It's 9:30 on a Thursday evening and Roberto Donna steals a moment away from the stove to check his cheat sheet. Hot pink slashes mark his progress: seven courses already served to Table 1, six to Table 2 and five to Tables 3 and 4. "We're halfway there," he says, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his apron.
Roberto Donna is back in the kitchen at Galileo.
Not the regular kitchen that's run by executive chef Cesare Lanfranconi and turns out about 80 lunches and 220 dinners every day, but a brand-new, airy eat-in one with stainless-steel fittings, rows of shiny copper pots and a long green granite counter facing up to 28 diners. This is Donna's laboratorio--a 2 1/2- month-old showcase kitchen adjoining the Galileo dining room, where, with three assistants, Donna prepares ambitious set menus three nights a week.
It's been 15 years since Donna--the city's most honored Italian chef--opened the much-praised Galileo, and five years since he cooked there on a daily basis. Since then, he's been spending more time out of his kitchens than in. As a businessman, he's been checking out real estate and making deals and worrying about menus, developing his not-so-mini empire of 12 restaurants. And as a celebrity chef, he's been out and about making "too many" appearances at charitable functions and special events.
"That's the bad part," he says, musing over his success. "You become a 'chef'--you don't cook any more."
So last year Donna made himself an offer he couldn't refuse: While expanding Galileo into neighboring space that had become available, he built the laboratorio for his own use. Now that's where, for $95, his customers get 10- or 11-course dinners (mini-courses, but still . . .) that change every day, depending on what he finds in the markets.
At a time when many chefs of his stature have virtually abandoned the obligations of daily cooking, the 38-year-old Donna has returned to rigorous 14- to 18-hour days. Today, for example, Donna and Lanfranconi, 31, started out at 6 a.m. to drive for two hours to three farms in south central Pennsylvania in search of really fresh food. Back in Washington around lunch time, Donna developed the evening's 11-course menu with the laboratorio staff; and then after an afternoon and evening of working flat out, he finished up around 11:15 when the final dessert was served.
That's intense work for someone whose administrative responsibilities are not going to go away. But he's created this special stage for himself, more or less committing to regular star performances three nights a week. Why?
"I was missing cooking," he says simply. "And I love to cook.
"And I was tired of people saying I wasn't cooking. This gives me the chance for everybody to see me," he says, gesturing around the room visible to all through a glass wall at the back of Galileo. "That's why I put in the windows."
Starbucks might be the last place you'd expect to find Donna and Lanfranconi at 6:20 in the morning, but that's where they are, loading up on caffeine before barreling out Route 270 in a Mercedes van filled with empty coolers.
Their goal: freshly slaughtered lamb and goat meat, quail, snails, shiitakes, fresh farm eggs, chickens killed only yesterday, baby pigs, boxes of freshly picked vegetables.
Why drive two hours into the country to get them? "You need very good ingredients to get the real flavor of the food," says Donna. "If I give you tomato soup, it should taste like real tomatoes, not the one or two other ingredients you make it with. Or if you order sweetbreads or a piece of salmon or whatever it is, I want you to taste them--not just the vegetables you put with them." And the fresher the product, the more flavor remains.
At Lakewood Farm, Don Lake, auto parts businessman and farmer (some standard stuff and exotica such as quail, stag boars, even snails from a snail house lit with Christmas lights and lulled by a Christian music station) has most of their order ready, but his butcher is late with some lamb and goat that Donna was planning on so the chef will have to leave without it. As long as the meat isn't ready, Donna asks for it the way he really wants it when he comes on his next visit: the lamb two or three pounds smaller--and therefore more tender--than promised, and the pigs too. Both chefs remind Lake to save the lamb heart, liver and kidneys. Do they want the pig livers? asks Lake. Absolutely.
A mini-trek down the hill leads the chefs to Lake's new "cave" to assess its possibilities for aging sausage and prosciutto. They like what they see and say they'll bring knives to the farm next time to butcher the pigs for sausage. "We'll make 40 pancetta too," Donna tells Lanfranconi, "and every week when we come up, we'll take two back."
