The Dabney is scheduled to open later this month, leaving only days for Jeremiah Langhorne and his team to finish their lengthy list of tasks before welcoming their first diners to Blagden Alley.
The burdens may be heavier for Langhorne than for your typical chef opening his first restaurant. He's not just meeting with subcontractors, interviewing job candidates and sweating out final inspections: Langhorne is also scheduling long trips into the countryside to meet the farmers who could supply his restaurant with meat and produce. He wants to make sure their agricultural deeds align with their words.
"If I'm getting pigs from somebody, I want to go see how [the pigs] live, see what their environment is," Langhorne says.
It can make for a long day, as I discovered last month when I shadowed Langhorne and his sous chefs, Chris Morgan and Mike Tholis, as they clicked-off items on their to-do list. And improvised new items when the inspiration hit.
8:45 a.m.: Langhorne is huddled over his laptop at Compass Coffee in Shaw, where we are scheduled to meet. He's reviewing controlled vapor technology, or CVap, ovens on a Web site. He recently learned that the dedicated space in his kitchen will be too small to hold the CVap he originally wanted. He's shopping for a smaller version. It's one of countless unforeseen issues that pop up when building out a restaurant.
9:05 a.m.: Langhorne walks to the Dabney and checks in with his sous chefs and construction superintendent.
9:20 a.m.: Morgan notices that a member of the construction crew has cut his arm. Blood drips from the guy's elbow.
"Are you all right?" Langhorne asks.
"Yeah, I'm all right," the worker replies, without even looking at the chef. The employee immediately returns to his work.
Later that morning, the worker has a makeshift bandage affixed to the wound, using materials seemingly plucked from the nearest tool box. Langhorne eyes the dressing on the guy's elbow.
"That looks like a kitchen-style bandage," he says, and they all share a laugh about the hardened life of the cook and the construction worker.
9:24 a.m.: Langhorne meets with the managing partner from Organic Waste Haulers, which is based in Brentwood, Md. The chef is looking for someone to haul away compost. Langhorne has already talked to another company about the job, but he found its proposal underwhelming.
"They ended up just being a consultant," Langhorne tells the Organic Waste Haulers man. "I don't need someone to consult me on how to recycle here. I need someone who's actually going to take stuff away."
The two men talk scheduling, and it's apparent there are conflicts. But the waste man thinks they can be worked out. Then Langhorne asks, "Do you guys do anything as far as resale of compost?"
The waste man says no but knows a company that might.
"The only reason that I even ask is because we're going to put in a huge garden over the top of the whole patio," Langhorne says. The chef needs compost.
(Update: Organic Waste Haulers's price was too high for Langhorne. "I think we're going to move on to our next option," the chef says.)
9:45 a.m.: Langhorne and his sous chefs are set to interview Xavier Wingate, a sous chef at Petworth Citizen, for a line cook position at the Dabney. They conduct the interview at La Colombe, the nearby coffee shop in Blagden Alley.
Langhorne has no problem with Wingate's lack of marquee cooking experience.
"I've learned such a hard lesson over the years about hiring based upon pretty resumes," Langhorne says as we walk to La Colombe. "It really can backfire on you, hard. I think a few of our worst employees at McCrady's were the guys who had Per Se and Le Bernardin on their resumes."
The Dabney crew grills Wingate on his background, career goals, knowledge of Mid-Atlantic ingredients, current reading list (the answer: famous/infamous British chef Marco Pierre White's memoir "The Devil in the Kitchen") and his strengths and weaknesses, among other topics.
The interview lasts all of 10 minutes. Then Langhorne offers to give Wingate a tour of the Dabney construction site, where he will tell the job candidate about the large, open-flame hearth, the centerpiece of the restaurant.
"We do require a one-year commitment," Langhorne explains to Wingate as they walk to the Dabney. "I'm not going to make you sign a contract or nothing like that, but I just want your word."
After they part ways with Wingate, the guys all say they like the cook-candidate. They like his honesty and his openness.
(Update: Five days later, Langhorne officially hires Wingate as part of the kitchen team. "He's really excited," Langhorne says. "His attitude was great. I don't need someone to know a ton about cooking. I need them to be humble and want to learn and want to move forward. And that's what he has in spades. I think we'll be in really good shape with him.")
10:13 a.m.: The three chefs walk to Langhore's high-rise apartment to pick up his vehicle and give his pooch, Ginger, a bathroom break on the rooftop dog park. Langhorne may be all business when he's at the construction site, but around his mixed-breed rescue, he's a total pushover. He says he has many nicknames for Ginger, all too sappy to repeat to a reporter with a recorder.
