Fourth annual Chefs for Equality
Human Rights Campaign
Tuesday, Oct. 20
‘ReFRAin from Discrimination’
The Inn at Little Washington
309 Middle St.
The Inn at Little Washington is a bit like the Meryl Streep of its domain: not wholly impervious to the occasional ranking slippage or so-so review, yet possessing so many across-the-board top awards and five-star raves, its reputation is beyond impeccable.
Top rankings from the 2015 Forbes Travel Guide, the American Automobile Association, Travel+Leisure and Le Chef Magazine, rave reviews from the Washington Post and D.C. Modern Luxury and a grand award from Wine Spectator (for the 21st consecutive year) are just the recent accolades. The coffee table book “The Inn at Little Washington: a Magnificent Obsession” made the New York Times bestseller list for “fashion, manners and customs” in May and offers sumptuous photos of the Inn’s lavish and gilded interiors.
Owned by chef/proprietor Patrick O’Connell, unofficially dubbed the “pope of American cuisine,” the Inn is in Washington, Va., located 67 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has 24 guest rooms, an 80-seat restaurant that has earned many top reviews from the most prestigious publications and a 13,000-bottle wine cellar. The Inn is open year round every night except Tuesday.
This year O’Connell is again participating in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Chefs for Equality event on Tuesday, Oct. 20. But this year, for the first time, he’s offering an auction item in which attendees can win an all-inclusive wedding package including dinner for 14 at the Inn with O’Connell himself officiating.
Over tea one sunny and quite warm afternoon in early September, O’Connell spent an hour reflecting on his career, the price of being out and how he has maintained the Inn’s reputation over the decades. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You became ordained just to offer this wedding package?
PATRICK O’CONNELL: I am not officially ordained at this time but my idea was that we could create a singular one-of-a-kind opportunity and offer it for the benefit of HRC that would be very hard to put a dollar value on. We thought it would be kind of fun and novel at the same time. We had begun to do some same-gender weddings — I always say same-gender rather than same-s-e-x weddings because I think for the public at large, that’s a far more appropriate term. I think if we had used that language rather than using s-e-x, we would have come along much further, much faster.
O’CONNELL: It’s a loaded word. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of sex? The act, right? I think it was referred to as such by our detractors knowing that it would have charged, negative significance. But gender is gender. It’s uncharged. So I guess we had the first same-gender wedding in Rappahannock County at the Inn and we managed to discover that there was a judge who was not only open to do it, but was also a tribal member and it was delightful in every way. That was about two years ago. Then we had a few others. … I realized it was not a complex matter to be an officiant — I never intended to enter the ministry, although I do a lot of ministering just in my role as an employer. But in general I shy away from labels because I think they are limiting and work against people and can be very damaging. They always reduce an idea or a concept into one word and that’s kind of silly.
BLADE: But don’t we need them on some practical level?
O’CONNELL: Well, no question. It helps. But I think we’re all more than one word and capable of being many things. … I rather like the term healer, which encompasses nourishing and nurturing people. Looking after their well being. Ministering to them, et cetera.
BLADE: Did being out (O’Connell founded the Inn with his former partner whom he eventually bought out) ever hurt you?
O’CONNELL: Oh, it almost had me murdered on numerous occasions. Yes, the hostility was venomous. There was a small contingent of locals who were feeling very much that something extremely foreign was happening in their midst when we started. They were unable to understand what we were about and then the fact that the business took off immediately and became successful started bringing in what were to them outsiders. There are people who felt they belonged here because they were born here and then there are outsiders who are an unproven entity. And of course you have to think the worst because they’re untested. When you have a track record, when you’ve been some place for three generations, then you’re predictable.
BLADE: Isn’t it funny, though, when one of their own comes out?
O’CONNELL: Isn’t that the truth? Or you see how they try to integrate it or reconcile it. Or overlook it.
BLADE: How did the Chefs for Equality package come about?