Reminiscing about the way each of them helped his family slaughter chickens and rabbits when they were children in Italy (Donna in the Piedmont, Lanfranconi in the Lake Como region), the chefs head off to the chicken farm (proprietor, former custom-home builder Michael Binder). They like what they see: The chickens nibble on fresh grass in an alfalfa field. Their (30 dozen) eggs look good, and Binder can also get heifers, ring-necked pheasants, goats, corn, beans and rabbits either at his own place or at friends' farms. Veal too? asks Donna. You bet. The chefs return to their van happy.
It's 10 o'clock by now, and time to move on to the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, where they'll pick up vegetables they've selected from the co-op's availability list. But on the way Donna suddenly makes a U-turn and comes to a stop.
He's spotted a good-size patch of mushrooms growing at the foot of a large tree by the side of the road. "Oh yeah," echoes Lanfranconi.
Hazard lights on and motor running, the two chefs tumble out of the van to get a better look. "They're chiodini," says Donna joyfully. "I used to gather pounds of them when I was a child. I never saw them in this country before."
Emptying the paper coffee cups from the Starbucks bags--the only receptacles around--they plunge into the woods to make sure they get them all, and return to the car. "I cannot believe it," says Donna. "They're my favorite. I'll use them in the ragu tonight."
At Tuscarora their produce is packed and ready: zucchini, squash blossoms, Italian basil, mesclun mix, cranberry beans, dandelion greens, red onions, fennel, tomatoes. Donna likes the looks of some baby eggplants too. The restaurant's order is usually delivered, but Donna likes to come see what else the co-op farmers are growing. "It gives me ideas," he says, "and sometimes I don't know the names of things in English."
By almost 11, they're on their way back to Washington. Is it really worth their time for at least one of them to spend an entire morning searching out top-quality products? "There's no other way," says Donna, who also frequents the local farmers' markets. "It's all about flavor. We see what the animals eat. How they grow. We can control the size. The quail. The chickens--these were killed last night or early this morning. And they're not packed in plastic with water and preservative inside. The eggs are fresh. And nobody makes homemade butter any more."
Back at Galileo just before 2 p.m., it's time to settle on this evening's menu. But before he does anything else, Donna slices and sautes some garlic and a zucchini and a baby eggplant from this morning's purchases to check out their flavor, which he does over a bowl of pasta at a table in the laboratorio.
Then he looks over the reservations for the evening, both to get a head count and to see who's coming. One reservation is for a customer who's eaten at the laboratorio three times since it opened July 7, so Donna asks for menus from those evenings to make sure there's nothing on tonight's menu remotely comparable. He completely changes the laboratorio menu each day anyway, but he wants to be absolutely certain the customer isn't disappointed.
Sitting down with the staff for tonight--Galileo's 24-year-old sous chef Alberto Varetto, line chef Marco Nocco, 28, and line cook Rod Aracki, 41--he asks about what's available in the restaurant coolers. Are the crayfish gone? he asks Varetto, who runs over to the Galileo kitchen to check. Gone. But there are shrimp. And fava beans. With the dandelion, they'll be turned into a salad course. For the eggplant and the zucchini from this morning, a soup with caponata is suggested.
They continue to go through the courses, one by one. What about the pastas--tortelloni, raviolini? Or sweetbreads? And what about the quail--which has become essential since Donna didn't get the goat or lamb he was expecting. Bone the quail leg and stuff it with a foie gras and balsamic vinegar preparation, Donna tells Aracki. Lanfranconi stops by too. The laboratorio has first call on what they've brought back, but some things can be used on Galileo's menu tonight. Or tomorrow.
Finally, there's a quick conference with Galileo's pastry chef, Laurie Alleman. "You didn't bring back any fruit or anything?" she asks. No. But there are fresh bay leaves from California so she suggests a chocolate cake with a clear bay leaf syrup and mascarpone ice cream. And there are also raspberries and rhubarb in the restaurant.
Donna has the last word on each dish, of course--the entire restaurant reflects his cooking style--but the discussion is a collaborative process. "We have to work together all the time," says Donna. "So if they come up with a good idea, I listen. You have to give people some freedom."
