Rose’s Luxury chef Aaron Silverman masters the art of serious play


Aaron Silverman, the accountant-turned-chef at the helm of Rose’s Luxury. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Aaron Silverman isn’t convinced that this Sungold sorbet with tomato water and little orbs of the peeled summer fruit works yet as a dessert. The owner and head chef of Rose’s Luxury is standing at a stainless-steel counter, tasting and retasting the dish, alongside his kitchen managers.

“It has such a strong vegetable flavor,” Silverman says. “I think people will have trouble.”

B.J. Lieberman, a sous-chef, suggests they goose the sweetness by drizzling more honey-and-balsamic syrup and checking the brix, or sugar level, of the Sungolds before using them in the dish. When Silverman doesn’t immediately react to the smattering of ideas, sous-chef Drew Adams, chief creator of the dish, throws his dessert under the bus.

“It’d be a great savory course,” Adams offers.

Silverman, the eye of the hurricane, remains calm as his sous-chefs shower him with suggestions. Finally, the boss decides to let the dish stand as is, at least for the evening’s service. He’s not ready to surrender the sorbet’s potential as dessert. He wants to serve it to friends of the house and get their reactions.

Just like that, Adams’s dish moves from its R&D phase to an off-the-menu special, where it will serve a dual purpose: as a perk for some to confirm their insider status at Washington’s hottest restaurant, where the waits can stretch for hours, and a tool to gauge how far Rose’s Luxury can push diners outside the traditional sugary boundaries of a dessert course.

The scene also underscores the way Silverman, 32, has quietly undermined the traditional role of head chef at his laid-back restaurant on Barracks Row, where he has racked up praise and honors with the apparent ease of getting wet in the rain. In a town where collaboration is considered a weakness, and in a hospitality industry where kitchen hierarchy remains as fixed as true north, Silverman believes in the collective creative power of his cooks, not to mention his managers, servers, bartenders and everyone else. They all have a voice, and they all are free to express it. Silverman likes to say he shares a simple philosophy with his friend Scott Muns, Rose’s soon-to-be-departing chef de cuisine: “I don’t know s---.”

“The more you know, the more you really don’t know,” Silverman says. “It’s terrifying and insanely scary how much I don’t know.”


Silverman talks over menu items with kitchen managers at Rose’s Luxury before the night’s service. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
‘I just wanted to be a cook’

Silverman might not know much, but he knew enough to ditch his budding career as an accountant in the early 2000s. As part of his schooling at the experience-oriented Northeastern University in Boston, Silverman worked at Deloitte & Touche. It was a paid externship, and it provided fairly well for the college student. Silverman had a 40-inch television, and he could see his future packed with more of the finer things in life. One evening, he pondered it all and found it empty.

The moment “made me realize [material goods] are not going to make me happy,” Silverman remembers. He contemplated what would make him happy, and the answer was surprising: He wanted to cook, a hobby that occupied more of his time in college as he devoured cable food shows.

As a child growing up in Rockville/North Potomac, the oldest of Donald and Jackie Silverman’s two sons, Aaron showed some minor interest in cooking, mostly working alongside his father, the cook of the family. He wasn’t much into organized sports, though he loved playing roller hockey in the street. In high school, he had plenty of friends but few A’s on his report card. His parents considered him an academic underachiever and worried about his college prospects.

Their worries proved unfounded. During his junior year at Wootton High School in Rockville, Aaron was accepted to Northeastern to study political science, accounting and small business management. Once his college was settled, Aaron’s grades “went through the roof,” his father recalls. He remembers asking his son what accounted for the academic about-face.

“He said, ‘Coffee,’ ” says Donald Silverman, a nuclear regulatory lawyer. “ ‘I started drinking coffee.’ ”

Unlike his high school grades, Aaron’s college-era epiphany to cook professionally didn’t concern his parents. They even drafted a family friend to give Aaron a taste of the restaurant business, so he could better understand its unrelenting demands and see whether he would find the kitchen rewarding. That friend was Jonathan Krinn, then chef at 2941 in Falls Church.

During a winter break from Northeastern in 2003, Aaron and Donald spent two hours with Krinn, who gave the hopeful cook some advice. “You have to put in 10 years before you go out and try to open your own place,” Krinn remembers telling Aaron. “Just pretend you’re going to be a doctor.” He also told the young man to work at some point in New York, where “the intensity is extremely high, and I think that seasons you mentally and physically.”

