Chef of the Year Nominees
With Robert Wiedmaier
Executive Chef/Proprietor, Marcel's
Thursday, May 8, 2003; 2 p.m. ET
Excecutive Chef and Proprietor Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's was online Thursday, May 8 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss his cooking philosophy and Marcel's traditional French menu with a Belgian flair. Wiedmaier is one of five nominees for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington's chef of the year award. Throughout May all five nominees will be online.
Wiedmaier, born in Germany of Belgian descent, attended the Culinary School of Horca in the Netherlands. He apprenticed at the Thermidor Restaurant, a Michelin two-star establishment in Hulst, Holland and then moved to Brussels to work at Eddie Van Maele. In 1986 he became Chef Saucier for Le Chardon D'or. In 1988, Wiedmaier was named Chef Poissonnier at Le Pavillion, which featured the finest nouvelle French cuisine in the city. After eight years with Doug McNeill at the Four Seasons, Wiedmaier opened Cafe on M at The Grand Hotel in 1994. In 1996 he was recruited as the new executive chef for the Watergate Hotel. In 1999 Wiedmaier opened his restaurant Marcel's which he named after his young son. Marcel's most recent top honor is the induction to the prestigious DiRoNA, the only anonymous restaurant inspection program in North America.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Out of town guest: I walk into Marcel's. What is the one dish you would like me to try, and why?
Robert Wiedmaier: The one dish would be my boudin blanc. It's one of the signature dishes at Marcel's and it's gotten a lot of great raves by food critics in town. I've been doing it for years now and sometimes I want to take it off the menu, but I can't. It's fabulous, though. It stands out as one of our signature dishes.
Woodbridge, Va.: Hello, just wanted to tell you that Marcel's is the only upscale restaurant my husband and I have ever visited. And we are perfectly content with that! Your food is spectacular and your staff is so nice and unpretentious. We are in our late 20s but look much younger. Our last visit was over a year ago, and we were treated like royalty. Thank you and your great staff.
Robert Wiedmaier: Thank you very much for your comments. It's always nice to hear from people and get feedback. We try to treat all of our guests the same -- young or old. It's a show every night here. It's nice to get that type of feedback. That's why we do it. You should feel like royalty. Thank you for your comments.
Falls Church, Va.: How involved are you in "the front of the house?"
Robert Wiedmaier: I'm very involved in the front of the house. Service to me at this price range and expectation becomes more important than the food. People forgive a sauce that might be too thick, but they won't forget mediocre service. That is one thing I'm all over. I meet my wait staff every day and try to empower them to be my eyes and ears in the restaurant. They are just as important as my sous chefs. One thing I wanted to create was a very elegant restaurant, but not pretentious.
So, yes, I am all over service. Very important to me. That starts from the time my valet opens the door and says welcome to Marcel's to the time you leave.
Washington, D.C.: Is it hard to get a table in Marcel's? Do you recommend reservations?
Robert Wiedmaier: I absolutely recommend reservations. On Friday and Saturday nights it can be difficult to get a table. Normally we're booked a week or two in advance. What ends up happening if you don't have one, is you'll have to come in early or late. The prime time books up fast.
We're open seven nights a week.
Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, M. Wiedmaier. I lived in Brussels for four years and was very excited to hear about the Belgian-influenced cuisine available at Marcel's. I recently ate Sunday brunch at Marcel's with my boyfriend and parents. The food was delicious (I especially loved the white chocolate ice cream -- it was truly divine), the restaurant was charming and peaceful, and the service was friendly and prompt.
I'd like to know if Marcel's serves or plans to serve a lunch menu with reduced portions and prices. I've checked the Web site and there was no mention of lunch or brunch therein. I'm a young professional just starting out and I'd like to bring my friends down to Marcel's after work for cocktails and wine and for my birthday celebration, but none of us can really afford to eat there often (or at all) at the dinner prices.
Please let me know if and when a lunch menu or bar menu or something affordable to young folks with discriminating palettes will be available at Marcel's. I promise to be a devoted customer!
