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The Chefs' Club About Nothing

Washington's Unlikely, Laid-Back, Late-Night Culinary Crew

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page F01

One wintry night a couple of weeks ago, easily the best meal in town was at the Bread Line, where owner Mark Furstenberg staged a benefit for Sri Lankan tsunami victims. Some of the city's finest chefs turned up, cooking food that turned the $75 ticket into much more than a charitable donation.

"I pulled the chefs' club e-mail list off my computer, added a few more names and got an immediate response," says Furstenberg. "It was that easy."

One From the Chefs' Club

Braised Veal Shanks

With Vegetables

4 to 6 servings

This hearty entree from Galileo's chef-owner Roberto Donna is typical of the family-style food the chefs serve each other at meetings of the Chefs' Club About Nothing.

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 pounds veal shanks (preferably cut 1 1/2 inches thick)

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained

2 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup dry white wine

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh basil

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

15-ounce can white beans, drained (may substitute 2 cups cooked dried beans)

2 cups lightly packed fresh spinach, cut into wide strips

In a pot over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Working in batches, add the shanks, being careful not to crowd them, and cook, turning as necessary, until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining shanks, adding the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan if needed.

Add the onion and garlic to the oil remaining in the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally and scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their liquid, using a spoon to break them up. Add the water, wine, basil, thyme, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Return the shanks to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the meat is tender.

Transfer the shanks to a plate; set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the shanks and return it to the pot; discard the bones. Add the carrots to the pot, cover and continue to cook until the carrots are almost tender but still a little crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the beans and spinach and cook just until heated through.

Recipe tested by Jill Grisco; send questions to food@washpost.com

Per serving (based on 4): 613 calories, 64 gm protein, 37 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 210 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 868 mg sodium, 11 gm dietary fiber

In the hugely competitive restaurant business, chefs guard their reputations and recipes closely. But here in Washington, where the food world has a kind of underdog sensibility compared with San Francisco and New York, the chefs' club has a striking collegiality.

The Chefs' Club About Nothing is a loosely knit group that bands together once a month at meetings that are part eating-and-drinking club, part support group. Most of them are executive chefs or chef-owners of their restaurants.

"The club is about nothing because it's about fun," says Roberto Donna, chef and owner of Galileo and the group's de facto guiding spirit. "There is no agenda, no politics."

People trade war stories, share sources for the best, freshest products, take food-and-wine-based trips together and strategize about running a restaurant. The result is a sense of community that's often missing in other places, the chefs say.

"Washington is a small town," says Citronelle's Michel Richard, who moved here after many years in southern California, where he still has one restaurant. "We are all friends here. We learn from each other. When you get to see your colleagues, at the chefs' club or anywhere else, you feel they are happy to see you."

Other chefs' club participants feel the same way. "There's a silent rule that we don't criticize each other," says Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong, who has worked in Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam and London. "I think sniping and backstabbing are common in the restaurant industry. I don't see any of that here in the Washington area."

"New York and Boston don't have that kind of camaraderie," says Jeff Tunks, chef and co-owner of DC Coast, Tenpenh and Ceiba. "San Diego and New Orleans don't, either."

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, even New York chefs have warmed up. After many chefs worked together to feed the police, firefighters, rescue and salvage teams, the atmosphere changed. "It brought the community of chefs together," says Fern Berman, a food and restaurant publicist in New York for more than 20 years. "It's friendlier now."

The longer-term members of the Washington group credit the local spirit of community to Jean-Louis Palladin, the two-star French chef who came to Washington in 1979. Cooking at his namesake restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, he welcomed aspiring chefs to his kitchen. He taught them to embrace high-quality, fresh, seasonal local products long before that became a given, and he shared the names of his sources.

"He was friends with any kind of chef, not just with the French," says Richard. "With American, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. He was learning from all of them."

Palladin left Washington in 1997 and died of cancer in November 2001. The chefs' club got going in 2002 after a charity benefit. Chefs are regularly asked to lend their prestige to these events, and to cook for people who have paid top dollar to get in. The chefs are also expected to donate their time and the food. But their participation is an add-on to a workweek that can easily be 12 hours a day, six days long.

And few charities guaranteed the chefs adequate electrical outlets, parking places, insurance or even water. Inevitably, the chefs grumbled, often at late-night meals at the few restaurants open when the charity events were over.


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