These people, all of whom work at Galileo already, are essential to the success of the laboratorio. In fact, without them, a boutique kitchen where Donna can cook for a limited number of customers only a few days a week would be an expensive indulgence. But with the staff of Galileo to lean on, he doesn't need a special maitre d' or bookkeeper or sommelier or wait staff. And he doesn't have to worry about buying too many zucchini blossoms or too much foie gras, or not enough lobster--the restaurant's main kitchen, with its sophisticated resources and daily needs, is a few feet away.
Once Donna is satisfied, he inscribes each dish in a log of laboratorio menus. And by the end of the discussion, he's designed nine dishes that incorporate a slew of the products he bought in Pennsylvania that morning: a dandelion salad with fava beans, poached farm-fresh eggs in a black truffle sauce, a wild mushroom and sweetbread ragu for pasta, breast of quail with fig sauce, the zucchini soup, the caponata that goes with the soup, some homemade cheese (possible because of some fresh goat and cow milk obtained this morning), a risotto with cranberry beans and sausage and an ice cream that uses more of the milk.
Then it's on to preparing for the evening, a job that will last until a half-hour or so before the first reservation arrives. Donna lets the members of his staff do their jobs, but he's there the whole time and often casts a quizzical eye on what they're doing. But he also handles a surprising number of the basic chores himself. "That way," he says, "I know exactly how everything has been done."
By 6:50 p.m. the laboratorio staff is back from a brief break. Donna puts aside his cigar and gets ready for action. He explains each dish to the wait staff and turns his attention to the first course. There will be 26 diners tonight--the largest number at the laboratorio so far, and Donna, Varetto, Nocco and Aracki are busy preparing the first 26 plates when the first seven guests arrive.
First a rousing "Buona serra." Then a single rose for each lady. A glass of champagne to all. And no menus. They'll get those only after they've finished their meal. Soon plates with a ring of dandelions covered by a layer of glistening fava beans topped by a single shrimp are sent out. Says Donna, "It's important to get the first courses out fast because people are hungry."
For a while, there's a lull in arrivals, but then--predictable in the restaurant business--suddenly the room is full. And Donna presides over one course after another. He whisks tomato sauce for the ragu for one of the pasta courses. He positions caponata for the soup. He checks the consistency of the risotto. And he handles every single dish as it goes out, marking off each course on the cheat sheet.
Maybe other chefs of his stature don't do as much slicing and stirring and plating as he'll have done this day, but he likes and has missed the hands-on contact.
Consider the poached egg in black truffle sauce. Donna poaches each egg for no more than two minutes, then carefully dries it, trims it and places it (without breaking it, of course) in the center of a bowl where Varetto has already spread a thin layer of truffle sauce. With excruciating care, Donna takes a small sharp knife and cuts into the yolk letting just a little seep out, creating a feathery golden tail. Twenty-six times.
Not everything goes that smoothly. At one point a waiter returns from a large table to tell him two vegetarians are sending back a dish. Frustrated that they hadn't told the restaurant ahead of time, Donna assesses the menu. Some dishes are vegetarian by chance, he says with amazement, and a couple of others can be recast. He hastily confers with staff to create an appropriate pasta for the couple, when Lanfranconi wanders by, taking a break from the main kitchen to see how things are going. Just in time. He volunteers to make a portobello dish that can be served while the other guests at that table enjoy their quail.
As evening moves along, diners make their way through the lengthy menu, and the staff continues to work top pitch. By the time the last courses are sent out, the staff has sent out 286 plates (that's 26 people times 11 courses) in four hours.
And Donna, though tired, is exhilarated.
How long can he keep up this pace? Always, he says with the exuberance of a recovered first love. "Maybe three days [a week] will be the minimum!
"I never liked to do the business side," he says almost to himself. "I like cooking more. That's what I did since I was little.
"Over there I can't touch anything," he says, pointing to the main kitchen that's Lanfranconi's domain. "Here I touch everything. Every day I chop, I saute, I cook from zero.
"I love to do it."
Galileo is at 1110 21st St. NW. Its laboratorio is open for dinner three nights a week, usually Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as well as some weekend dates. For information and reservations, call 202-331-0880.
