Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in a series tracking Jeremiah Langhorne, former chef de cuisine at the modernist, farm-to-table McCrady's in Charleston, S.C., as he opens the Dabney, his debut restaurant in Washington. Earlier installments in order: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
The driver is trying to back his cement truck between a telephone pole and brick garage, a tricky maneuver complicated by the narrow confines of Blagden Alley. The Vulcan truck registers its complaint with a steady, piercing stream of beep-beep-beeps, as the driver inches the vehicle carefully onto the gravel just outside the Dabney, chef and owner Jeremiah Langhorne's forthcoming restaurant dedicated to the flavors of the Mid-Atlantic.
With each passing minute, the scene becomes more farcical, as the truck's incessant beeping assumes an annoying/hilarious "Dumb and Dumber" quality in this unintentional schadenfreude comedy. You half expect the truck to dispense water balloons instead of cement.
Langhorne pays almost no attention to this vehicular slapstick, his mind focused on the 1,001 other tasks still ahead of him as the Dabney prepares for its mid-September debut. Besides, he's witnessed the farce before: This is not the first time the truck has come around to pour concrete.
But this time is special. Workers with Langhorne Concrete — the business has been part of the Langhorne family for generations — are here on a hot July afternoon to finish pouring the walls for the kitchen hearth, an open-flame cooking pit that will be the heart and soul of the Dabney. Many of Langhorne's dishes will be prepared on grates just above the burning embers or in a kettle attached to a swinging arm high above the coals or even in Le Creuset pots buried in the hot ashes.
A hearth is "the most hands-on form of cooking that you can possibly get. There’s no way around it. You’re not setting a timer and walking away," Langhorne says as workers dump buckets of cement into the hearth's wooden molds. "There’s no set-it-and-forget-it kind of scenario.”
Hearth cooking has become semi-fashionable among a class of adventurous chefs who are willing to sacrifice the precision and ease of ovens. You'll find hearths at Parts & Labor in Baltimore; Fore Street in Portland, Maine; King + Duke in Atlanta; Camino in Oakland; and Renata in Portland, Ore., to name just a few.
Cooking in a hearth should not be confused with grilling over an open-flame, as you'll find at Red Hen in Bloomingdale or Rural Society in the Loews Madison Hotel. Open-flame grilling offers more control, notes Ben Eisendrath, president of Grillworks, which sells Argentine-style grills across the country. The ability to raise or lower a grill grate allows chefs to better regulate temperature.
"I love the improv of pure hearth cooking," says Eisendrath, whose large-format Infierno grills allow for such cooking. "If you've got a skilled man at the fire, you can do almost anything."
The problem with building your own hearth, rather than relying on a Grillworks rig, is that, well, you have to build your own hearth. Langhorne's hearth required about 3.5 cubic yards, or about 14,000 pounds, of concrete, says Jacob Langhorne, third generation owner of Langhorne Concrete, who's following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
The younger brother of Jeremiah, Jacob says his company had never before poured concrete for a hearth. It was more labor-intensive than your average project, the younger brother notes, because workers had to use wheelbarrows and five-gallon buckets to transport and pour the concrete into molds. The chef's father, Keith Langhorne, even assisted in the project.
The hearth is a sizable beast, measuring about 10 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 7.5 feet high. Jacob doesn't know exactly how much he'd charge a regular customer for such a contraption, although he guesses it would run about $20,000. For family, however, Jacob will bill his brother for only materials and labor — and he doesn't even expect to receive free meals in return.
"Obviously, since he's my brother, I'm not interested in making a profit from it," Jacob says. "It's just helping the family out."
For Jeremiah Langhorne, a first-time restaurateur looking to control build-out costs, his family's generosity is a blessing.
"They’re like silent investors in the restaurant. My brother and my dad have been great to me," says Jeremiah, noting they also poured the basement concrete. “It’s great to have somebody like that because there are so many other elements of this project where I’m quite positive I’m being ripped off."
The hearth is still waiting on some final elements: Crews will lay fire bricks along the inside walls and then put down about an inch-and-a-half layer of soapstone. The latter will become Langhorne's cooking surface.
Soapstone "really holds up to fire. I got that off Spike’s recommendation," says Langhorne, acknowledging one of his mentors, Spike Gjerde, who installed a hearth at Parts & Labor.
Once the hearth is completed and ready to burn wood, Langhorne may face his stiffest challenge yet: city fire-code inspectors. The chef is already semi-fretting how the pencil pushers will view his open-flame hearth, which will include a Core fire-suppression system that uses only water and detergent. He seems to be auditioning his speech every time the hearth's safety is mentioned.
“To me, it’s a lot more scary to have a bunch of gas and electric lines hidden behind a wall somewhere," Langhorne says.
With a hearth, "you're literally talking about several logs that are burning. It’s the simplest form of fire to put out," he continues. "Literally you pour water on top of it. It’s going out, and it’s not coming back. There’s no flare ups because the gas main is on.”
Meet Jeremiah Langhorne: