The Chef Who Makes Perfect Happen
Patrick O'Connell Celebrates 30 Mindful, Hospitable Years
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; Page F01
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."