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The Chef Who Makes Perfect Happen
Patrick O'Connell Celebrates 30 Mindful, Hospitable Years

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

WASHINGTON, Va. -- Patrick O'Connell doesn't like the flowers at his table. It's hard for him to concentrate until something is done to improve them. For Easter, Gregory Britt, the florist, has replaced the usual bouquets with porcelain eggs filled with tiny spring crocuses, daffodils and fragrant boxwood. Britt is summoned. He arrives almost instantly, looking nervous.

"I can't see that they're eggs. They just look like inexpensive containers," O'Connell says with a calm betrayed only by a Lady Macbethesque wringing of his hands. "We need something totally different that says, 'I was born to live in an egg.' "

Britt apologizes and sweeps away the offending blooms. New arrangements with delicate moss and quails' eggshells will be brought in for approval within 15 minutes. But for the interim Britt replaces the arrangement at O'Connell's table with a bright bouquet in an elegant square glass vase. O'Connell does not like to sit at a table without flowers. Especially if he has a guest.

O'Connell's obsessive attention to detail can be unnerving. But there's little doubt that his intensity has made the Inn at Little Washington a destination, and one that can charge $148 for dinner and $410 for the smallest room on a weekday -- off-season. O'Connell notices every flaw -- a tiny smudge on a glass door, the faint squeak of a door hinge, a fire burning just a little too low -- and requests that it be attended to immediately. Unlike many chefs, O'Connell is not a screamer, but his approach can be far more intimidating than a classic chef tantrum.

After decades of triumph, most chefs might relax a little, attach their name to a restaurant in Las Vegas or Tokyo and watch the money roll in. Though the inn turned 30 in January -- and will celebrate tonight at a black-tie gala at the Mellon Auditorium in the District -- it's clear that for O'Connell, 59, it's still a work in progress. O'Connell's day starts around 9 a.m. when breakfast, along with papers to review, is delivered on a tray to his home across the street from the main building. It rarely ends before midnight. If he's been away for a few days, he's wont to "take the furniture for a walk," ordering the staff to move the armchair in Room 5 to Room 3 and the love seat in Room 3 to Room 16.

When guests stop in to thank him and rave that their meal was "as good as ever," O'Connell says he often thinks to himself: Actually it's 25 percent better than it was the last time. "Constantly improving is the only way to make sure they think it's just as good before."

Creating a Legend

The legend of the Inn at Little Washington is a carefully scripted story that goes something like this: O'Connell grew up working in restaurants -- his first job was at the now-defunct Mr. H Hamburgers in Washington, D.C. -- but his parents thought a career in cooking was beneath him, something "akin to running off and joining the circus." After college, he traveled through Europe, where for the first time he realized that being a chef could garner respect. He came home, moved to an unheated country shack and taught himself to cook and bake on his wood-burning stove.

Soon, with partner Reinhardt Lynch, he launched a catering business, turning out canapes, tarts and pâtés for the local landed gentry. In 1978, the pair borrowed $5,000 and opened the Inn at Little Washington restaurant in a converted garage. (The first guest rooms were added in 1984.) On the menu: trout amandine, frog legs Nicoise, and a roast chicken with tarragon and green beans priced at $4.95. "The food was no different than what it is now," O'Connell says. "But it was cheaper."

In April, four months after opening, O'Connell received his first review. "A tour de force," wrote John Rosson, the critic for the Washington Star. "It's one of the finest restaurants in a 150-mile radius."

It's a lovely, oft-repeated tale. And somehow too neat. O'Connell's, and by extension the inn's, thrilling rise cannot be boiled down to two wild and crazy guys who got lucky. It was serendipitous that Rosson showed up as soon as he did, transforming the inn into a gastronomic destination from big Washington. But it was O'Connell's vision of a European-style country inn with refined regional cuisine, and that obsessive focus, that put the inn on the culinary map.

Promoting local foods wasn't initially part of the plan. "The food was more French; if you weren't serving French food in those days, you couldn't charge anything," O'Connell remembers. But, since in those days no supplier would drive a truck all the way to Washington for one delivery, the trout for the trout amandine came from a nearby farm and O'Connell picked up herbs in Sperryville on his way to work. Locals who showed up at the back door with paper bags of morels and excess vegetables from the garden were paid in apple tarts "or other things they thought were really exotic," O'Connell says.

Unlike Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, one of the 30 culinary pioneers being feted at tonight's gala, O'Connell never named the local farms that produced his ingredients. "A regional cuisine was created out of necessity, not because it was chic," he says. "I never liked the idea of naming everything from everyone's farm because it was obvious that it was all from the area."

Fresh, carefully culled ingredients made O'Connell's watercress soup and tournedos de boeuf stand apart. But so did the service. The official version of the story says that O'Connell and Lynch simply did their best to train the local hippies. (One of the questions on the mimeographed application form: "Do you have a bathtub?") But O'Connell's standards of hospitality were exacting from the beginning. Former Post food critic Phyllis Richman remembers that on her first visit in 1978, she asked to talk to O'Connell after dinner. "He didn't believe it was me," she remembers. "So in order to verify who I was, he asked me all these questions about where I lived and what I had done. He wasn't expecting to get the attention, but he did his homework, just in case. He knew more about me than any other restaurateur."

Richman went on to describe the inn as "a dream of a country restaurant [that] gets better every year" in a 1983 review. Since then, the inn has seemingly won every award possible including five AAA diamonds, five Mobil stars, a 1993 James Beard Restaurant of the Year Award and James Beard Outstanding Chef in 2001.