11:00 a.m.: Langhorne, Tholis and Morgan climb into the boss's 2004 Nissan Pathfinder for a trip to Cabin Creek Heritage Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. They're interested in the farm's beef.
"Beef's tough," Langhorne says about securing meat from local cattle. "Everyone and their brother has pigs and chickens and rabbits and all this stuff. It's very rare to find beef. Beef is probably giving us our hardest problem now."
What's more, Langhorne notes, local farms, especially those that grow produce, are hesitant to sell directly to chefs and restaurateurs. They have their reasons: Farmers may not have the infrastructure to transport products to the city on a regular basis. Or they may fetch better prices at farmers markets. Or they may have been burned by previous chefs and restaurateurs who disregarded all those invoices.
Undeterred, Langhorne wants to set up direct relationships with local farmers. He's even willing to pay for it.
"What you do is say, 'Hey, I'll pay you retail for three, four months,'" Langhorne says while piloting his SUV. "I think that with a lot of those people, you just have to do something crazy that's going to show them how committed you are. That's the only way to make it happen."
11:42 a.m.: The crew arrives at Cabin Creek, where the guys are met by Lori Hill, a fiber artist who runs the sustainable farm with her husband, Doug, and their family. They raise quail, hogs, chickens and rabbits for meat and/or eggs, which are available via the farm's CSA. They process the smaller animals on site. They also purchase a grass-fed steer monthly from Evermore Farm to sell cuts at farmers markets, the farm's store or as part of the CSA.
Lori Hill gives the guys a tour, walking them through the quail and rabbit pens, the processing area, the walk-ins where the meat is stored and the pastures where a portable coop gives hens both shelter for egg-laying and the freedom to stretch their legs within a confined outdoor area.
"There is a watering system on the side. There are feeders attached to the house," Hill says about the coop. "They all have their water and their feed, and it all moves with them."
Another interesting tidbit: The Hills add ground-up oyster shells to the hens' feed. It makes their egg shells harder and sturdier.
Then Hill takes Langhorne and company to a small barn, where two days earlier a Berkshire sow gave birth to a farrow of piglets. As if on cue, the three chefs release the exact same sound when they spot the tiny black-and-pink critters:
Adds Langhorne a few moments later: "They got their little pink socks. They're so cute!"
Once she pries the guys away from the piglets, Hill directs them to a back acreage, where about a dozen pigs freely roam a fenced, heavily wooded area. There's even a swine playhouse, with lots of mud nearby.
The tour has sealed the deal for Langhorne. Before he and his sous chefs leave, they purchase a small stack of meats: quail, rabbit, skirt steak and other cuts. Langhorne also directs Tholis to make sure the Dabney gets on the wait list for quail and rabbit.
As we head back to the car, Langhorne heaps on the praise for the Hills' work.
"They're doing it right," he says. "You can see it in her eyes. She genuinely cares and loves these animals."
12:50 p.m.: The guys assemble in the Pathfinder. As Langhorne drives away from the farm, he spots a pawpaw tree along the road, one of countless wild-ingredient sightings during the trip. The chefs try to determine whether the fruit is too high off the ground to pick. Langhorne decides that he can maneuver his SUV closer to the tree so Morgan can stand on the hood and pick fruit.
It turns out to be a waste of time: The pawpaws are not mature enough to eat.
As the chefs drive through Crofton, Md., Langhorne asks about lunch. The consensus is that sustenance is needed. They settle on Poncho N Pepe's, a fluorescent Tex-Mex joint with a metal cactus out front. Langhorne says he enjoys a gloppy plate of Tex-Mex. I'm right there with him.
1:15 p.m.: We pile into a booth and pile on the Tex-Mex. Everyone orders a beer or margarita, except for Langhorne. He's not drinking these days.
"Drinking had gotten to the point where. . . it wasn't helping me," Langhorne tells me later. "It seemed really near-sighted and foolish not to be 110 percent" focused on the Dabney.
"I take it seriously, and I wanted to feel great every single day," he adds.
2 p.m.: The guys grab toothpicks and jump back into the Pathfinder for a trip to Whistle Pig Hollow, a farm in Reisterstown, Md., northwest of Baltimore.
2:58 p.m.: The crew arrives at Whistle Pig, where they are greeted by dogs and John and Gretchen Dimling, the proprietors of the farm. The Dimlings raise sheep, ducks, chickens and several different swine breeds and crosses, including Berkshires, Red Wattle crosses and even rare Gloucestershire Old Spots. John and Gretchen sell their slaughtered animals directly to restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
"The spotted pigs, there were only two in the United States in 1990, in the whole United States, because no one wanted to breed them," says Gretchen. (The Livestock Conservancy basically backs up her story.)
