All Amy Brandwein asks for is one — just one — day when she doesn’t have to answer questions about her old boss. But her old boss is Roberto Donna, the controversial star chef of the former Galileo empire, and today will not be that day.
“People ask me about him probably three times a day,” said Brandwein. “I guess it’s just part of my story.”
This month, she began a new chapter. Brandwein opened Centrolina, her Italian market and restaurant in the middle of the gleaming new CityCenterDC complex, granting her membership in a still-small club of female chef-restaurateurs. She did it by herself. So why do people still associate her career with a man’s?
“Somebody said to me, ‘Oh, well, you’re Roberto’s girl.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” she said. “I ran a four-star restaurant for him. That makes me a chef. That doesn’t make me his girl.”
That’s not to say she isn’t grateful to Donna for launching her career. But gratitude is a complicated thing when you’re a woman in a machismo-driven profession, and your mentor has pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement, and you’re trying to make a name for yourself as a first-time entrepreneur.
“There’s a sense that I have loyalty for all the wrong reasons,” said Brandwein. “I have loyalty to people who gave me opportunities, and I have loyalty to a chef who taught me. That’s all.”
You can trace the lineage of great chefs across the country like a family tree. David Chang, opening a Momofuku around the corner from Brandwein’s restaurant, comes from the tutelage of Tom Colicchio. Eric Ziebold, previously of CityZen and now of the forthcoming Kinship, is a product of the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. But you can bet that no one has ever called José Andrés, in deference to his mentor, “Ferran Adrià’s boy.”
Brandwein is not Donna’s girl. But she is his protege, a relationship she holds dear.
“There’s a certain respect that a cook should pay to a chef,” said Brandwein, 45. “That’s really old school, but that’s how I feel about things.”
As the first and only female chef de cuisine at now-closed Galileo, Brandwein was with Donna for the good and the bad. The former informed her style of cooking upscale yet homey ingredient-driven Italian food. The latter informed her outlook on business, a pursuit that has never been among Donna’s strengths. He was the target of lawsuits and criminal charges citing taxes and back rent owed, labor law violations and the aforementioned embezzlement. She followed him to Bebo in Crystal City but left before that restaurant closed, too. Her next big gig was as executive chef of the corporate-owned Casa Nonna, a restaurant on Connecticut Avenue that also closed, less than two years later.
It’s no wonder, then, that Brandwein initially hesitated to work toward opening a place of her own.
“It just made me realize how much hot water you can get into. These are very dangerous operations, restaurants,” she said. “It’s a very tight dance between your concept, your chef, your location, your prices and your rent. You have to be very careful.”
But if anyone can do it, it’s Brandwein, her admirers in the industry say.
“The apron strings are broken, she’s on her own, and we’re all so proud of her,” said chef Ris Lacoste.
Added Del Campo chef Victor Albisu, a longtime friend of Brandwein’s: “I believe that [Centrolina] is going to be a significant restaurant, and hopefully for many years to come. She deserves it. She’s put in the time.”
Four years: That’s how long it took her to write an ironclad business plan, raise capital, negotiate a lease and build out a restaurant from scratch. And while the industry’s outlook for women looking to rise through the ranks has improved, female chefs who own restaurants are a minority.
“I don’t know that it’s harder” for female chef-owners, said Lacoste. “Honey, it’s hard, period . . . . I think that it’s not gender specific. I think men and women approach things diffferently.”
Among the differences: Male chefs are inclined to delegate, while female chefs want to take care of the details themselves, said Lacoste, who broke the apron strings, too, as a protege of Bob Kinkead.
“I think businesswise it’s probably a little bit naturally easier to get to this point if you’re a guy,” said Brandwein. “The fundraising is probably easier because they’re typically more aggressive. If you’ve got the swagger, people want to clamber onto you.”
Her restaurant has been financed through what she calles a “petite” group of investors.
But women have other advantages, says Donna: “I think a woman can run the kitchen better than a man. Women are more precise, attentive to details.”
Female chef-owners, says Brandwein, may be more risk-averse. But Bread Furst’s Mark Furstenberg, a friend of Brandwein’s and also her market’s bread supplier, gives her credit for her gutsy move, calling Centrolina “a particular act of courage.” Centrolina, along with Dolcezza and RareSweets, is one of the few locally owned businesses in CityCenterDC.
“It’s a risky business to have a local retail spot in a national retail venue,” said Furstenberg. “But she’s good, and if people eat her food, they’ll come back.”
Brandwein never imagined her first restaurant would be underneath condos that cost as much as $3 million.
Born Amy Storey, Brandwein grew up in Arlington, the daughter of Al, a cameraman for NBC News in the White House press corps, and Rosemary, a staffer on the Hill and avowed feminist who took young Amy to rallies led by Gloria Steinem.
“No matter what, they both were working. I think that was really important for me to see as a kid,” said Brandwein. “It was always clear to me that women should be professionals, too.”
