Copper pots hang on a rack over a large kitchen island, where the man in the chef’s jacket has started painting white plates with crimson streaks of reduced beet juice, one component of the evening’s salad course. Farther down the marble island, the amuse-bouche is already set to go: Eggshells, their tops expertly removed, are filled with an egg custard crowned with poached lobster meat.
He moves through his kitchen with a casual grace, offering a glass of 2002 Krug champagne to his guests while returning, time and again, to focus on his plates. His breezy hospitality suggests a professional who’s firmly in control. His black jacket, with the cursive “T” on the left breast, suggests a chef trained to deliver this eight-course feast featuring seared Wagyu beef, butter-poached lobster, aged grand cru Burgundies and other delicacies connected to the rarefied world of fine dining.
Don’t bother trying to guess the name of his restaurant.
It doesn’t exist.
Sure, there’s a place called Chez Hauptli, but it’s a $2 million home tucked into the wooded back roads of McLean. To reach it, you need a really good GPS system and an invitation.
Todd Hauptli, 54, is the man behind Chez Hauptli, and although he’s not technically a chef with his own restaurant and crew, his guest lists have included some major players in local and national dining circles: chefs Eric Ziebold, Nick Stefanelli and Jonathan Krinn. Pastry chef Amanda Cook. Sommelier Andy Myers. Even if you don’t immediately recognize the names, you might recognize where they have worked: the French Laundry, CityZen, 2941, Citronelle, Per Se, Galileo, Minibar and other restaurants, past and present, that represent the pinnacle of American gastronomy.
So who the heck is Todd Hauptli?
He’s the president and chief executive of the American Association of Airport Executives, or AAAE, just another alphabet-soup organization that calls Washington home. Hauptli has been with the organization since 1991, when he worked as vice president of federal affairs or, as his wife, Kathy, likes to tease him, a “sleazy Republican lobbyist.” Now as the chief executive, Hauptli carries the weight of the nation’s airports on the shoulders of his stylish suits, whether testifying before a U.S. Senate panel or pitching products to improve airport services.
It would be wrong to suggest that Hauptli, like so many Type-A Americans, cooks for stress relief. He doesn’t prepare dishes to seal himself off from a pressurized world. Rather, as with his day job, Hauptli pushes himself in the kitchen, too. His role model is Thomas Keller, the technique-driven chef behind Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., both three-star Michelin restaurants. Hauptli’s dining room is a shrine to Keller: Framed menus and notes from Per Se and the French Laundry hang on the walls, some signed by Keller and some by chefs who’ve worked under the legend.
Keller’s influence is not limited to food, either. Hauptli has adopted one of the chef’s principal doctrines, which Keller has etched into his kitchen at Per Se, where a sign hangs under a Vacheron Constantin clock. It reads, simply, “Sense of Urgency.”
“It’s a philosophy that I took from Keller and brought it into the work environment at AAAE,” Hauptli says. “It’s not waiting until tomorrow to deal with something, but dealing with it as it comes up.”
Hauptli didn’t develop a sense of urgency around cooking until his 20s and 30s. The kitchen had been a creative outlet for him since he was a teenager, but it wasn’t until he started earning a decent income that he sought out better ingredients. Meats were an early specialty: grilled steak, roasted rack of lamb, stuffed pork loin. It was Hauptli’s skills in the kitchen, in fact, that won over Kathy.
“What sealed the deal for me was his rack of lamb,” says Kathy, who handles much of the day-to-day cooking at home.
What sealed the deal for Hauptli — in terms of his budding culinary hobby — was a trip to now-shuttered Maestro in Tysons Corner, where Fabio Trabocchi led the kitchen long before he opened Fiola, Fiola Mare and his other local restaurants. At Maestro, Hauptli realized cooking is “not about volume. It’s not about a big huge steak. It’s about finesse.”
Hauptli would start taking cooking classes with Trabocchi at Maestro. He also cooked with Krinn when the chef led the kitchen at 2941 in Falls Church. Hauptli would, basically, chat up any cook who crossed his path in restaurants. Some have since become friends, such as Stefanelli, the chef and owner behind Masseria.
Befriending a chef is one thing. But it’s a rare person who dines in the nation’s finest restaurants and thinks, I must re-create this at home! And it’s perhaps a borderline masochist who takes it a step further and thinks, I’ll invite chefs over, cook them Thomas Keller’s food and prepare every course by myself!
