“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.