Robert Wiedmaier: My answer to that is that we do have, at the bar, the mussels and frites that start at $20. You get a big pot of mussels and french fries that are hand cut, deep fried with the traditional dipping sauce. We have live entertainment with Alex Jenkins at the piano. These mussels are only served at the bar or on the patio.
In the summer, on the patio I'll do a nice rib eye steak -- I'd suggest sitting outside or the bar. It's great. Sit down and eat mussels and frites and drink some good Belgian beers.
Clifton, Va.: Any thoughts on celebrity chefs? Are they helpful or hurtful to your profession?
Robert Wiedmaier: When I started cooking back in the late 70s, I never said to myself that I want to become a celebrity or be on the Food Network. I became a cook because I love to cook. What has happened through time is that the chef's profile, because of this publicity, has become a celebrity status. It's been good and bad. Bad because a lot of young kids want to get into the business to become celebrities, not cooks. So what we're seeing now is a different type of cook because they want to be on TV or write a book. It's been good and bad. When I was a young kid going to cooking school, my family didn't know why I wanted to be a cook. It wasn't looked on as exciting. Now they all love me. It's changed dramatically with the celeb chef. It's produced a different type of cook.
When you look at top restaurants, we try to attract a passionate cook. But all that other stuff comes down the road.
Washington, D.C.: What kind of options do you offer for vegetarians? Do you typically have more than one vegetarian entree available?
Robert Wiedmaier: Vegetarian entrees are not actually on the menu, but if a customer calls ahead or comes and asks for a vegetarian meal, we go all out. I have so many beautiful veggies and purees, that we can compose a beautiful vegetarian plate. Wild asparagus, baby carrots caramelized in sugar, roasted cherry tomatoes, eggplant puree, hodgepot puree that consists of turnips, rutebega, a risotto that's made with a vegetable stock. So we go out of our way to make the experience exceptional. If you call ahead, though, we can do better. Especially on a busy night.
Washington, D.C.: Much attention has been given of late in Tom Sietsema's online chat to area chefs who refuse to honor customers' requests (reasonable or not) for substitutions. What is your opinion on such chefs, who view their work as "art," often at the expense of customer satisfaction?
Robert Wiedmaier: I am not in the business to say no to guests or to limit guests. I'm in the business to please a guest so they have a great experience. If it's substituting a vegetable, that's not a problem. I can still execute that as a chef and give them a quality product. Now if it's something that is totally unusual and says I want the venison well done with caviar on top. Would I do that? Would I want to ruin a good product -- in my profession product is everything -- to do that, I might have a problem with that. I'm not here to teach my cooks to do things that aren't proper. But do I want to please my guests, absolutely. I want them to leave here saying we went to Marcel's and the chef accommodated me. I like to empower my waiters to make these decisions, too. So they can say that's not a problem and let me make sure the chef has that.
So I have no problem. So the old days of saying we only cook medium rare, no temps, that's passe. If you want a filet mignon medium well, we'll do it and it'll be the best it can be.
I don't want to jeopardize my integrity and do things that don't make sense.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you support the German or Belgium football team?
Robert Wiedmaier: That's a good question. I was born in Germany and lived there 15 years and my father is 100 percent Belgian and I speak better German than French or Flemish. I support, though, my heritage, which is Belgium. So, I support the best I can, but I work a lot. But when the world cup was going on, I was 100 percent Belge!
Washington, D.C.: One reads, in all sorts of "tell-all" chef biographies and stories, about how much chefs despise, hate and loathe vegetarians. Is it true? Be honest, now...
It would explain the number of menus I've seen where the only vegetarian dish is "grilled vegetables over (some form of starch)" -- a dish that is almost always bitter, under- or over-cooked (or both), and seems to serve primarily as a way to get rid of excess zucchini.
Robert Wiedmaier: A lot of chefs -- people have to understand that when you go into a fine dining restaurant, the chef puts everything into designing a menu and that's why you're coming to his house and he's done all this to prepare these dishes for you. It's kind of like going to someone's house as a guest and saying, "What do you mean you don't have this? I want that instead." In Marcel's, I feel like you're in my show tonight and I want to be a great host -- so I want to try to please you and sometimes I'll have to jump through hoops.