O’CONNELL: We’ve always tried to be supportive (of HRC) and we wanted people of all genders to know that it was possible to have a marriage celebration here and that it is possible to be married here so we thought it would be wonderful to create a fantasy wedding and take care of all the details leaving the couple no worries of a financial sort or whether it would come off. A lot of the stress of a wedding is budget. How much up front? How much will this or that cost? … This takes all that away so all you have to do is come here and get married.
BLADE: How many gay weddings have you had here?
O’CONNELL: I think probably four or five. Some quite small. The biggest was probably 50 seated guests. Here it usually involves dinner and this one will as well. Although this is not limited by gender. Opposite-gender couples can bid on this item as well. We’re wide open.
BLADE: Will you continue to officiate at weddings here or is this a one-off?
O’CONNELL: Initially the idea was that I would make it available only once. We have a minister on staff who has done about 170 weddings here over 15 years. … He hasn’t performed same-gender yet but he’s open to that. … I’ve witnessed many of his ceremonies and it’s always charming when you have someone who’s rooted in the place where you are married and is comfortable there, not just somebody who walks in and has never been here before. I think it’s a nice touch to have the chef and owner of the property offer to do this and it would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of situation. So therefore it certainly potentially adds value to the auction item.
BLADE: Has the Inn always had an LGBT clientele?
O’CONNELL: Always, yes yes yes. And probably more and more each year.
BLADE: Are gays harder to please?
O’CONNELL: Certainly not with weddings. Overall I think they’re among our most appreciative audience because they’re knowledgeable and focused on details and very responsive to the ambience. What’s a little strange for them sometimes is to be outside an urban environment altogether and so we take care to be sure that they’re completely comfortable here. We’re part of a European-based association called Relais & Chateaux and we have member properties in 52 nations so through that we see a lot of European guests. It’s a very nice thing to hear different languages being spoken in the dining room on a given night and to have this sense that you’ve escaped Washington (D.C.) in a way. We like to think of ourselves as a little foreign embassy out here. It’s out in nowhere land and sometimes you can lose a little of your baggage out here. … You feel much further from Washington than you actually are. … It has a good healing energy and I think people feel restored when they come here.
BLADE: Nobody can go 100 miles per hour all the time. How do you maintain such a high level over many years and not get burned out?
O’CONNELL: It’s complicated but also in a way very simple. Each day you have to find something that you can do better than you did the day before so you have some tangible sense of improvement and evolution and it becomes ingrained in your culture. The Inn has never stopped. It has continued to evolve since it was a garage. Almost every day we’ve succeeded in making some improvement. If we were to look back at a film of what we were like 10, 15, 20,25, 30 years ago, it would laughable for most people compared to where we are today… It’s performance art and you have to fine-tune it all the time and you have to be incredibly self critical. That’s what’s hard for people. No one likes to be brutally self critical, so we joke about it. We say things like, “We look like we almost know what we’re doing. One day we’ll have this down.” Basically we’re just real people but ordinary people trying collectively to do something extraordinary. As long as everyone subscribes to that theory, then that’s what’s called for and the only thing that’s going to work.
BLADE: How do you convey your vision to the staff?
O’CONNELL: You have to find ways to continue to energize your team, to continue to challenge them and give them something to dream about so you’re inspiring them all the time to not only do their best but, like a trainer might in a gym, if he can succeed in getting his client more than they can do on their own, then he’s providing value. It’s just like with any sport — swimming for instance, you want to shorten your time on a sprint or something like that. … I love hearing them when they come back and they’ve had these breakthroughs. Some of them are quite young but they realize that the progress they’re making here translates into anything else they do in life. I love it when a former staff person will come back and maybe they’re a successful lawyer in Washington or New York and they come back and say the reason my career took off the way it did its what I learned here, how I learned to read people, to intuit people, to think on my feet and be able to do five things at one time. My feeling is there should be a point in every young person’s life when they benefit from working in a restaurant. Not only do you get an appreciation for how hard it is — it is not easy work, it’s extremely taxing mentally and physically — but to be able to subtly control an audience while creating the illusion that the audience is controlling you, is fascinating.