Even before he enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Silverman began to follow Krinn’s advice, starting in the kitchen of 2941. The boss found Silverman insufferable at first. “He’s very sassy and very cocky,” Krinn recalls thinking. “It doesn’t serve him well now, but it will later.”

Krinn’s role was to break down Silverman’s ego, then to piece it back together so he was “confident but aware,” says Krinn, now a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. “Aaron came in without the awareness. A lot of confidence but no awareness.”

After more than a year at 2941, Krinn sent Silverman packing to New York to work at the now-closed Jovia, a serious-minded new American restaurant with Italian leanings. Krinn called up chef Josh DeChellis and said, “You kick this kid’s butt, and it’s going to work out.”

If chefs had their agenda, so did Silverman. He was accumulating experience, carefully selecting each restaurant along his career path. At the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, Aaron learned chef David Chang’s technique for preparing sweetbreads. At the now-shuttered Insieme in Times Square, he soaked up chef Marco Canora’s pastamaking skills, including his method for preparing the gossamer-light gnocchi sometimes found on Rose’s menu. At McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., Silverman studied chef Sean Brock’s rare knack for pairing Southern cooking with modernist twists.

At no stop, however, did Silverman officially serve as chef de cuisine. He mostly worked the line, occasionally rising to the level of sous-chef. It was a conscious decision to reject upper-management gigs.

“I just kept turning them down because I didn’t want to deal with ordering and scheduling and payroll,” he says. “I just wanted to be a cook.”

Perhaps that’s why Chang thought Silverman lacked ambition — at least the kind of ambition that had transformed Chang from an unknown cook from Northern Virginia to a celebrity chef with restaurants around the globe, including a place opening in the District next year. Chang remembers Silverman as methodical, dependable, confident, calm. But he didn’t think the young cook had the “white-ceiling rage and focus” to open and run his own place.

“It’s a very stupid idea to open a restaurant,” Chang says. “I think you’ve got to be a little unhinged, and I always thought of Aaron as someone who was mentally stable.”

These days, Chang laughs about it: Back in the mid-2000s, he thought that only certain masochistic types could deal with the multiple traumas of operating a restaurant. But now he realizes that belief says more about him than it does about Silverman.

By the time Silverman reached Charleston to work at the groundbreaking McCrady’s, he was a seasoned New York pro, and it was obvious to Brock, a chef used to dealing with grandiose line cooks who often showed little interest in mastering the minute details of their stations.

“I’m super proud of him,” Brock says. “It’s great when people work hard and set goals and then crush them. I think that should be an example for this generation of young cooks. That’s what it takes. If you can see what you want years ahead and work toward it, that’s how it works.”

It was while at McCrady’s that Silverman began to feel the itch. He started thinking about a place of his own. He began jotting down ideas, small ones that would eventually lead to big ones.


Eclectic artwork graces the walls of the Barracks Row restaurant. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
‘When it’s delicious, that’s when it goes on’

Named for Silverman’s grandmother, Rose’s Luxury looks and operates like no other restaurant in Washington. The decor is sort of farmhouse, sort of industrial and sort of sophomoric. Sturdy wooden tables, built by Aaron’s uncle, grace the dining room, all without tablecloths. A bare concrete wall, a glowing “awesome” sign its only adornment, runs parallel to eight stools that give diners a view of the working kitchen. Strings of artificial light mix with natural sunlight to give the back bar area the feeling of an outdoor patio. Old brick walls, their dignity borrowed from another era, sometimes prop up things as random as a painting of Rick Moranis from “Ghostbusters” with the actor sporting his character’s signature pasta-strainer headgear.

Rose’s concise menu relies on the same mix of refinement and playfulness, offering family-style platters of smoked brisket next to a small plate of griddled octopus with lemon confit puree infused with squid ink. The kitchen has also produced such unlikely hits as popcorn soup with grilled lobster, strawberry pasta and a salad of pork sausage, habaneros and litchis. The food often arrives on old, ornately patterned china, discarded by its previous owners but somehow revitalized in this playhouse of a restaurant.

Peanuts, garlic chips, herbs, coconut, red onions, country ham and litchi are just some of the many ingredients that compose Rose's Luxury unique pork and litchi salad. Chef Aaron Silverman says it hits many flavorful notes, which is one of the reasons why it is so popular. (Music: "Carefree to Careful" by Podington Bear) (Randy Smith and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

It all adds up to a whimsical clash of cultures and cuisines, from high to low, and it has proven hard to resist. Since it opened in October, Rose’s Luxury has become the darling of D.C. diners — and even those outside the Beltway. Critics have praised the newcomer as they have few others; The Post’s food critic Tom Sietsema gave it three stars from the outset, calling it “the best news to come out of Capitol Hill in ages.” Bon Appetit magazine named Rose’s the top new restaurant in America, while Southern Living deemed it the second-best new restaurant in the South.

