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.
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Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Cuisine and culture come together at The Square
D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors
Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.
After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”
Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.
Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.
“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.
The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination.
The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:
• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).
• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.
• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.
• Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.
• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.
• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.
• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.
“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.
Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.
The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.
For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.
Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book
‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer
“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”
Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.
This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.
“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.
The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.”
“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.
“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”
Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)
As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.
Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.
It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”
“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.
Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.
Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.
Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”
Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.
Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.
Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”
Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.
After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.
“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”
One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”
Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.
“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.
“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”
Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”
Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”
Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.
His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”
Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”
But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”
Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”
In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”
Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”
Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.
Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”
Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”
“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”
In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.
But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.
During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.
Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.”
“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”
The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.
“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.
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