Crowded farmers markets. Adams Morgan on a Friday night. Heck, even Vienna. Anyplace these nine chefs are cooking, we’re there. Though they’re not exactly household names, each one adds something special to D.C.’s food scene, whether it’s serving upscale food at an affordable price or preparing vegetarian meals that’ll leave you questioning the merits of bacon. You’ll notice that many of the culinary talents profiled here are busy settling into a new role or hard at work getting a project off the ground. That’s just one of the reasons we were thrilled they accepted our invitation to sit down for a family meal so we could get to know them all a little better.
Secret Ingredient: Change
When Marjorie Meek-Bradley joined the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in 2005, she was the first woman to ever prepare food on the hot line. “I was like, ‘You’ve been open seven years. That’s [expletive],’ ” says Meek-Bradley, who in March inherited her current role as executive chef at Ripple (3417 Connecticut Ave. NW). Previously, Meek-Bradley served illustrious stints at Eleven Madison Park and Per Se in New York and at Washington Square in Philadelphia — where she met Mike Isabella, who later tapped her to be Graffiato’s chef de cuisine. “I learned a lot from Mike about Greek and Italian cuisine,” Meek-Bradley says. Coupled with her California upbringing, these Mediterranean influences shape her menu at Ripple, where 90 percent of the produce is sourced locally and fresh pastas like carrot cavatelli are standouts.
Secret Ingredient: Perseverance
Maple Avenue Restaurant (147 Maple Ave., Vienna) was days away from bankruptcy when Tim Ma figured he might as well start cooking whatever he wanted at the nine-table eatery he opened in 2009 with a credit card. “There’s a brunch dish we serve with eggs and kimchee that I literally make for myself every morning,” Ma says. “I was like, ‘Screw it, let’s just put it on the menu.’ ” Following some positive local press, diners flocked in droves. Now the reservation-recommended restaurant is busy slinging plates of eclectic American cuisine influenced by Ma’s classic French training. The little restaurant that could is doing so well, in fact, Ma is opening a second outlet in Arlington, named Water & Wall, on Nov. 1. “It’s going to be an expansion of Maple Avenue, with the addition of a tasting menu.”
Secret Ingredient: We’ll find out soon
Since 2012, when he and his wife handed in their aprons at Town House — the unassuming restaurant in a tiny Virginia town they overhauled and turned into a fine-dining sensation — John Shields has toyed with the idea of opening a concept in D.C. Make that a series of pop-ups. Nope, definitely a restaurant. In Philly. Maybe. It seems the Chicago-born chef finally has some solid news for loyal followers: “We found a space we like and have a lease in hand. It’s in Georgetown.” With an anticipated opening date of summer 2014, the yet-to-be-named eatery will feature the same inventive cuisine once hailed at Town House, with an emphasis on seafood and a casual dining area out back. “I’ve always tried to keep things pure and just accentuate flavors rather than being overly creative,” Shields says. “That won’t change.” We’re going to hold him to that.
Secret Ingredient: Authenticity
Crowds at Rose’s Luxury’s (717 Eighth St. SE) first Saturday dinner service earlier this month caused a 2½-hour wait, inspiring a few impatient diners to craft impromptu seating out of wayward peach crates. The draw? Aaron Silverman’s eclectic American knockouts like popcorn soup and sausage with lychees. A Rockville native, Silverman studied political science before realizing his heart belonged in the kitchen. Following culinary school in Gaithersburg, Md., he landed stints at Momofuku in New York and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C. With most dishes landing under $15, and with 25 cents donated to help feed hungry children for every diner who walks through the door, Silverman delivers high-level food sans pretension. Design details like tables built and signed by his uncle and a framed picture of his grandmother (the restaurant’s namesake) help to cultivate a warm environment. “We want everyone to feel like this is their home,” Silverman says. “It takes longer to turn tables, but people have a better time.”
Secret Ingredient: Simplicity
Trying to find the Chaya taco stand (chayadc.com) at the farmers market? Just look for the longest line. Launched in May, the popular vegetarian Latin American-influenced concept is led by self-trained chefs Suzanne Simon (an Ohio native with a degree in environmental science) and Bettina Stern (a Manhattanite who got her culinary start at Ina Garten’s now-defunct gourmet food store, Barefoot Contessa). The two also run loulies.com, a mindful living blog with a concentration on eating seasonally and consciously. “When you eat food in-season, you’re eating it at the peak of flavor,” Stern says. “It’s also more affordable because it’s in abundance.” A brick-and-mortar restaurant with a focus on plant-based cuisine is the goal, though the two plan to fine-tune dishes like kale and roasted potato tacos on handmade tortillas with creamy poblano sauce at pop-ups and year-round farmers markets.
Secret Ingredient: Happiness
If you’re dining at Daikaya (705 Sixth St. NW) when a Backstreet Boys song comes on, be prepared: “We start a restaurantwide sing-along,” chef Katsuya Fukushima says. But before he was able to let loose at his Sapporo-style ramen shop (with a bustling izakaya upstairs), the former culinary director of Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup spent two months in Japan training under a ramen master. “I learned to have respect for ingredients,” Fukushima says. “But things can’t be too uptight, because when the kitchen’s happy, it comes out in the food.” Playful touches like a sake bomb with a spherified sake bubble that bursts under pressure delight guests. More smile-inducing news: A whiskey bar and a second ramen shop are in the works.
Secret Ingredient: Ambition
Cedric Maupillier has some ideas worth listening to. (His charming French accent certainly doesn’t hurt.) “I want to create a concept that can overtake McDonald’s,” he says. “I believe in creating jobs and giving people culinary experience.” The Citronelle alum is well on his way at Mintwood Place (1813 Columbia Road NW), where his American-meets-French menu draws loyal crowds and glowing accolades. Not bad for an ex-pat who started cooking at age 15 so he could afford a moped. His cuisine is refreshingly accessible, with escargot hush puppies coexisting alongside a wood-grilled cheeseburger.
Secret Ingredient: Instinct
Scot Harlan is a former pastry chef serving meat-heavy dishes at his new-ish restaurant, Green Pig Bistro (1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington). If that disconnect strikes you as odd, you should know that Harlan doesn’t always play by the rules. Rather, the Arlington native (who in 2002 walked out on a coveted position at The Inn at Little Washington to attend Bonnaroo) follows his intuition in the kitchen, which lately has led him to simple dishes minus the snobbery. His buffalo ribs fried with hot sauce and honey and served with a blue cheese sauce are a good example. “I don’t buy microgreens,” Harlan says. “Ever.”
Photos by Jason Hornick (For Express)