A regular guest at the Kalorama Cafe complained about the food one night, but her grousing was good-natured and it took an unusual turn.
"The food's getting boring here and I'm too lazy to go somewhere else," she said. "Let me cook instead."
Cafe owner Arlene Morris decided to take a chance and let the woman prove a point in the kitchen--with splendid results.
"It was a wonderful Mexican meal that went over so well we actually took a couple of the recipes and added them to our regular menu," Morris said. "Putting two and two together, we decided to make guest cooking a regular part of our restaurant."
Since that first "guest chef" night last year, many an aspiring cook has tested skills at the Kalorama Cafe, 2228 18th St. NW, against a clientele that demands good food at low prices. The program, offered each Wednesday, has been solidly booked since April and Morris has commitments through October.
"Our guest chefs may be amateurs or beginners . . . but each of them has to meet with me beforehand and audition before they get a role in this little theater," she said.
Allan Knuerr, who left a job with the Peace Corps to try his hand as a free-lance chef and caterer, was one of those who passed inspection.
He arrived at the 32-seat restaurant recently loaded with supplies and a vision of how food should be prepared, then demonstrated the dishes he wanted to serve and discussed how he started cooking as a hobby but now hopes to become a professional chef.
Morris liked what she saw and a couple of weeks ago Knuerr got a chance to show his stuff. His dinner was offered from 6 to 10 p.m.. In return, he got $20, all the ingredients needed for the meal and someone to clean up afterward.
"It's not a lot of money," Morris said. "But for most of our guest chefs it's an opportunity they might not ever get. Once they're back there in the kitchen, all the dreams and aspirations about opening their own place suddenly meet with hard reality."
Do dreams come true at the Kalorama Cafe?
"Sometimes they leave here in tears," Morris said. "But usually they're so damned tired and happy to be out of the heat and craziness of the kitchen they just want to hug you and maybe drink a little wine with their family and friends."
Knuerr arrived in early afternoon on the appointed day to begin chopping and kneading. Meanwhile, the regular cook set up the house menu for the evening and Morris and her daughter, Eva Semple, prepared the front of the restaurant.
At 6 p.m. people started coming in. The cafe, which tries to serve fresh food and no red meat, attracts a steady patronage from Adams-Morgan residents who like the meals and the typical $5 bill.
By 8 p.m. on the night Knuerr cooked, people were lined up waiting for tables. About half ordered his special even though it was unusually high-priced at $11.95. He cooked spring rolls filled with crab, lobster and shrimp plus sauteed butterfly shrimp prepared Thai-style that were served with a heaping plate of vermicelli loaded with scallions, bean thread and spices. Dessert was hot fried bananas.
Knuerr's wife, Peggy O'Donnell, came with 7-month-old Alec from their nearby home on Beekman Place. They had to wait for a seat like everyone else and Knuerr was so preoccupied with his task he didn't even notice at first when O'Donnell held the baby up to the kitchen window.
When Knuerr finished work at 10 p.m., he shook hands with Chris Kulzycki, the regular cook, and walked out into the cool dining room. Every table was full and the room was quiet except for Tom Bertch's classical guitar.
Then the patrons noticed the perspiration-soaked Knuerr and gave him a standing ovation. He hugged his wife and sat down to enjoy wine with his family and friends.
"I've dreamed about cooking for years now," he said, holding Alec in his arms. "I left the government [he was a GS-7 with the Peace Corps] because we wanted to change our lives and I wanted to work for myself in something that gives me the immediate and intimate sense of accomplishment that cooking does."
Said Morris, "From the contented look of the munching crowd around here, Allan appears to be making a good start."