IT'S ONE OF THE unfortunate practicalities of the restaurant biz that the better a chef gets, the biz-zier his restaurant becomes and the less time she or he can spend out with customers. It's also true that we live in a culture that celebrates chefs, in both the good and bad senses of the phrase, and where culinary techniques are discussed as avidly as couture collections. (On top of all that, we live in a town where people increasingly insist on making personal contact, whether usefully networking or merely imposing.)
So it's not surprising that there is increased interest among restaurant patrons in getting to meet the chefs. If you have a particular favorite, or are just getting into the dining-out habit, here are some places to start:
Many chefs host or co-host wine dinners these days, as we've mentioned before, so the first step is to ask your favorite restaurants to put you on the mailing list so that you have advance notice of these occasions. (The Washington Post Food Section, which comes out Wednesdays, lists many of these dinners in its "On the Fridge" feature.)
Although many wine dinners obviously focus more on learning about the beverages than the chefs, there are occasionally chef's showcases or food festivals or charity events that would put you in the chef's corner. One of the better schedules of such happenings is Jake McGwire's Washington Calendar of Food, Wine and Culinary Events, which also includes a few reviews, interviews and excursions. (McGwire is in the process of transforming his popular monthly mailing into a Webzine, after which it will be free; we'll keep you updated.)
Chef's tables in the kitchen provide the most up-close-and-personal experience. Though in fact the amount of contact you have with the chef may vary with the press of business, and you may have to book them well in advance. Among popular spatter sites are Citronelle, Galileo (which still has a table in the kitchen in addition to Roberto Donna's own "laboratorio"), Aquarelle, Melrose (only for four or fewer) and the Roof Terrace Restaurant at the Kennedy Center.
The Capital Area Wine & Food chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food arranges dinners at Washington restaurants that include wine tastings, lectures, slide shows or food demonstrations of various cuisines; some are simply "meet the chef" events with three or four participants, and a few have even been arranged to spotlight restaurant neighborhoods, like a series that recently began exploring the Seventh Street NW area. All dinners are open to the public, though the price is usually a little more for non-members. Actually, membership is open to the public, too, not just those in the food and wine industries; for information on joining or on upcoming events call 202/333-0421 or go to the Web site at www.aiwf-dc.org.
Since so many Washingtonians visit New York on a regular basis, either for fun or work, you should also check into the chef's dinners prepared nearly every night at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village, featuring celebrated or notably up-and-coming chefs from around the country. Among Washington chefs who have served up dinner there, or are scheduled to in the near future, are Frederic Lange of the Hay-Adams, Brian McBride of Melrose, Kaz Okochi of Kaz's Sushi Bistro, Jeffrey Buben of Bis, Ann Cashion of Cashion's Eat Place, Ris Lacoste of 1789, Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's, Jose Ramon Andres of Cafe Atlantico, Gerard Pangaud of Gerard's Place, etc., etc.
Although members of the Beard Foundation get a 20 percent discount on the dinners, which usually run just under $100, they are open to the public as long as space permits; and they make for evenings out as nice as many elsewhere in Manhattan. It's a pretty little house, with dining tables in the parlor on the second floor above the kitchen (a kitchen whose residential size is just one of the many challenges guest chefs face) and overlooking the patio. For more information on the programs or to make reservations, call 212/675-4984.