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New Momofuku chef Tae Strain given wide creative leeway

Cooking legend David Chang said D.C. patrons could handle more daring dining

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Momofuku, gay news, Washington Blade

Clam Toast at Momofuku CCDC. (Photo by Giselle, courtesy BrandLinkDC)

What if a punk rocker shows up at the Kennedy Center and wasn’t invited? And he wasn’t only not invited, but is conducting an opera in primetime, permanently? It’s happened in the food world: the punk rocker is Chef David Chang, and the operatic opus is his restaurant Momofuku CCDC.

David Chang, the avant garde, lavished celebrity chef with a cookbook, TV show and line of sauces, opened the first D.C. outpost of his famous Momofuku restaurants in what is likely the glitziest section of town, CityCenter. A former Megabus stop and now one of the most expensive acres of real estate downtown, CityCenter now plays home to the playful chef who coined Ugly Delicious: a hashtag to glorify down-home dishes not crafted for Insta stories.

When Momofuku CCDC opened in 2015, alongside its sweet sister, Milk Bar (known for the crack pie calorie bomb), it was an immediate hit. Though he grew up in Vienna, Va.,, David Chang waited more than a decade after starting the Momofuku empire before opening here. Each Momofuku property is slightly different, but they all serve dishes that are flashy and innovative, with varying hints of Asian influence. As a concept, Momofuku also aims to support “local, sustainable and responsible farmers and food purveyors.”

Back in 2015, Chang was anxious about the D.C. spot. In a tweet, he said, “Against my better judgement @momofuku ccdc opens today at 5pm. Good to be back home Washington DC.”

The original menu featured Momofuku classics, as much as they can be called that. It was a selection of the buns that made him obscenely famous (Chinese-style, with pork, scallion and cucumber, awash in hoisin), snacks that nodded to both Korea and the Mid-Atlantic (Old Bay-dusted pork rinds), and the other dish that Momofuku is best known for, ramen.

A couple years later, Chang’s decided to blow the lid off the original concept. He hired a new executive chef and has taken a step back.

This chef is another local, Tae Strain, who’s setting out to develop a menu that combines his extensive experience with his local sensibilities.

“After six years of working in restaurants around the country, I’m excited to come home and bring my experiences together with Momofuku’s point of view,” Strain says. “This region has incredible produce and ingredients that I’m looking forward to cooking with again, from black bass from Virginia to Chesapeake oysters to kohlrabi and sunchokes from local farmers. I’m humbled and thrilled to be given the opportunity to put my stamp on Momofuku CCDC here in my home city, using ingredients that reflect my point of view.”

Chang has given Strain a long leash.

In an interview with the Washingtonian, Chang was quoted as having said, “I was like, ‘Tae, I want you to fuck it up. I want you to find what you can do. D.C. is more sophisticated in its palate, more worldly in its cuisine than the rest of the nation understands, and they deserve a world-class chef.”

While Strain began in the fall, his new menu just debuted. He’s gone profoundly New American, while maintaining many Asian influences.

Those buns and ramen have been wiped away. In its place are small plates like a clam toast (no avocado here)​, with dill mayo and Sichuan sausage; soupy dumplings and enormous shareable plates like the showstopping rotisserie chicken​, ​a buttermilk-brined chicken made with green curry butter and served with chicken-fat rice and dipping sauces.

Worry not that the carbs are gone, though. Momofuku CCDC has introduced bing, a Chinese-inspired flatbread that Chang is said to have coined himself. The fluffy, tearable, pita-like bread is constantly evolving (currently, made with whole-wheat flour), and is meant to be used utensil-like with seasonal dips that are nearly meals unto themselves. Such dips include the umami bomb of roasted Chesapeake oysters, swimming in cream and spinach and baked under breadcrumbs; and dill-flecked labneh topped with screaming-orange trout roe.

So, can a foul-mouthed superstar chef still be a rebel in one of the most lavish and slick slices of the city? While scooping fluffy brown bread through creamy dips may not be the most elegant, and while messy bits of kimchi may fall on your napkin out of the beef lettuce wraps, the luxe digs are not lost on anyone. These dishes indeed are delicious, but let us not be fooled — nothing here would be confused for ugly.

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Dining

Crazy Aunt Helen’s to host ‘Pride-a-palooza’

Barracks Row restaurant celebrating all month long

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Crazy Aunt Helen’s ‘serves American comfort food with a southern slant.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Shane Mayson’s restaurant is as colorful as his language. His multi-hued American eatery Crazy Aunt Helen’s debuted last July on Barracks Row, just a few days after Pride concluded. But as Pride is 365, this restaurant has spent its first year with flair and fanfare, and this June, Mayson, who identifies as gay, isn’t holding back.

“I LOVE PRIDE MONTH,” Mayson wrote (caps are his). “I love everything we have at Crazy Aunt Helen’s for Pride. Check out our events and get blown away,” he says.

This isn’t Mayson’s first Pride – but it is his first as owner of Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a delightfully fabulous neighborhood restaurant in Barracks Row.  

Thus far in June, Mayson has already held comedy shows, book readings, a ladies’ tea dance, play readings, bingo, and a Story District event. Coming up on June 25, to end Pride month with even more color, is “Pride-a-palooza,” featuring a host of drag queens, food, drinks, prizes, and plenty of surprises that MayD.C. Mayor Muriel Bowserson has been waiting an entire year to showcase.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s “serves American comfort food with a southern slant,” explains Mayson. Taking over the space of Irish pub Finn McCool’s, Crazy Aunt Helen’s spreads over two floors, plus a patio and streatery. The interior is wildly bright: a Prince-esque purple host stand and staircase welcome guests, and a highlighter-green wooden banquette runs the length of the dining room. A set of wicker chairs and flower-print cushions recall that southern influence.

