When David Deshaies was the executive chef at Citronelle, he'd often tag along with his boss and mentor, the late Michel Richard, when the esteemed chef cooked special dinners around the country. Over crummy hamburgers and beers after work at late-night diners, the two chefs would talk about a lot, including potential restaurant ideas.
"'If one day you want to make money . . . make it a diner,'" Deshaies recalled Richard saying.
The idea: Make the food people are familiar with, but do it well and with a modern twist. Deshaies, the executive chef, general manager and partner at Central Michel Richard, may not have thought much of the suggestion at the time. Now, however, he's preparing to follow Richard's advice. The chef is opening Unconventional Diner in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the spring.
Diners have been experiencing something of a renaissance in D.C., with the openings of Slim's Diner and Fare Well, plus the upcoming debut of Community in Bethesda. A Frenchman like Richard, Deshaies said a diner is a good fit for the Shaw neighborhood, as well as the 9,000-square-foot space he's taking over.
Unconventional will be split into two parts: a 50-seat daytime cafe and pastry shop, which will offer a mix of grab-and-go and made-to-order items, and a 100-seat dinner-only, full-service dining room.
“I want to do a diner, but I also want the freedom to do whatever I want,” he said. So Peking duck with steamed buns? He'd like to offer it, along with his interpretations of such classics as fried chicken, meatloaf, burgers and spaghetti and meatballs. There will be daily blue-plate specials, too — jambalaya is one possibility. “It gives me the opportunity to be unconventional but be a diner,” he said of his approach.
That being said, his overall goal is to maintain a fairly tight, affordable menu that will turn Unconventional into a neighborhood spot where people can return several times a week.
Deshaies spent nearly a decade as executive chef at Richard's now-closed Citronelle, beginning in 2003. Then he had a two-year stint as Richard's corporate chef, opening restaurants outside of D.C. He returned to Washington permanently in 2014 to helm Central, where he also wanted to learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant, everything from hiring to payroll and budgets. When he opens Unconventional and moves into the kitchen there full-time, Deshaies will remain a partner and consultant at Central. His current chef de cuisine, Tony Roussel, is slated to become Central's executive chef.
Deshaies said he had lunch with Richard just a week before the chef died in August at age 68. He asked whether Richard would lend his advice and pastry skills at Unconventional. Richard said yes.
“It was devastating for me,” Deshaies said of Richard's passing. “I would listen to him.”
With the diner, it appears he has.