarin also helps scout locations for potential pop-ups, which gives these emerging entrepreneurs a taste of what it’s like to run a bricks-and-mortar operation. She even displays that millennial habit of sharing her things. Well, sort of sharing: She has repainted her truck and now rents it out to Union Kitchen members who want to road-test their own mobile food concepts.
Do you think millennials are more driven to succeed than other generations?
Sarin has mixed feelings about that generalization. She has her own motivational story: A few years ago, she suffered a broken back in a car accident, an experience she uses as a kind of backhanded inspiration to keep pushing forward. At the same time, she says, “for people within our generation, success . . . really comes down to the fact that we’ve been given so much opportunity.”
Andreas Schneider, 29, co-founder, Capital Kombucha
Schneider and business school classmates Dan Lieberman and John Lee opened the city’s first kombucha brewery before they’d even gotten their diplomas. The three partners the fermented, probiotic iced tea at Union Kitchen alongside other local food entrepreneurs and sell their concoctions at markets and yoga studios around the region. They find ingredients through D.C. Central Kitchen, even though they admit that sometimes it would be easier to buy a massive vat of honey at Costco than to track down the output of small-batch local purveyors.
“You can sometimes get much better prices buying things from far away rather than locally, but we think that business should be a force for positive social renewal in the area where the businesses operate,” Schneider says. “We look at it as an investment. If that means investing a little more to get something locally, or through D.C. Central kitchen to get a product not grown locally, we’re willing to do that.”
Given how active millennials are on social media, how important is it for Capital Kombucha to have a social media presence?
“We’re aware of the fact that food and drink is something that brings people together . . . and you can’t really enjoy it over social media. The best tool for us, really, is setting up a table in a store or at a farmers market, doing demos and talking to people all day. Even if we have fewer interactions than we can over social media, each of them is more impactful.”
Meredith Sheperd, 30, founder and owner of Love & Carrots
Love & Carrots works with homeowners, businesses and organizations to create organic gardens, transforming what Sheperd calls “biological deserts” (you might call them “lawns”) into an “edible native landscape” that provides food for the client and a beneficial ecosystem for insects.
A graduate of Notre Dame in environmental science and entomology, Sheperd was a wetlands scientist for three years but realized she wasn’t cut out for office work. She launched Love & Carrots in May 2011 with 11 gardens, which she handled by herself. Now, the company tends nearly 130 gardens with crews ranging in size from five to nine. She calls her job the “perfect marriage of environmentalism, activism and local food.” The District obviously agrees. Sheperd won a Mayor’s Sustainability Award this year.
Is Sheperd’s business a reflection of her generation? “I don’t know if I would have had the same ideals if I were born in the 1950s. I think there’s a lot more awareness these days. That’s just due to the knowledge that everybody has about how delicate the environment is,” she says. “There are a lot of my generation who are pretty angry about my parents’ generation and how irresponsible they were.”