Some chefs do hate them, though. They'll give you a salad. But if I can make you happy, I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities.
Arlington, Va.: Where would you go for a special dinner in D.C. (other than your own restaurant)?
Robert Wiedmaier: Absolutely hands-down Michele Richard at Citronelle. We're very lucky to have him in the city. He inspires me all the time with his food. We have some great discussions. His creativity is unbelievable.
Michele's unbelievable -- one of the best in the country.
I think Washington's come a long ways. We have some great restaurants. I just think it's getting better. Jose Andres, Todd Gray, Cashion, Peter from Obelisque up for James Beard awards. So we're getting a lot more well rounded.
For great American, Kinkead's. Fine french dining, Citronelle. Great Italian, Galileo. Or Tosca. So we've got a great menu out there now of fresh food. It's really changed a lot. I'm excited about the culinary scene in Washington.
Bethesda, Md.: Good afternoon Robert,
Congrats on the nomination. What is your favorite dish to cook? To eat?
Robert Wiedmaier: My favorite dish to cook -- I'd probably say my skate wing -- it's one of those dishes that's got to be exact. The fish has to be so fresh and right out of the water. I love the texture and what you can do with it?
My favorite thing to eat -- I love to eat foie gras, or a torchon of foie gras. I love that. I like game -- birds, squab, pheasant, rabbit. I like game. And I like to cook them, too!
It's a hard question to answer. It's like asking a kid what their favorite candy is.
Washington, D.C. reader: You have a surprise Thursday night off and you get to pick one casual (burgers, ribs whatever, nothing fancy) restaurant in the city which one. What would you eat? What would you drink?
Robert Wiedmaier: If I'm out with my family I like to take little Marcel to Houston's. If I want to go real casual for a fajita, I go to Rio Grande. It's more oriented around family when I do that. I like some of the little burrito places. Sometimes you just want something tasty to satisfy an immediate gratification.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Belgian beers seem to be a this year's potable pesto. Everyone seems to be buzzing about them. Do you consider cooking with beer too rustic for your establishment or do you experiment with incorporating a nice lambic into sauces or braising a lambshank with Chimay?
Robert Wiedmaier: Absolutely. I do that now. My foie gras turine is with a raspberry beer reduction. I use beer when I braise my rabbits. I love using beer in certain things. Have to be careful though, because they can be a bit bitter. So add a little sugar to make a gastrique -- to sweeten it up a bit. If's not to upscale, but done properly there can be a lot of finesse.
Washington, D.C.: On a typical day (such as today), what do you eat for lunch?
Robert Wiedmaier: I haven't eaten yet. I'll go all day without eating? I feel like going to D.C. Coast right now and eat fried oysters. Or some of the other things Jeff does over there. That's great satisfying food.
Robert Wiedmaier: I was just with Jeff and asked him if we could go to his place and eat some lunch.
What's really nice here in town is that we're all friends, so there's a lot of camaraderie among the chefs. We go out, have fun, eat at each other's restaurants. We all support each other.
The other day I just wanted some good pasta so I went to Roberto's with Michele. Good food with friends. There are a lot of great restaurants here. It's a mood thing, too. I go to Kaz's for sushi.
Washington, D.C.: What distinguishes Belgian cooking?
Robert Wiedmaier: Good question. The big distinction is the Flemish influences. You have a lot of the Flemish aspects of Belgian cooking that really make it different from French cooking. More purees, more rustic. More shellfish. It's more peasantry Flemish cooking. If you take the non-Flemish side of Belgian cooking, it's the same as French. You have carbounade, beef braised in beer. And you can take those and add some finesse and make them interesting.
You know, Belgium has some of the best restaurants in the world -- from small cafes to a grand restaurant.
Rockville, Md.: What or who was your inspiration to become a chef?
Robert Wiedmaier: I just always loved to cook and I remember as a young boy cooking with my mother, making spinach omelettes for my father. I loved to watch my father eat the food I made and get his approval. I just was always very fortunate to know what I wanted to do. I wasn't always sure I'd become a chef, but I knew I wanted to cook. So I feel very blessed. It's just transformed into what it is today. I was inspired about reading the books about all the great chefs of france. I had posters of these guys in my room. I loved everything about it. So my inspirations were the people i worked for.