BLADE: How many are on staff?
BLADE: How much of the cooking do you actually do?
O’CONNELL: I’m in the kitchen every night and generally I’m in a position where I can watch from one vantage point what everyone is doing, like an orchestra conductor. They’re facing me and I’m facing them and there are no hiding places. You develop a sixth sense and you can feel when everything is on and when it’s going to be a good night.
BLADE: And when things go wrong?
O’CONNELL: With 140 people, there’s some sort of a personal crisis every day so you have to be sure they’re OK and see how it’s affecting the entire team. … You have to get all that out of the way or it’s going to have a negative impact. … Humor is my greatest tool and weapon. In the kitchen we can be as naughty and outrageous as we want to be. … It’s about not taking ourselves overly seriously. We can have a little fun but not lose focus.
BLADE: If you’re Robert De Niro, you can go back and watch “Raging Bull” if you want, or whatever. Food, though, is ephemeral. What kind of legacy can you build in an ephemeral medium?
O’CONNELL: I think sometimes the most beautiful things are the ephemeral ones. Those that can’t really be put into words or saved with a snapshot. I stopped taking pictures ages ago simply because they were never as good as reality. And there was never time to look at them. Rarely did I find one that did justice to the moment. Very often you’ll be reminded of an important occasion. You’ll hear that an experience was very important to a guest and maybe they’ll be on their deathbed reminiscing and they’ll have had an occasion here that was unforgettable. That’s very sweet, really, really nice. What more do you need? It’s why live theater has greater value than film. You can watch a concert on television but why is it that people when they sit there in an auditorium and listen to an entertainer sing, they feel ripped off when they’re lip syncing? Because it’s just not the same, it’s not in the moment. That’s what we offer and I really do believe that you reach people either consciously or unconsciously. Even if they don’t get all the details, they can feel them.
BLADE: Do the accolades bring with them a burden as well? The public comes with much higher expectations when they hear of all the accolades and ratings.
O’CONNELL: The staff always joked that I made the lies true. Early on I got a call from Craig Claiborne, he was the New York Times food writer, and he said, “Did you hear the news, the Zagat survey came out and you’re number one in America.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “the number one resort.” This was shortly after we converted the garage. We never thought of ourselves as a resort. We had no amenities whatsoever. My first thought was that it must have been an error. Then I thought, “God, what am I gonna do?” So the next day I went out and bought two bicycles and that’s where that little slogan came from. You make the lies true. The next year they changed the category for inns and we were number one for inns so it was a little more appropriate. But yes, each of them heightens expectations and it’s hard to get that across to the staff. One food writer once said she would hate it if she were running a place and it was called the best in the world because then the simplest flaw that would not even be noticed or observed in a lesser restaurant would stand out in neon and that’s all anybody would remember. So in that regard, the clientele is less forgiving than they would be almost anywhere else and the expectations are greater, but in the end it’s always about how we make them feel. If we focus on that, on knowing each person is different and has to be reached, then it’s not overwhelming.
BLADE: Has it benefitted you in the long run being rather isolated out here?
O’CONNELL: I think you see from studying other restaurants you do see chefs and proprietors buckle under the pressure of being held up on this incredible pedestal. Because of course the media typically plays the game of putting them up there and then shooting them off. So we’ve been fortunate in that we’re like an old tree that grew year by year by year. We didn’t just open the doors and skyrocket because what happens very often in those situations is they get locked in and they’re so busy that all they can do is maintain. Being here in the country, we usually have a quiet few weeks in the winter, weekends are the same, but we have some very quiet weeknights that can be these wonderful opportunities to regroup and plan and strategize and reinvent ourselves. Also living out here has created a balance. We don’t go discoing after work like we might if we were in the city. You take a walk, you walk the dog if you have one, you look at the moon. You take a few deep breaths. You might read a little. You learn to hate television. Then you have a pretty good night’s sleep listening to the crickets. I think it helps create longevity and it’s a fabulous antidote to the incredible intensity that goes on here. On a Saturday night when you might have two critics and a head of state and the pressure is just sort of throbbing, you can step out and it feels like it was just an illusion. I used to step out sometimes, my head would be spinning, and I’d look across at the neighbors and they’re porch sitting and you think, “Who has the better life?” But then you remind yourself not to get unbalanced by the intensity. It comes in a wave, then it dissipates.
