More than a dozen of Washington’s top chefs gathered on the dramatic staircase of the French ambassador’s residence on Thursday night, their chef whites traded for stylish suits, clutching fresh-off-the-presses copies of the red-jacketed Michelin guide in which each of them had earned a star or two. Though the party, hosted by Ambassador Gérard Araud, was ostensibly a celebration of all of them, there was a definite sense in the room — even among the honorees — that this was Patrick O’Connell’s party and they were all just there to enjoy it.
O’Connell, the proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington, had just earned a rare third star in the famed French gastronomic guidebook, a first since Michelin debuted its Washington edition three years ago and a distinction that launched O’Connell, who has made no secret over the years of his star-lust, into an ultra-prestigious club.
He was beaming, of course, amid well-heeled well-wishers, including International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde and what seemed like half of the city’s culinary world. And though everyone wanted to make the night all about him, he was quick to turn the credit to the team that works with him at the Inn, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and to his loyal clientele. “It’s an extended family that now goes back generations,” he said. “This is theirs.”
Our conversation with O’Connell was interrupted several times by champagne-flute-toting partygoers who just had to stop by, shake his hand, and tell him about some memorable meal or another they’d had at the Inn. Anniversaries and birthdays were recounted in rapturous detail. Among the fans queuing up? Oh, look, it’s Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who hesitated before telling us about his favorite night enjoying O’Connell’s hospitality. Yes, he got engaged there, he said, “but everyone gets engaged there!”
His best story was hardly cliche: After his last day as governor in 2006, after handing over the keys to the governor’s mansion to his successor (that was now-Sen. Tim Kaine), per Virginia tradition, an outgoing governor gets one last trip anywhere in the commonwealth, provided by the state police. With the option of heading anywhere, Warner had the uniformed guys drop him off — you guessed it — at the Inn, where he and his wife joined six other couples for dinner.
“We stayed up way too late talking,” Warner remembered.
“And I made you an American flag cake,” O’Connell responded, smiling at the memory.
Another perk of a three-star designation? O’Connell has finally caught up to several of his “godlike inspirations” who are fellow members of the international Relais & Châteaux organization, he says. “I love that it’s come full circle, that these are the people who created a direction for me, and now I’ve been blessed to be in their same galaxy,” he said.
Many of the younger chefs in the room were perfectly okay with conceding the spotlight. “We couldn’t be happier for him,” said Aaron Silverman, whose restaurant Pineapple and Pearls retained its two stars. Silverman said that the elder statesman, whom he recalled first seeing in a magazine when he was a mere 10-year-old, offered chefs like him the same kind of inspiration that O’Connell had found in his own three-starred mentors. “The Inn guys — they’re our role models, and we just want to be like them when we grow up.”