When speaking publicly, Silverman loves to deflect attention from himself and his role with the food. In one sense, his tactic just reflects the way Silverman views himself within the context of his own restaurant: Even though he’s the public face, he’s but one cog in the complex machinery that makes Rose’s run. Take that Sungold sorbet: The kitchen managers have evolved it ever so slightly. More sugar has been added, but the culinary team collectively still doesn’t feel that the dish fits comfortably on the main menu. It’s now a palate cleanser served to guests at the private roof garden table. It’s also sold to diners with dairy or gluten allergies.

So how do Silverman and team know when a dish is ready for prime time? “It’s pretty easy,” Silverman says. “When it’s delicious, that’s when it goes on.” Except when it’s not easy: One butter-roasted onion dish, even after months of R&D, never reached the proper state of deliciousness to make the cut. This is the smoke-and-mirrors deception that Rose’s pulls off so well: Its impish nonchalance conceals the serious work actually required of the place.


The tomato sorbet in progress. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Silverman, left, discusses a dish with a colleague. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Silverman also deflects to put the focus on diners and on Rose’s attempts to please them above all else. It’s a philosophy that plays well in the media, but behind the scenes, Silverman will tell you his true priority is his staff, all 50 or so of them. It’s a page he ripped from Danny Meyer’s book, “Setting the Table,” in which the New York restaurateur argues that employees come first, diners second.

“I want to be the place where I have the happiest employees,” Silverman says.

He strives to keep them happy with perks both tangible (health benefits for full-time employees) and intangible (servers have no scripts to read, nor a dress code). He also offers regular booze and wine classes for the front-of-the-house staffers, who can even apprentice in the kitchen twice a week if they want to learn more about cooking. Every other month, Silverman passes out $100 gift cards to his cooks, so they can experience Rose’s from the other side of the table.

But more than that, employees enjoy a freedom seldom found in restaurants. You can see it during every service at Rose’s. The open kitchen is not just a stage for the cooks. It’s an open-door environment, too. Rose’s general manager Andrew Limberg explains that many chefs paint an invisible line at the threshold of their kitchen; the front-of-the-house staff may not cross it, a barrier as impenetrable as anything erected during Jim Crow. But at Rose’s, managers, servers, runners, even bartenders may wander into the kitchen, looking for a dish or even just an answer to a diner’s question.

No one at Rose’s seems to fear Silverman, even with his spiky black hair and tattoo-covered arms, which are more a chef’s affectation than signs of any menace that lie within. Silverman’s just not interested in perpetuating the chef-as-bully stereotype.

“Some people like to lead through fear,” says Limberg about Silverman. “He likes to lead through respect.”

And, theoretically, that respect trickles down, from owner to managers to servers to diners. The staff buys it.

“We’ve all drank the Kool-Aid,” says Michael Richmond, assistant general manager. “It’s real. It works. We’ve all seen it happen.”

Rose’s naysayers like to point out that Silverman’s philosophy stops at the entrance to his restaurant, where diners must stand in line for a table. Rose’s doesn’t take reservations, except for its private roof garden, a policy that irks many. The Internet is littered with their complaints.

Silverman defends the system as “the lesser of two evils.” Both approaches have pros and cons, Silverman argues, but he says the no-reservation policy “has created the most happiness for our guests.” Besides, as everyone at Rose’s will tell you, all are treated equally here. Everyone waits in line, including Silverman’s parents, who are also investors in the place.

“They waited an hour and a half yesterday,” Silverman says on a Wednesday in mid-August, a time when most restaurants are dead.

The line has even become something of a comfort to Donald Silverman. Once or twice, he has driven to Barracks Row to admire it. Partly, he does so to remind himself that after all the headaches of building and opening Rose’s, people really do like it. It’s a relief. But he says the line means something more, too.

“The number one thing is the pride, the pride in Aaron,” he says. “It’s fun to stop by and take a look for a minute or two, to see the people who want to eat there. It makes me feel great as a father.”

Recipes:


(Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Bucatini With Sungold Tomato Sauce


(Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Peaches With Goat Milk Ricotta

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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