BLADE: Do you get millennials here?
O’CONNELL: Yes. They come in the kitchen and say hi. And I say, “First time?” They say, “Yes, how’d you know?” “Because you’re so young!” They say their parents have been coming for a long time and that’s very sweet to hear. Not long ago a man came to propose and said he’d been coming here since he was 5. That was really sweet.
BLADE: Society overall has gotten so informal. People go everywhere looking like slobs. Do you see it here?
O’CONNELL: It is changing very perceptively. We used to have a sort of image of our client in our minds because that was the majority. A very well-coiffed woman in a Chanel suit who was extremely well traveled and mentored and schooled in social etiquette by somebody and it’s very different now. Then we had the computer generation and we had people showing up wearing tennis shoes without laces and you thought, “Well maybe they’ve had a foot operation,” but no. It was the idea of, “I’m a success in the computer world, in the IT world, why would I make any effort.” So that was all fine. We’ve always joked when asked if we had a dress code, we say, “Yes — no wet bikinis.” Sometimes you see Armani out in the finest restaurants in Europe and he wears just a black T-shirt. And he’s probably the richest man ever to walk in the place. The Italian and French idea is that you shouldn’t have anything imposed on you. It’s your personality and who you are and that’s acceptable. If you’re here, then you’re supposed to be here. You might be eccentric, you might be odd as hell, you might look like a banshee, but if you’re here then you’re somebody. … But it is a shame that so much of the culture is being lost as it’s being relaxed and supplanted by something else.
BLADE: What’s the last great meal you had in D.C.?
O’CONNELL: It isn’t quite that simple. It’s about what fit my mood perfectly at that moment and who I might have been with. It’s hard when you’re in the biz to turn off your critical faculty. It’s nice to take a poor friend or a 9-year-old child or someone for whom anything is going to be, “Wow, this is really fun,” because then you see it through their eyes. I dine out alone a lot and am quite comfortable doing that.
BLADE: Are you often recognized?
O’CONNELL: Often and that can be delightful except that you often end up eating more than you wanted to eat because you’re sent a little taste of this and that as a courtesy so it becomes a diplomatic occasion and something that has another element to it. It’s fine if you’re in the mood for it like if it’s your birthday or something it’s OK, but if you just stopped in because you had low blood sugar and you couldn’t make it any further, then you have to be on and it’s your night off, so it can be tricky. But I’m very appreciative of the effort anyone makes who’s in this business because I know how hard it is.
BLADE: There’s a lot of back and forth about following one’s passions versus pursuing more practical career paths. As someone who’s done the former, what are your thoughts?
O’CONNELL: Culturally we have a very simple problem. America has led the way in attempting to convince people that there is only one goal and only one game and that is money. The minute you can free yourself of that and realize that that can greatly limit you and that there are many other sources of measuring achievement and success, then you’re open to pursue more of something from within and a direction that’s more true to yourself. My feeling has always been if you do what you love and find out what you love and work toward mastery, everything else will fall into place. You’re not going to have to worry about money, but mastery is something that requires a great deal of sacrifice and commitment and most people simply aren’t willing to make the sacrifice and the degree of commitment required. … There are ways to turn your liabilities into assets.
BLADE: Such as?
O’CONNELL: You look at a gay person who grows up and the first thing they have to do in my generation is disguise so they don’t get beaten or killed. Or at least hated and scorned and whatever. It was automatic. So that terrible adaptation is also a tremendous strength. You want me to play this? OK, I can play this. You master acting right off the bat. You had lemons and you made lemonade and you did what you could but you ultimately benefitted from it.