The Crowning Touch
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
What does it take to impress the owner of a place where, for Laura Bush's 60th birthday luncheon, the first lady of the United States asked permission to take a doggie bag home to the president?
It takes the queen of England.
Self-taught chef Patrick O'Connell opened the Inn at Little Washington in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains almost 30 years ago, insisting on using local, all-natural foods at a time when they were in short supply. Since then, it has become the oldest Mobil five-star award-winning restaurant and one of only three double-five-star properties (for the inn) in the country. O'Connell has received dozens of culinary accolades.
So when Tim Kaine invited him to the governor's mansion in Richmond last Thursday to prepare the food for a private cocktail reception in honor of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, it was not as the designated caterer; it was as a true representative of the finest the Commonwealth of Virginia has to offer. The event was among dozens in the queen's honor during her visit to the United States, including an elaborate, white-tie state dinner at the White House on Monday.
"It's just not the kind of thing you imagine will ever come your way," O'Connell said. "It was a great honor." But what made it different from just another day in the life of a chef who routinely cooks for Supreme Court justices and movie stars?
The reception for 50 was "in many ways the same feeling a home cook has who's having 50 people over," he said. "You still worry how it's all going to come together."
The rarefied circumstances of the event -- the guest list also included all the living governors of Virginia and their families -- made it more complex than an ordinary off-property reception. "The guests were to arrive at 2 p.m.; the queen at 3:30. At 3:45, she'd be gone," Rachel Hayden, O'Connell's marketing manager, said early last week. "Everything was completely orchestrated and choreographed so she could meet everyone and eat in only 15 minutes."
"That meant I had to captivate her in an instant," O'Connell said. "Everyone likes to taste something exotic when they are out of their environment, no matter how sumptuously they live."
The time of day proved challenging. "It had to be a light lunch, hors d'oeuvres, tea and early cocktails, all at the same time," O'Connell said. "So I thought of the sequence of the offerings in the context of a meal: delicate to heavy, savory to sweet, with a transition of refreshing sorbets in between."
The strategy apparently worked.
"Our mixture of queenly things and stick-to-the-ribs upgrades of familiar dishes satisfied everyone's needs," O'Connell reported Thursday night on his way to Los Angeles. "There were Southern men there, and they were hungry. Some people were reluctant to eat before the queen arrived; others feared there wouldn't be any more after she got there."
Did the queen eat? "Of course," O'Connell said, but added that there was no word on just what she tried and what she thought of it.
When it came to her preferences, though, O'Connell had left nothing to chance. He consulted Michel Roux, a chef favored by the royal family, about likes (eggs, seafood) and dislikes (raw fish, garlic, strawberries). The Monday before the event, O'Connell staged a three-hour dress rehearsal at his restaurant. He and his cooks prepared all of the dishes and served them to one another to experience them from the guests' perspective.
"I recommend that home cooks do this a week before having a party. It gets rid of the stress of wondering what will work and what won't," he said. "It seems excessive, but you don't just take a violin out of the case and do a recital without practicing."
O'Connell has every right to be a diva, but he is not. Like his food, he is playful but serious, treating his staff at the Monday run-through with kindly paternalism and welcoming all ideas eagerly.
Cook Katie Kopsick, 23, offered O'Connell a tray of homemade chocolates. "I can't get my fingers between them," the chef said. "Take some off but connect them in some way." Moments later, she returned holding a crystal plate with six bonbons dotted along a colorful ribbon. That did the trick.
The pièce de résistance, custard-like scrambled farm eggs with morel mushrooms, local asparagus and creme fraiche, proved problematic. The lidded glass egg that held them required the guest to hold the bottom, remove the top and deal with a spoon. The solution: have a second waiter on hand to facilitate the process.
One by one, each dish was adjusted until all passed muster: tasting spoons of roasted beet mousse, Virginia country ham with mango, baby rock shrimp with guacamole, cucumber sorbet and Maine lobster with grapefruit butter sauce; lacy Parmesan wafers standing between polished stones; delicate cups of sorrel jelly with osetra caviar and rhubarb, blueberry and vanilla panna cotta parfaits; cornets of smoked salmon poked into a loaf of bread to resemble the quills of a porcupine; tempura squash blossoms with Asian dipping sauce; tiny crocks of chocolate creme brulee.
Photographs of each approved dish, taken by sous-chef Raffaele Dall'Erta and executive sous-chef Rocky Barnette, were displayed on a laptop during the reception and used as presentation templates.
Artful refinement is O'Connell's hallmark, but at its heart his food is down-home; he keeps the interests of everyday cooks in mind when he develops dishes.
"What could be more basic than biscuits with ham? Or scrambled eggs?" he said. "They can be made an hour ahead of time, held in a pastry bag until service, and then piped into eggshells to make an elegant first course dish for home cooks," he insisted. "I want people to be inspired to try these recipes."
And why not? Those eggs were a big hit, O'Connell said, even if the queen didn't ask for a doggie bag.
David Hagedorn, professional chef and former restaurateur, writes the monthly Chef on Call column for the Food section.