An Audience With the Chef

Guests who pay to sit at the chef's table in the Inn kitchen are ushered in by the maitre d'. "As you may know, Patrick O'Connell has been called the pope of American haute cuisine," he intones, before throwing open a set of double doors. Gregorian chants float through the cathedral-ceilinged kitchen, and in front of them stands a man, dressed in ceremonial robes, swinging a thurible of smoking incense. As he steps aside, the guests glimpse O'Connell, standing erect, head down. Behind him a line of cooks stands motionless in black jackets and the Inn's trademark Dalmatian-spotted chef pants inspired by O'Connell's dogs. For a long moment, nobody moves. Then, O'Connell steps forward to greet the guests. Only then does the kitchen swing back into action.

Such theatricality is trademark O'Connell. Trained as an actor at Catholic University, he still relishes the element of surprise. For New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne's 60th birthday, he redesigned part of the inn's dining room to look like a Moroccan home, complete with a tent, Arabic newspapers strewn on the floor and an elaborate North African menu. The theme for the 30th anniversary gala is a garden party -- a Patrick O'Connell garden party including dancers from the Washington Ballet posing as woodland creatures, mushrooms, bumblebees and Colonial soldiers in living tableaux.

He is also known for his wicked humor. Whenever a member of staff slips up, he sternly tells them to meet him in the elevator with two bags of oranges. The only point of the oranges: to make the staffer wonder what the oranges could possibly be for.

From the beginning, O'Connell says, he's wanted to do more than just "feed the humans." He wants to create magical experiences. The dining room, he often says, is his theater. And each night, he stages a new play with the guest in the starring role.

The other star, of course, is the food. O'Connell's style celebrates local ingredients by refining them with delicate sauces, presentations or both. That can translate to something as simple as a salad of shaved Virginia country ham, Parmesan cheese and pear or a dish as elaborate as "medallions of rabbit wrapped in pancetta surrounding a Lilliputian rabbit rib resting on a pillow of turnip puree." (O'Connell loves all things Lilliputian; he also serves a Lilliputian passion fruit dreamsicle.) As a self-taught chef, he's less bound to classic combinations, and he has become a master of adding that subtle but ingenious flavor to elevate a dish. At tonight's gala, for example, he'll serve a fricassee of lobster in a light butter sauce paired with potato gnocchi, green grapes, pearl onions and curried walnuts.

The appeal of O'Connell's fantasy world has turned the inn into a kind of hospitality mecca; a room on a Saturday night in high season must be booked at least eight months in advance. But it's probably fair to say that if the guests, staff and press have drunk the inn's (homemade, organic) Kool-Aid, so has O'Connell. He rarely takes vacations. And though he does travel to Paris four times a year to serve on the board of the elite Relais & Chateaux group of luxury hotels, he prefers to be at the inn. "For me, the only reason to live is to understand the ultimate potential of what you're doing here, what you can be, what an experience can be and how satisfying it can be," he says. "Whenever I'm on their case in the kitchen and making them redo it four times, I tell them: 'Just think how much better you are going to sleep tonight knowing you did it as well as it could be done.' "

"It sounds over the top, but he's sincere," Richman says. "The inn wouldn't have lasted that long if he weren't."

After 'The Transition'

O'Connell's mantra is "mindfulness," the practice of always being aware of guests' preferences, moods and desires. But he hasn't always been successful at understanding the needs of the locals. Although the inn is the source of the majority of the town's budget, thanks to a local meals and lodging tax passed in 1987, residents long have had a love-hate relationship with the glittery getaway that attracts the likes of Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan, Al Gore and Warren Beatty.

In early days, they didn't like the name "little Washington," though now even the local paper occasionally refers to the town that way. And residents nearly revolted when in 1990 O'Connell and Lynch proposed to build a Tudor-style stone "castle," designed to provide room for new luxury suites, a pool and formal gardens.

Today, relations have by all accounts improved, a relief now that O'Connell is at the helm of the kitchen and the inn's business dealings. In 2006, after more than 25 years in business together, O'Connell and Lynch ended their business partnership (years after ending their personal relationship) in a contentious split. According to court records, O'Connell took out a $17.5 million loan to buy out Lynch and move forward on two major expansion projects, though details of the settlement were not made public.

Lynch could not be reached for comment. O'Connell declined to talk about what everyone on the campus calls "the transition," but he says he is relishing his new role and, his staff notes, the ability to discuss things like "revper" (revenue per guest) and the minutiae of the inn's 401(k) plan. Still, the consummate host occasionally slips, describing the locals as "bumpkins" or admitting that he skulks into the surrounding towns on his day off -- he sometimes eats at gas station Wawa -- to "embrace bad taste."

In the world of culinary sophisticates, O'Connell remains unassailable: a single-minded restaurateur who sets the standards and lifts up others along with him. As a member of Relais & Chateaux, he has helped forge relationships, and understanding, between transatlantic chefs, arranging exchanges where Americans learned centuries-old technique and Europeans learned to respect and appreciate American cuisine. "Patrick has been an amazing leader," says chef Daniel Boulud, who met O'Connell when Boulud arrived in Washington as a private chef in 1980. "He was one of the first to create a standard here. He's always given more than just good cooking. He makes people feel special."

And that is what all the details -- the flowers, the smudgeless glass and brightly burning fire -- add up to: an experience that O'Connell says is "more singularly unique, more rarefied and more difficult to replicate because no one bothers to do it." While name-brand chefs measure success by the number of restaurants, TV shows and best-selling cookbooks, O'Connell continues to strive to get one thing right. Perfect, even.

"I don't want to reduce cooking and eating to seven minutes," he says. "It's parallel to saying: 'How can I get sex out of the way in six minutes and then watch TV?' What are they rushing on to? What could be better than this?"

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