Cleaning: Inn at Little Washington’s big job

April 2

It’s 10 p.m. at the Inn at Little Washington and things are winding down. The last dinner guests are putting on their coats and bidding good night to chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell, who is chatting amiably with them, accepting their compliments with grace.

Even at this late hour, O’Connell’s white chef’s jacket and signature black-and-white Dalmatian-patterned calf-length apron are still crisp, as if to affirm his international reputation as a perfectionist, a stickler who pays attention to every last detail.

Behind him, through a mirrored archway and two sets of double doors, Jack Judd’s day in the kitchen is just getting started, and he, too, is paying attention to every last detail. Judd is the inn’s midnight custodian, and it is his job to, among other things, wash the dishes and scrub the pans, mop the floor, dip the silver, polish the copper pots and clean and burnish the massive stainless-steel-enamel-and-brass Vulcan range that stands in the center of the 1,500-square-foot kitchen.

“By the time breakfast comes around, it will look like it never was touched,” says Judd, who has been at the inn for 19 years.

Those words are music to O’Connell, whose philosophy about running the inn can be summed up in a three-word mantra: “No dark corners.” This holds true not only for the sumptuous bedrooms and sitting rooms for which the inn is famous, but also for the kitchen. Even the service elevator, adorned with wood panels and a decorative china cabinet, is free of dust and grime.

“Restaurants and hotels divide themselves into guest space and non-guest space,” O’Connell says — a big mistake. “The minute you divide you have something dreadful and awful. It’s like wearing a beautiful gown and, underneath it, very dirty underwear.” He likens his kitchen to the one in the hit PBS TV series “Downton Abbey” (which he loves). “You know that when you go down to the kitchen at Downton, it will be just as ordered and meticulous as the upstairs space.”

It’s this fastidiousness that helped put the inn on the map as a destination when it opened in 1978 in a converted gas station in the tiny town of Washington, Va. And it is one reason it has once again received — for the 26th year in a row — AAA’s highest accolade, the Five Diamond Award.

The inn’s current kitchen was built in 1999, replacing the much smaller original kitchen—now the living room. It was designed by British decorator Joyce Evans, who also designed the rest of the inn’s opulent interior. The walls are lined with Portuguese blue-and-white ceramic tiles. Enormous bay windows at the far end throw light across the room during the day. Along one wall is a stone fireplace flanked by two banquettes, where diners pay dearly to eat in full view of the goings-on.

The 151 / 2-by-7-foot range, with four separate stations and a gleaming brass rail that encircles the entire piece, is the room’s focal point. It was built not only with beauty but also function and efficiency in mind. The gas burners have water wells under them. At the end of the evening, the wells are drained and wiped clean with sudsy water —no scrubbing necessary. Overhead, the 161 / 2-foot copper and stainless-steel hood conceals a trough that catches vapor and oil, which prevents a layer of cooked-on grime from accumulating.

The kitchen’s tile floor is sloped and fitted with drains to simplify the mopping process. All of the stations — the range, as well as the pastry and garde manger (cold dish) stations along the perimeter — rest on “piers” so they end flush with the floor. This means no dark spaces for any stray bits of food to roll under and get lost.

The antiqued metal lanterns that hang from the ceiling have mesh caging but no glass so that they can be easily sprayed clean with water. Everything in the kitchen is waterproof and can be washed down with steam wands, including the walk-in cooler. The metal shelf units that line it are all on rollers and are easily moved out so the inside of the cooler can be sprayed down, which it is at least once a week.

Even with such clever touches, though, maintaining the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington is a 24-hour job that involves every staff member who walks through those swinging doors, including the chefs who work the various stations.

In fact, when chefs come to work at the inn, they are handed not a knife but a broom. “Sweeping and mopping are the first things we teach,” O’Connell says, “because these skills are no longer taught in the home.” He distinguishes between “timid” sweepers, “aggressive” sweepers and “conscious” sweepers, standing and demonstrating with an imaginary broom as he talks. It’s the conscious sweepers who will be most successful in the kitchen, O’Connell says, laughing — but also completely serious.

“If you can become the broom, you will master the art of cooking,” he says. “The next time you put something in the oven you will be one with it. There will be no detachment.”

Aaron Coffey, a chef who works the flat top, has clearly taken the lesson to heart. At the end of his shift he demonstrates with no small amount of pride how to clean the still-hot steel surface, scrubbing it down with hot water and a sponge outfitted with a rectangle of grill screen and a handle. For his stack of cast-iron pans, he uses coarse salt to scrape off any food residue and then melted butter to re-season the surface.

“It’s a team effort,” says Rachel Hayden, the inn’s director of public relations, “but Jack Judd is the backbone.”

Judd, who grew up in the mountains near Luray, says he and his five siblings learned to clean from their mother. “She started us cleaning our own rooms even before we could walk,” he says. “By the time we could walk, we were washing dishes.”

Dishes are what Judd tackles first as he starts his overnight shift, loading china and glassware into a machine and hand-washing large pieces, pots and pans. Once the chefs have departed, Judd moves in on the range, cleaning up anything they might have missed and polishing the brass railing and fixtures. He tidies up the other stations, wipes down the ceramic-tile walls and mops the floor. (He also cleans the dining room, power-washes the arrival area where guests walk, and even walks the grounds to make sure nothing is amiss.)

By the time the baking crew arrives after midnight, Judd is immersed in heavy-duty cleaning. He keeps a weekly schedule for tackling big projects. Friday, he cleans and polishes the outside of the hood; Saturday, he dips the silver; Sunday, he does the inside of the hood, hand-scrubbing the filters; Monday, he polishes the collection of copper-bottomed pots and cleans the “combi” — a multi-tiered stand-alone convection and steam oven in which bread is baked; and Tuesday, he deep-cleans the range’s four ovens. Wednesday and Thursday are his days off, and on Friday the routine begins anew.

At 6 a.m. Judd is relieved by Beverly Exline, who oversees the daytime cleaning process. A first big pass takes place after breakfast, followed by a smaller one at 5:45, right before dinner service. If Judd is the backbone, O’Connell says, “Bev is the oil that keeps it all smoothly running.”

Ultimately, he says, what makes it all work is the attitude with which everyone does their jobs, whether it’s being a chef or a custodian. “I look at all tasks as having equal importance,” O’Connell says. “I think doing anything well is therapeutic and gives your life meaning. If you distinguish yourself as doing better than anyone else, that is an achievement.”

Domenica Marchetti is the author of numerous Italian cookbooks and a co-founder of the Web site www.americanfoodroots.com .

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