There is a French adage Patrick O’Connell, chef-owner of the Inn at Little Washington, repeated several times last Thursday, the day he earned two Michelin stars. “It takes three generations to get three stars,” he began. The first comes from the grandfather, who buys an old country inn and cooks superb food for travelers. The second star comes from the father, who expands the kitchen, and takes the food to the next level. And the third star goes to the son, who trains in the best restaurants in the world and brings that talent back to his family’s village.
In America, “we have to move much quicker,” said O’Connell. That was certainly true for some of the local restaurants that received stars, such Tail Up Goat and Pineapple and Pearls, which have been open less than a year. But for O’Connell, patience has been a virtue. Ever since he founded the restaurant in a former garage in Washington, Va., 38 years ago, he’s had Michelin on his mind. His entire restaurant is modeled from starred restaurants in remote villages throughout Europe.
After the inn’s first summer, when O’Connell was “cooking on a wood-burning stove and an electric frying pan” and paying $200 a month in rent, “We decided to take all of our pennies and go on a trip to Europe,” he said. William Rice, then-editor of The Washington Post food section, made O’Connell a list of all of the best restaurants in Europe, and he set off on his culinary journey throughout Michelin’s Europe.
“It was very very intimidating, but we were welcomed so warmly with open arms, and formed friendships and relationships,” he said. Not only that, but the restaurants gave him a model of excellence for the inn. He “instantly began using the measurement of where we were in relation to where they were,” he said. “I’ve spent so many years visiting them, using them as a measuring stick.”
Years ago, when the D.C. Michelin Guide was not yet a glimmer in an inspector’s eye, O’Connell began lobbying the organization to come to Washington. As president of Relais & Chateaux North America, an organization of upscale, boutique hotels and restaurants, he had a “close relationship with Michelin.”
“There’s been a long history of working together with the two organizations,” said O’Connell. “Even with previous directors with the guide, I would see them at events and encourage them to find ways to include restaurants that were not technically within a city.”
Then, in May, Michelin announced that it would come to Washington — but only to the District, not the suburbs, effectively shutting the inn out. O’Connell was disappointed, but hopeful.
“I said to myself, I waited 38 years. What’s one more year?” he said. “I learned to become a very patient man outside of the kitchen. … I knew that we were on their radar.”
The announcement last week that the inn was included after all came as a bit of a surprise. O’Connell got the call as he was about to step into the shower.
Michael Ellis, international director for the Michelin Guides, called the inn “iconic.” “I don’t think there’s a place like [his] in the United States other than Thomas Keller’s,” he said, referring to the French Laundry.
Others may debate the merits of Michelin’s brand of criticism, but for O’Connell, there is no discussion: “I have, over 50 years in the kitchen, come to trust Michelin as close to infallible.”
He was happy that he was awarded two stars, but not three, which carries a greater burden. “The pressure could have been close to overwhelming.”
But before two hours had even passed since he learned the news, he was already setting his sights on getting the third star next year.
“We have a greater challenge than someone running a restaurant. We are a 24-hour experience. This includes 24-hour room service, breakfast in the morning, tea in the afternoon, as well as dinner,” said O’Connell. “Every bite someone takes has to be at the same level, has to be equivalent to the finest in the world.”
His staff wants the third star, too. One member of his team told him, “We’re giving it everything we’ve got for next year,” said O’Connell. “I thought, ‘Fabulous. Who could hope for more?’ ”