She graduated from T.C. Williams High School and majored in political science at Old Dominion University, intending to become a lawyer. She spent a few postgraduate years as a paralegal for two large law firms and processed contributions for Emily’s List, the progressive political action committee that works to elect female Democrats. Politics, said Brandwein, is still a hobby of hers to this day, but she grew weary of the constant networking.
At the age of 30, she decided to take the leap and turn her love of cooking into a career: “I thought to myself, ‘the worst thing that can happen is you take this year, and you spend a lot of money to go to school, and if you don’t like it, at least you know how to cook.’ ”
L’Academie de Cuisine was more difficult than she had expected. She was 10 years older than most of her classmates, and working three jobs on the side. She was also planning her wedding to construction engineer Jeremy Brandwein.
She quickly gravitated toward Italian food. Though her mother recalled teaching her how to cook spaghetti at a young age, Rosemary Storey wasn’t sure where her daughter’s interest came from. They have no Italian ancestry.
“I’m Irish. I cook simple Irish food,” Storey said, beaming with pride at the opening party for Centrolina this month. “I’ve never cooked fancy Italian food.”
But what Brandwein specialized in, the chef says, was predestined.
“I really think that those things are decided for you: What you’re interested in cooking, it’s inside of you, you can’t take it out. It’s like an expression of who you are,” she said. “Italian food is meant to take care of people, and it’s handmade . . . . I don’t think it’s ego-driven.”
Because she wanted to make Italian food, she applied for an externship at what was then the best Italian restaurant in the city: Donna’s Galileo. She started in the pastry department in 2000 as a plater. At the time, she was the only woman, and her co-workers didn’t let her forget it.
“I had people on the line, my fellow co-workers, just relentlessly haze me,” she said. “One person said, ‘Why don’t you go home and be a seamstress?’ ”
She moved up the ladder to saucier, then sous-chef. In 2005, she was appointed Donna’s first female chef de cuisine at Galileo, prompting an item by Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema that quoted Donna thus: “She’s the first woman to survive the grinder.”
But that grinder had taken only its first pass at Brandwein; it returned for the aforementioned disappointments at Galileo, Bebo and Casa Nonna.
“I sort of felt a little burned,” she said. “It just left me feeling like, this is it, I’ve worked so hard for so many people. So I just felt like, I’m not doing that anymore.”
She worked on her business plan. With her past experiences in mind, she made sure that all her revenue estimates were conservative. She enlisted the help of an excellent accountant. And she was careful about whom she chose to work with.
Brandwein didn’t plan it that way, but every leadership position at Centrolina is held by a woman. Angie Duran (whom Brandwein refers to as her “storm trooper”) is her general manager, Alissa Diaz is her market manager, Jennifer Costa is her pastry chef and Kristin Welch is the beverage director. But half an hour before Centrolina opened for lunch for the first time, when Brandwein was preparing and introducing the dishes to her servers, she was outnumbered by men, who compose the rest of the kitchen staff.
Honey-colored bangs falling in front of her eyes, which are the same bright blue as her restaurant’s logo, Brandwein flung a towel over her shoulder and issued a staccato call for ingredients to her cooks: “Raw garlic. Mashed potato. Olive oil. Salt.”
She used to shout in her kitchen. (“I think I gave her some of that,” said Donna. “When I was younger, I used to scream and yell.” Brandwein recalls it differently: “He was merciless,” she said.) But now, she is brisk and no-nonsense with her staffers, who were dutifully taking notes on — and bites of — the lunch menu.
“The salmon is wild Alaskan,” said Brandwein to the servers. “What was that thing I told you people are going to ask you? Where it’s from, and if it’s farm-raised.”
Two things you won’t see on the menu: pizza and risotto.
“I’m just totally sick of [pizza]. I can barely even eat it,” she said. Years of making risotto have had a similar effect: “I just couldn’t bear the thought of stirring a risotto pot every night.”
The menu and market are a synthesis of influences from throughout her career, from her father’s garden to her trips to Italy. And Donna, of course, whom Brandwein returned to in December 2013 for the opening of Alba Osteria. The restaurant, owned by Hakan Ilhan, put the mentor and his protege in the kitchen together again, but that time, the dynamic was different.
“We worked together. She wasn’t working for me,” said Donna. “It was even better, I think.”
But, back to the question that she’s grown so tired of, so we can put it to rest, for good: What was it like to work for Roberto Donna?
“He is very intense, is the first thing,” she said. “Very demanding, chaotic, passionate and an excellent chef.”
Was he a mentor? Did he take you under his wing?
“Take me under the wing? No,” she said. “I think if it’s a mentorship, it’s a tough-love mentorship. It’s not warm and fuzzy. I’ve known him for 15 years now. The relationship’s changed with time.”
Did she experience any of the labor violations named in the lawsuits? On that, she is silent.
Let’s flip the question. Roberto Donna, what was it like to work with Amy Brandwein?
“She has the passion for Italian food. She goes to the bottom to really find the heart of it, to bring the real thing to the dish,” he said. “She’s very driven. She’s not quiet. She likes to make her point.”
Her name is the one that people will associate with Centrolina, so consider it made.