MENU FROM LABORATORIO DEL GALILEO
Chef Roberto Donna
Thursday, Sept. 9, 1999
Dandelion and Fava Bean Salad With Olive Oil, Lemon and Shrimp
Poached Farm Eggs in a Black Truffle Sauce
Zucchini Soup With Caponata and Fried Zucchini With Diced Speack
Tortelloni of Pumpkin, Amaretti, Fruitta di Mostarda and Sage
Homemade Garganelli With Wild Mushroom Ragu and Sweetbreads
Risotto With Fresh Barlotti, Sausage and Red Wine
Sauteed Filet of Sole With Pepperonata and Potato Topped With Fried Leeks
Roasted Breast of Quail With Fig Sauce and Fried Leg of Quail Stuffed With Duck Liver With Balsamic Vinegar
Homemade Cheese With Hazelnut Sauce and Raisin Bread
Rhubarb and Raspberries Bundle With Golden Raspberry Ice Cream and
Golden Raspberry Sauce
ZUCCHINI SOUP FROM THE LABORATORIO
Warm Zucchini Soup With Caponata, Sauteed Speack and Crispy Fried Leeks
For the soup:
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 to 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 ounces (about 2) thinly sliced leeks (white part only)
1 small fresh bay leaf*
10 ounces zucchini (about 2 medium), unpeeled, quartered lengthwise, seeds discarded and flesh cut into chunks
About 1 cup chicken broth or water
Salt to taste
For the garnish:
1 leek (white part only), julienned
About 3/4 cup olive oil
About 1/4 cup potato starch or cornstarch
About 2 ounces speack (smoked shoulder prosciutto), julienned (or substitute prosciutto)
1 cup caponata (recipe follows)
For the soup: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the clove of garlic in 3 tablespoons of the oil until browned. Remove and discard the clove of garlic.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, leeks and bay leaf. Cover and cook until the vegetables soften, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the zucchini; cover and cook for 2 minutes. Add enough chicken broth or water to cover the vegetable mixture; season to taste with salt. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat; remove and discard the bay leaf. Set aside to cool.
For the garnish: Place the leek in a bowl of ice water; set aside for 20 minutes.
In a deep pan, pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch and heat over medium-high heat. Have ready a plate lined with paper towels.
Drain the leek and pat dry with paper towels. Coat the leek with potato starch or corn starch. Transfer the leek to a wire strainer and shake to remove any excess starch.
Add the leek to the oil and fry until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the leek to the paper towels to drain.
In a nonstick pan, saute the speack until lightly browned around the edges, 4 to 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the speack to the paper towels to drain.
To assemble, transfer the cooled soup to a blender or food processor and puree. Return the soup to the pan and bring to a boil. Whisk in enough oil to make the mixture creamy. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.
Meanwhile, with an egg cup, metal ring or measuring cup, shape about 1/4 cup of the caponata into a small mound in the center of a soup bowl. Repeat with the remaining caponata. Pour or ladle the warm soup (not hot, not cold) around (not over) the caponata. Garnish with the leeks and speack. Serve immediately.
* NOTE: Fresh bay leaves are available in the produce section of Fresh Fields stores.
Per serving (using 1 cup oil): 628 calories, 7 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 59 gm fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 411 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
(Makes about 4 cups)
About 1 cup olive oil
1 1/4 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
10 ounces (about 5 stalks) celery, diced
1 teaspoon chopped, unsalted anchovies
1 teaspoon capers, drained, rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon chopped gherkins
3 ounces diced black olives
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons vinegar (white or red wine)
1 cup tomato sauce (homemade or canned)
Have ready two plates lined with paper towels.
In a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat, heat about 1 cup oil. Add the eggplant and fry until slightly softened, about 1 minute. (Do not crowd the pan; you may have to fry the eggplant in batches.) With a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the eggplant to the paper towels to drain.
Repeat the procedure with the celery.
In a medium saucepan over low heat, heat 1 teaspoon of the oil. Add the anchovies and cook until they melt into the oil, about 2 minutes. Add the capers, gherkins, olives, sugar and vinegar and cook until the vinegar evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the eggplant and celery and simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool.
Per 1/4-cup serving: 58 calories, 1 gm protein, 5 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 182 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber