In 2004, when sous-chef Mike Ellis left Charlie Palmer Steak to work in Northern California, Washington was a very different kind of drinking and dining town. Back then, the city had no production breweries or distilleries. The 14th Street corridor was still viewed with skepticism by locals who knew it as an unsavory strip for drugs and prostitution. And if you could find ramen at all, it was mostly in instant form behind dorm room doors.
More than a decade later, Ellis has returned to Charlie Palmer Steak, where he takes over for Jeff Russell as executive chef. (Russell, incidentally, will help open a new location of Charlie Palmer Steak in Napa, Calif.) Ellis, an Olney, Md., native, has been getting up to speed on the changes in Washington while also developing new "homecoming" menus dedicated to the bounty and suppliers of the Mid-Atlantic.
"There's a lot more restaurants," Ellis says about the D.C. dining scene. "There's so much more activity in D.C. over the last five to six years. Like all of Bryan Voltaggio's restaurants, all Mike Isabella's restaurants, José Andrés's expansion. . . It seems like it's become more of a chef-driven landscape."
Ellis and I talked about his Michelin ambitions (ten years ago, he earned a star as chef de cuisine at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif.) as well as his opinions on Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, the sibling chefs who led the kitchens at Dry Creek (Michael) and Charlie Palmer Steak (Bryan) while Ellis worked at them. Below are the edited highlights from our chat.
Kitchen work kept Ellis out of trouble as a teenager. "We had a beach house in New Jersey, and we'd go live there for the summer. I would surf all day, and then I'd go to work at 5 o'clock at this restaurant where four generations of my family had been going to. It was like my mom and dad's best day-care system ever, because I couldn't get into trouble. My parents, grandparents, all my aunts and uncles ate dinner there every Friday night during the summer, and every Friday night, they would get a full report of everything that I had done that week to cause any mischief. It kept me out of trouble."
Ellis once worked more than 35 days straight at Dry Creek Kitchen until Charlie Palmer stepped in. "There was one night that Charlie and his wife, Lisa, came in for dinner. As the maître d' was seating them, Lisa was like, 'What day is Mike on?' The maître d' was like, 'I think it's 37 or 39. I can't remember.' And Charlie was like, 'What do you mean, he's on 37 or 39 days?' And the maître d' was like, 'He's on his 39th straight day of working.' Charlie came back into the kitchen and was like, 'You're not allowed to step foot in here tomorrow. I will be here all day. You need to take a break.' That's why I have so much respect for him. Yes, it's his restaurant, but he took a day out of whatever he had planned for that next day to make sure that I had a day off."
Ellis feared he was getting fired when he first learned about his Michelin star. "I was in Florida, visiting my grandparents because my grandfather was about to die basically. I was sitting there on their back patio, and I got a text message from our former corporate chef, Tony Aiazzi. I had never gotten a text message from Tony Aiazzi before. This was before iPhones. It was a Motorola Razr, so the little screen just said, 'Tony Aiazzi, text message.' I was thinking, 'Oh, man, I hope I'm not getting fired for visiting my grandparents in Florida.' And I opened the phone and the message said, 'Did you know you just got a Michelin star?' I was like, 'I didn't even know there was a Michelin Guide in California.'"
The magnetic pull of family brought Ellis back to Washington. "I just had a baby. My parents are getting older. I wanted to be around them, and I wanted them to be around their grandson. That was the biggest thing. I had been gone for 12 years. My whole family is still here, like all my aunts, uncles, cousins. I was in California basically by myself. It was just getting kind of lonely."
His time at Dry Creek Kitchen influenced how Ellis will develop menus at Charlie Palmer Steak. "When I first got to Healdsburg, it was a sleepy town of 10,000 people that nobody had heard of before. I walked into this restaurant, where 85 percent of our produce came from local farms. As I grew there and took over as the chef, I formed relationships with some of these small farmers. It made me realize how fragile the family farm is, and how these people struggle to get by on growing vegetables. It made me feel really good about myself and about what I was doing by supporting them. And the produce tastes better. So when I got back here, I wanted to try to bring as many of the elements that made me successful in California to this restaurant."
His goal at Charlie Palmer Steak is to nurture a happy kitchen, not earn a Michelin star. "If working the way that I worked 10 years ago to get that first Michelin star will translate into us getting another Michelin star here, then I think that would be great. Is it my focus? No. My focus is to show up for work every day, say good morning to everybody and greet them with a smile and make sure that everybody in the kitchen is happy. Because if they're all happy, they do a better job. They take more pride in their work."
Ellis prefers Bryan Voltaggio's cooking style over his brother's. "I think my style of cooking and Bryan's are much closer. At Volt, he still embraces farm-to-table cooking, and being farther north, closer to Pennsylvania, I think he has a lot more access to a lot of farms. He brings those ingredients in and does what he can to make them extraordinary on their own. Michael's style is far more molecular. He's a lot more into molecular gastronomy. There's a lot more steps and a lot more liquid nitrogen and calcium chloride and agar agar. That's the biggest difference. It takes a lot of work and a lot of precision to do what Michael's doing, but it also takes a lot of precision to do what Bryan's doing. To take something and make it amazing with less steps and ingredients, it makes more sense to me. It's more how I feel about cooking."