Why didn't anyone want to breed them?
"Because they have so much fat on them and they just want to be outside," she responds. "If you bring them inside and lock 'em up on concrete, they just won't do well."
But chefs "realized how good they were, so they're coming back," Gretchen continues. "It sounds counter-intuitive, but you have to eat 'em to save 'em."
The tour of Whistle Pig, however, doesn't start with hogs. The couple first introduces the chefs to "birdland," as John calls it. It's the area with ducks and chickens, including a fenced enclosure where a livestock water tank has been converted into a duckling brooder, with a heat lamp radiating over it. Inside the brooder, a brace of nervous yellow ducklings seems to move as one, like a wave.
Langhorne is smitten. He walks into the enclosure and plucks one of the ducklings from the brooder. The chef is delighted. The animal, not so much: The duckling pees on Langhorne's hands.
The next stop is the pig pasture, where John calls for the Red Wattle crosses. The animals obey his command like dogs. Their ears, more Duroc-like than Red Wattle-esque, even flop around like dogs' ears.
"Who's the guy with the two little pieces hanging down?" asks Langhorne, pointing to the pieces of flesh dangling from a hog's neck.
"That's the Red Wattle cross," John explains.
"Do they all have those pieces?" Langhorne inquires.
"No," John says. "When you cross them, you'll get some with and some without. Some will just get like one wattle or a real small wattle."
The wattle "just seems thinner, skinnier to me," Langhorne says.
"That's the thing," says John. "They'll get any combination from just a little nub to, like, a full wattle. A couple of them look like they're hanging from a thread, they're so tiny."
Over in another pasture, a drift of younger Red Wattle crosses starts to stampede Langhorne and the newcomers. The animals seem to come from all directions, and with remarkable speed.
"Coming in hot!" Langhorne shouts to his sous chefs, mostly for comic effect. "If they surround us, it might be tough. Mike and Chris, I expect you two to give your lives up for this."
The pigs seem to be playing — or trying to engage in play. One or two will rumble up to the city slickers and press against them, as if trying to knock the guys over. Every time the pigs brush up against the strangers, the animals leave a mark: a streak of mud on the pants.
"We call them pig tats," says Gretchen.
"They want you to be part of the pack," says Langhorne.
On the way back to the farm house, Langhorne spots another thing that delights him: a large patch of wild watercress, a pungent aquatic plant that tastes like horseradish.
"Would you sell some to us when we're up and running?" the chef asks the Dimlings. "We'll pay you whatever the going rate is."
They agree to the deal and note that the farm has wild mint, too.
"It's a little bonus," Langhorne says about the watercress. "You know what's really amazing, too? 'Cress is delicious with pork."
4:16 p.m.: The Dabney crew sits down to a second lunch. John and Gretchen have prepared pork from pigs raised on their farm. They've also laid out fruits and cheese, and bottles of kombucha from Hex Ferments in Baltimore. The guys aren't hungry, but once they bite into the rich, succulent pork, they keep eating.
4:40 p.m.: The crew pours into the Pathfinder for the trip home and a dissection of the day.
"They're doing it right," Langhorne says of both farms. "They put their animals' happiness first and foremost. Most other farms, you'll see some part of the chain where convenience outweighs the happiness of the animals."
The dissection, however, is quickly interrupted by a request: Langhorne needs to find a gas station, fast. He asks Morgan to search on his phone for the nearest station.
"I really don't want to be stuck on a f------ highway without any gas while I'm sitting in traffic," Langhorne says, his urgency as hot as those incoming pigs.
5:05 p.m.: While filling up the Pathfinder at a station in Windsor Mill, Md., Langhorne and team spot a Caribbean, West African and Asian market across the street. They decide right then that they're going shopping.
5:10 p.m.: The Caribbean Supermarket smells like salt fish and fresh fruit, the pungency and sweetness commingling in the air. In the back of the market, there's a counter of ice and fish, meticulously stacked. Among the species is something called a goatfish. In Spanish, Morgan asks the fishmonger about the goatfish.
The fishmonger says, essentially, it's from the ocean, which may either be a joke or a brushoff.
Meanwhile, Langhorne has done some shopping. He's bought water, scuppernongs and muscadines, the muscular grapes tied to the South.
5:20 p.m.: With the Pathfinder gassed up and the chefs snacked up, Langhorne and crew head back to Washington. Langhorne shares his grapes. Morgan looks up goatfish. It's a fish sometimes known as red mullet.