The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Inn at Little Washington, the lifeblood of a Virginia hamlet, shutters for the first time in decades

Patrick O’Connell, chef-owner of the Inn at Little Washington, laid off most of his employees on Friday but is looking forward to welcoming them back when his dining destination in Virginia is able to open again. (Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post)
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“We’ve never closed for any disaster or blizzard in 42 years,” said Patrick O’Connell, chef-owner of the world-renowned Inn at Little Washington, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there he was on Friday morning, bidding farewell to overnight guests after breakfast service and not knowing when the doors to his fantasy dining destination, the recipient of three Michelin stars, the French guide’s highest accolade, would welcome back guests.

The night before, his staff had attended to a mere 20 people — two seatings of 10 diners, the most the state of Virginia was allowing restaurants or bars to serve as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down almost every facet of life around the country. Departing guests told the chef they wanted to come back the moment the restaurant reopened, to be part of history; staff volunteered to work free, if O’Connell needed them.

“It’s kind of a very sweet funeral,” the chef said in a telephone interview from the inn, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux, an association of independently owned luxury hotels and restaurants in 60 countries — most now shuttered, if not by government decree, then by the inability of patrons to reach them, according to O’Connell. “No one is unaffected” by the pandemic.

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The inn is to Washington, Va., what cars are to Detroit: the engine that drives everything in the 133-resident hamlet, whose budget is basically the food and lodging taxes paid by the establishment. O’Connell has 175 employees on his payroll, only 10 of whom, mostly key managers, weren’t laid off on Friday, which happened to coincide with the staff’s last full, two-week paycheck. A partial paycheck will follow; insurance is covered through April 9. Remaining managers will work for reduced pay. Ahead of sending out the email announcing the layoffs Thursday night, General Manager Bob Fasce said, “My finger hovered over the send key.”

“The entire community is affected,” said O’Connell, listing the shops, wineries and other businesses that depend on the success of the area’s best-known employer. He’s in favor of public projects along the lines of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to “keep people busy,” although the need for social distancing puts the notion on the back burner.

“Curiously, many people still want to come, get away from the city,” said O’Connell, whose boarders just last week included three men who drove down for one night away from the confinement of the Big Apple. One caller offered $300 for takeout from the inn. A skeleton staff remains behind. “Lawns still have to be cut,” gardens maintained and buildings painted, O’Connell said.

“It’s a shame to have 10,000 tulips” and no audience to appreciate them, he added.

He hopes to rectify that. In an email blast before he shuttered the restaurant, O’Connell encouraged guests without dinner or lodging reservations to avail themselves. “You’re more than welcome to drive out to Little Washington and take a restorative walk through our grounds and enjoy the work of our 5 gardeners and 2 full time farmers at our very favorite time of the year,” he wrote.

Signs in the gardens read “all welcome.” The inn’s shepherdess plans to stay around to tend to the resident llamas, which visitors are welcome to help feed their preferred hay.

When O’Connell reminded me of the chicken coops, beehives and goats that remain active in what he calls “our own little version of Central Park,” I sensed a field trip coming on.

“I only wish we could offer a little food,” said the talent behind such marvels as “tin of sin” peekytoe crab salad paved with cucumber gelee and shimmering American osetra caviar.

There’s still a light on in the kitchen, which will continue to serve a family meal to remaining staff and offer free lunches to go — from the back door — for unemployed team members three days a week. O’Connell said he’s considering the idea of taking lodgers in one of the inn’s cottages — hotels haven’t closed (yet) — but recognizes it would be a different experience without the restaurant. “I’m not sure how I feel about room service dinner,” he said.

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The chef has been coping with the sudden interruption of his life’s work by meditating, taking his dog on four walks a day — rather than the usual two — and devoting more time to his memoir, which is two-thirds done. The famous raconteur says the book, which is already being shopped around Hollywood, will include many “untold” stories. On Friday, “The Inn at Little Washington: A Delicious New Documentary,” which follows the colorful cast of the inn on its journey to Michelin glory, is scheduled to appear on PBS. All the inn’s June weddings have been canceled, but work continues on the establishment’s future bakery-cafe, across the street in the town’s former post office.

Fasce is optimistic, comparing the situation to glowing embers being softly blown on to keep the fire going. “We can’t wait to throw a big log on,” he said. He’s considering organizing a weekly conference call for staff members, to keep in touch and address concerns. “They’re our biggest asset.”

It might not be coming up roses, anywhere, but the inn is determined to maintain appearances — and sign off with a dash of its signature whimsy. Friday morning, Andrew Wright, recently promoted from executive sous chef to director of culinary operations, was busy dividing up the inn’s remaining food, including quail, tuna, rack of Colorado lamb and vegetables, for the kitchen’s 40 or so cooks. Each would go home with a mystery basket, whip up a meal from the contents and share their efforts online. The prize for best effort is a $50 gift certificate.

“Imagine the feasts,” said O’Connell.

We’ll have to.

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