Ego, Hauptli swears, is not what drives him to invite chefs to dinner. He’s not seeking their admiration. He’s not trying to enter their ranks through a side door. Hauptli says he’s just trying to pay them back for the generosity he’s experienced in their restaurants.
“Here’s the little secret about cooking for chefs,” Hauptli says while plating butter-poached lobster on tomato pain perdu, a dish from Keller’s “Under Pressure.” (The 2008 cookbook, incidentally, is devoted to sous-vide cooking, in which foods are vacuum-sealed in bags and submerged in a water bath until they reach precise temperatures.)
“You have them at hello,” Hauptli continues. “They’re used to standing up, eating on top of a milk crate, having a bite of something in between doing other things. You take care of them. You give them nice wine. You give them good food. You make them happy. They’re thrilled. They’re thrilled that they’re in somebody else’s care.”
Still, chefs have been impressed with Hauptli’s skills, particularly his organizational skills. Hauptli has no cooks to help him prepare these meals, based on some of the most demanding recipes in gastronomy. His twin 15-year-old sons, Benjamin and Anderson, will run and clean plates, for a sweet $20 each. But otherwise Hauptli shops, preps and cooks by himself in a spacious kitchen outfitted with two wall ovens, a six-burner Viking Professional range, a vacuum sealer, a sous-vide machine, more than 15 copper pots and just as many knives, including his favorite, a 10-inch Japanese beauty with an abalone handle.
When planning a dinner, like the one he organized on Oscar night for eight people, Hauptli will design a menu that allows him to prepare and freeze components in advance without compromising their flavor or texture, such as the tomato pain perdu. Hauptli was so well organized for his late February dinner that he walked away from the kitchen — twice — to watch his sons play basketball. Just the thought of abandoning dinner preparations for some high-profile chefs would cause most home cooks to chew their fingernails to the quick.
The first time Stefanelli attended a dinner, he marveled at the amateur cook’s ability to juggle tasks. “He knocked out, like, 18 courses in a matter of two hours, paired it [with wine] and talked about it,” Stefanelli recalls. “It was just like, ‘Wow, you’re better than half the guys who work for me.’ ”
For all the time and money he invests in the dinners — the February meal cost him about $600 in ingredients (plus $1,800 in wines) and 13 to 18 hours in preparation and service — Hauptli doesn’t solicit feedback from guests to improve his skills. The chefs could, potentially, leave a “helpful” comment in the Chez Hauptli diary (a massive leather-bound tome with a gold “H” on the cover) that has catalogued most of the 100 dinner parties that Hauptli has hosted. But that would be in poor taste.
Besides, it turns out that Hauptli’s secret to pleasing chefs is deadly accurate: The professionals are thrilled to relax in someone else’s company, enjoy their food and, in Hauptli’s case, sample bottles from his vast wine collection, mostly Burgundies, which he cellars in his basement.
“When you invite a chef over to your house, they really are just happy to have someone cook for them,” says Krinn, chef and owner of Clarity in Vienna. “Ultimately, we’re not critics. We’re really not.”
For the Oscar night dinner, a reporter brought a surprise guest, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, the former Ripple chef who now tends to her Smoked and Stacked shop in Shaw. Earlier in her career, the “Top Chef” finalist spent a year working at Per Se. Meek-Bradley knows Keller’s cooking well, and she recognized the general contours of a Per Se meal in Hauptli’s dinner: an amuse-bouche, a salad, a first fish course, a second fish course and so on.
When pressed for her thoughts a few days after the meal, Meek-Bradley says, “Technically, he did really well with maybe 90 percent of it.”
The difference, Meek-Bradley says, is in the details. Except for the roasted beet salad, the dishes were undercomposed, missing garnishes, a sauce or some other component that would complete the plate. Hauptli also violated a rule of the Per Se handbook: He repeated an ingredient, using lobster for the amuse-bouche and the pain perdu.
But Meek-Bradley calls such criticisms “nitpicking,” and those who have dined with Hauptli understand her point. Chez Hauptli is not a restaurant with a Yelp page and a large tab to pay at the end. You’d have to be a real cur to offer critical feedback after getting drunk — physically and spiritually — on Hauptli’s wines and generosity. He even gives you a parting gift: a black “Chez Hauptli” bag that contains an autographed copy of “The Chez Hauptli Cookbook,” a self-published coffee-table book.
If you need a reminder of Todd Hauptli’s ambitions, it’s printed on the cover of his cookbook, right under the title. They’re two simple words: Volume One.
Tim Carman is a Washington Post staff writer who writes about food.
Email us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.