Not formally trained as a cook, Langhorne received his early education at the now-closed OXO restaurant in Charlottesville under chef John Haywood, an English native classically trained in French cuisine. In the tradition of fellow English chef Marco Pierre White, Haywood was a stickler for proper technique, and he wasn't afraid to let his charges know when they failed to live up to his standards. Haywood once threw a whole batch of carrots into the trash because Langhorne had trimmed them poorly; the budding cook had to trim another batch of carrots and present each and every one to his boss for inspection.
"Old-style," the 29-year-old Langhorne describes his mentor at OXO, "but it was good for me because at that time in my life, I was definitely a little punk teenager."
"And I thank him to this day because he spent four years just beating into me all these wonderful, wonderful values and morals for food," Langhorne continues. "I’ve always looked at chefs as a kind of surrogate parent [who] is basically passing down this set of culinary morals and values that you need to live by and move by. I feel like I’m incredibly lucky to have had him, and then Sean, as the two chefs I spent the most time with."
It was while sweating under Haywood's watchful eye that Langhorne first learned about Sean Brock's experiments at McCrady's, where the Beard Award-winning chef was beginning to reclaim the historic Southern pantry and put a modern spin on the cuisine. Before going to work every morning at OXO, Langhorne would read Brock's blog, Ping Island Strike, a "digital notebook" that Brock started shortly after opening McCrady's in April 2006. The posts were minimalist and illuminating, often little more than a photo and a brief explanation of Brock's modernist investigations, whether with tater tots made with local potatoes or a "Pig's Head in the Style of Pancetta."
Langhorne was hooked, in part because the blog aligned with his own emerging sensibilities: It was earthy. It was modern. And, above all else, it was afraid of nothing. Born in the District but raised in Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley, Langhorne was a fearless kid who had an affection for the land and a love for technology. He started working at McDonald's in Charlottesville, in fact, because he wanted to buy a video camera to capture his skateboarding antics.
More than ever, Langhorne was determined to land a job at McCrady's. His opportunity came at an unlikely location: Harry's Fine Dining in Crested Butte, Colo., where Langhorne worked briefly while his then girlfriend (and now wife) Jenny Mooney taught adaptive skiing for a season. Langhorne found the job "miserable," save for one thing: The cook who Langhorne replaced at Harry's was headed to McCrady's.
"I was like, ‘No way, dude, really?’' Langhorne recalls talking to departing cook, Chad Carter. "He was like, ‘Yeah, you've heard of it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know all about it. . .Hey, is there any way when I leave if I could come down and stage there?’"
Carter indeed helped Langhorne arrange his first stage, or apprenticeship, at McCrady's in 2008. Langhorne would return several more times to apprentice at Brock's restaurant, hoping the owner would eventually hire him full-time. But the country was going through an economic upheaval, and Brock, like so many chefs in America, had no budget to hire cooks, no matter how skilled and ambitious. So between his stages at McCrady's, Langhorne would either return to Charlottesville or line up apprenticeships elsewhere, like at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, where he worked about two months.
"At the time, I was into modern cooking," Langhorne says. "I wanted to learn. I wanted technique. I wanted something fun, and I wanted someone with a strong connection to the land and to the garden. Sean had a massive four-acre garden at the time down there. He was also pioneering so many modern cooking techniques that were so amazing to me at the time. So it seemed like this perfect fit. I just decided that, no matter what, I was going to get a job there."
Langhorne finally landed a job on the line at McCrady's in March 2009. Within a year, however, Langhorne was already cooking elsewhere: Brock granted the cook an extended leave to stage at Noma in Copenhagen, where chef and owner Rene Redzepi had developed a highly refined take on Danish cuisine. It was in Denmark that Langhorne found his calling: foraging for ingredients along the coasts and in the woods outside Copenhagen. Langhorne saw for himself how Redzepi and team took freshly picked ingredients, often flowers and herbs ignored by most chefs, and transformed them into mini-masterpieces.
When Langhorne returned to McCrady's, he couldn't stomach the idea of remaining a line cook, and he told Brock as much. So Brock made Langhorne a sous chef, and the newly installed sous chef decided he was going to install a foraging program much like the one at Noma. At the time, though, Langhorne's ambition exceeded his knowledge.
"I came back and started looking for all the ingredients that I found in Copenhagen," Langhorne says. "It was so stupid. I was like, ‘God, why can’t I find sweet woodruff? It’s so amazing.’ That only lasted for like a week before it hit me like a sack of potatoes. It was just like, ‘God, what an idiot!’ So then I started buying up all of these guides."
But even the field guides took Langhorne only so far. He had to develop daily protocols and design charts to help identify where and when to find plants. And then he had to religiously maintain his foraging habits, no matter the weather conditions.
"My first success in using wild ingredients was when I decided to go on this mission where, no matter what, rain or shine, I went out every single day to all my spots for 60 days straight," Langhorne says. "Once I did that, the world completely changed me, because basically there’s so many plants and so many things that pop out for such brief periods of time and are only around for 10 days or a week out of the year."
If you skip a week or two because you're too busy, Langhorne adds, "you could have missed an entire season for a plant."
His foraging work at McCrady's was a tough sell — at first.
"Originally, I think a lot of the staff wasn’t that interested in it and didn’t really care. It wasn’t until I spent a good year going through the seasons and scoping everything out and finding out what I really could bring in . . .when people really started saying, ‘Oh, wow, this dude just walked in with 20 pounds of chanterelles, a bouquet of these amazing red bay leaves, wild sea beans, wild clams and mussels,'" Langhorne says.
"That’s when people actually started to get excited and see that it’s not just about a couple little herbs from here or there."
Langhorne plans to do much the same for the Mid-Atlantic when he opens his still unnamed restaurant, likely in Shaw (although no lease has been signed yet). He wants to search the region for the ingredients that define it, and not just the ones (blue crabs, rockfish) already obvious to chefs and diners alike. He wants to find the herbs, the flowers, the fish that might only make it to the table in the smallest coastal towns or the tiniest mountain burgs. Ingredients such as black walnut leaves, sweet cicely and wild perilla.
"The first thing I started doing was going up to Maryland with Spike [Gjerde from Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore] because Spike has those connections here now," Langhorne says. "That’s the first person that I’ve met that’s like, ‘Okay, yeah, let’s go out! Let’s go out to this land!' . . So for the past few weeks, I’ve been going up there with him. I just need to start building the network and finding people here in Virginia and start doing more. I go down to Charlottesville pretty frequently and hit a lot of my other spots down there. It’s a whole new challenge and a whole new world. I’m going to have to build it all up the way I did down in Charleston. It’s going to take time."
Langhorne, in short, wants to develop a menu that will help pinpoint something that's been just beyond our grasp for years: a culinary identity for Washington and the Mid-Atlantic. You can even get an early taste of Langhorne's evolving ideas about the cuisine next week: Langhorne and Gjerde will take over Artifact Coffee in Baltimore for a series of a la carte dinners July 17-19 from 6 to 10 p.m. Langhorne plans to forage many of the ingredients for the dinner.
Next up in the Langhorne series: more about what his restaurant will look and taste like.