At 26, I worked with Doug McNeill at the Four Seasons and he just loves food and loves wine. So I just had something in me. Now I'm inspired by being around great chefs and talking about food all the time. Being with Charlie Trotter and Charlie Keller. That love of what we do is a high.
Washington, D.C.: Can you tell me the differences between the European diner and diners here in the States?
Robert Wiedmaier: The difference between -- I get a lot of very well traveled American diners. So most of them have dined in world class restaurants in Europe, so they dine as Europeans. So they order the proper succession of food and not starting dinner with a cup of coffee, but a Kir Royal. Looking at the wine list, talking to the sommelier. It's more of an event and more of an experience for -- not just Europeans, but some Americans, too. It's fun.
It's not that people want to eat quick and get out of here. People are enjoying talking with their friends, going through the whole experience of dining.
I think the American diner has changed a lot. You're seeing people that have become more educated about dining. Ten years ago you couldn't even find bread. Now we've got Mark Furstenburg at Firehook. Now Americans understand that it's called Wonder bread because you wonder what's in it. People are becoming more involved in eating well.
I'd say there's a reason why we have a lot of steakhouses. It's not intimidating. You have your martini, steak, baked potato. Nobody wants to be intimidated. So if you go to a French restaurant where the menu is all in French, it makes you uncomfortable. I don't want to make people feel like that.
So, I think sometimes people are a little intimidated by going to a fine French restaurant. I try to defuse that. Everybody here speaks English. We want to make people comfortable here. We don't want them talking French in front of you and have you thinking they're talking about you.
This is a big experience. They don't want to think about whether they have the right fork.
So, is there a big differences.
Washington, D.C.: Hello, what do you find the hardest thing about being a chef? For me, it would be the working hours -- long and late.
Robert Wiedmaier: The hardest thing about being a chef. I would say that -- I've never viewed this as work. I've never once said, "I have to go to work." I love it, it's a lifestyle. Probably the hardest thing is not being able to see my wife and two boys as much as I'd like to see them.
It's a hard thing, also. We're always striving to be the best. We're always doubting ourselves. Trying to get away with that guilty feelings sometimes. If we go out someplace and someone asks who is cooking the food at Marcel's -- it makes me feel guilty. Trying to balance that is hard. We already feel bad being out of our kitchen, but I guess that comes with time to learn you can't do everything yourself. So it's hard for me sometimes to let go.
New York, N.Y.: Hi!
Ever think about branching out to New York? Opening something up here?
Question about desserts. Do you have a dessert chef or do you oversee that as well? And what's with all the creme brulee overkill? It's EVERYWHERE!
Robert Wiedmaier: New York -- I love New York. It's on fire when it comes to restaurants. Because there are people there that appreciate great restaurants. I'd love to, but if I did, I would have to be there in the kitchen. In New York you don't open a restaurant and not be there. So, probably not for that reason. Same thing here. I need to be here.
The reason is because people demand creme brulee. Especially if you go to a French Restaurant. I'm tired of it. We've got butterscotch, mango, tea creme brulee. But, you know what, as a business person -- we're in the business to make people happy. And if people want creme brulee, you have it so you can satisfy them.
I have a pastry chef -- Heather Martindale -- who has been with us three years. She was out at Napa in Las Vegas. I give her ideas and we come up with desserts and she's great. That's a whole world of its own.
LeDroit Park: I am so excited to see you are having this chat today. Congratulations on your nomination! We are looking forward to visiting Marcel's for the first time tomorrow night to celebrate a birthday. Thanks for all you are doing to make D.C. a great town for foodies.
Robert Wiedmaier: Thank you very much. I look forward to you being here tomorrow, especially since it's your first time. We want you to leave with a great experience.
Robert Wiedmaier: Thank you to everyone in the Metro D.C. area for coming to the restaurant and Marcel's and all my colleagues. I'd like to congratulate Jose Andrea for his James Beard award.
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company