Mayson enlisted Pixie Windsor – the very same of eponymous Miss Pixie’s – to design the restaurant (the two have been friends for years). “Pixie has a way with creating fabulous comfortable spaces,” Mayson says. 

Windsor and Mayson partnered to craft the whimsical aesthetic, from the brilliant paint job to a bright-pink neon sign.

Mayson is quick to note that his Aunt Helen “was charming, warm, and funny, with an amazing laugh, and I wanted my restaurant to have that same feeling,” he says. “I wanted our guests to feel like they are getting a big’ol hug each time they walk in the doors.” 

The menu is just as homey and eclectic. Mayson waxes poetic about the fried green tomatoes, the chicken fried steak smothered in chicken sausage gravy, and a Jewish-style braised brisket. Yet many of the dishes are also vegan and vegetarian, like the “fab” cakes made of soy and mushroom and a vegan steak.

As for the drinks, Mayson says that the “signature cocktails are also seasonally driven, and I only use local distilleries like Republic Restoratives, another LGBTQIA business.” There’s also a list of beer, wine, and zero-proof drinks.

Mayson has been in the restaurant business since he moved to D.C. in 1984, working first at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, and most recently as director of business development for the restaurant group of the highly lauded restaurant industry leader, and lesbian, Jamie Leeds.

Mayson is using Pride this year as Crazy Aunt Helen’s coming out, both as a restaurant and a safe space. “I can say that I have had experiences in my life where I didn’t feel welcomed places. The staff and I work very hard to make sure everyone who walks into Crazy Aunt Helen’s feels welcome,” he says.

“I find it’s the small things that build to allow folks to feel safe,” he notes. There’s no required uniform, allowing staff to dress however they feel most comfortable. Mayson also makes an effort to support local LGBTQ artists and performers, giving them space in the second-floor Peacock Room to share their talents.

To that end, Mayson is offering The Rainbow Theatre Project, a theater group that has been dark since pandemic closings, a home until they are back up and running. During June, they performed four staged readings from four LGBTQ playwrights. “I can’t wait to have the Peacock Room buzzing with entertainment every night of the week and to hear all the people laughing and enjoying the food, each other and the show,” Mayson says.

Mayson’s goal at Crazy Aunt Helen’s is twofold: create a space “that’s welcoming and nourishing to both our bellies and our spirits.”

Shane Mayson (Photo courtesy of Mayson)

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Relish Market offers a space for wellness

Lesbian entrepreneur a supporter of mission-driven brands

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Stephanie Freeman and daughter Alexia Yates own Relish Market. (Photo by Kea Dupree)

From urban farmer to wellness provider, Stephanie Freeman has been a caregiver to the earth and to her customers for more than a decade. Freeman, who identifies as lesbian, owns Relish Market with her daughter, Alexia Yates. Located in Brentwood, Md., Relish offers housemade drinks, herb and spice mixes, condiments, wellness products, and a host of proudly D.C.-made products.

Freeman founded Relish Market in 2018 and opened a storefront inside of miXt Food Hall in October 2019 upon the inauguration of the hall. (miXt co-hosted the Arts, Beats, and Eats festival in May, which featured several LGBTQ artists.)

Freeman began in the food industry in earnest in 2013 as an urban farmer and food entrepreneur selling her hot sauce and condiment brand, Pepperly Love, at farmer’s markets and events throughout the area. Her daughter Yates focuses on the catering and custom beverage aspects of Relish. With a background as a chef, she brings experience and creativity to the goods at Relish.

Although Freeman came from the corporate world, she grew up in a home with a big, productive garden. She has cherished memories of canning produce with her grandfather.

Among its offerings, Relish may be best known for its beverages. It serves a rainbow’s worth of smoothies: everything from strawberry-banana to peanut butter, kale, and whey. The shop offers more than 20 add-ons to boost the drinks, including new superfoods like sea moss gel and black seed oil. There’s also a range of juices and proprietary tea mixes like elderberry echinacea chai. All the options are made in house, just like her own spice and herb blends: she’s packed everything from butterfly pea flowers to valerian root to adobo lime spice mix.

When the opportunity came up to open the marketplace within MiXt, Freeman jumped at the occasion. The food hall allowed her to further express her creativity and provided her with a platform to showcase her talents – and put her in front of a bigger, broader audience, but also one that seeks to make close connections.

“I’m proud,” she says,” because there aren’t so many places for healthy choices where customers can ask questions while also supporting local.”

Having opened at the end of 2019, Relish soon had to confront pandemic restrictions. While customers couldn’t stay to eat at MiXt and many vendors were closed, Relish was able to stay open. It was during this challenging period that Freeman leaned in to her wellness background.

The gray of the pandemic cloud therefore offered something of a silver lining. Relish became a community space when so many other vendors and food establishments were shuttered. It was through these in-person interactions that Freeman has found her calling.

Freeman has embraced her role as caregiver and supporter of mission-driven brands. She stocks products from more than 20 local vendors in addition to her own in-house-crafted products. Being in front of so many customers, she’s proud to show that people like her can create wholesome, welcoming spaces.

“People see the shop as more than just selling food, but create a space for wellness,” she says.

Referring to other LGBTQ people in the food space, she says that the community is “often underrepresented and underreported on.” She also notes her ability to “pass” as a straight Black woman unless she specifically speaks about her identity. She therefore ensures to recognize others who need that recognition. When sourcing her products, she always looks to organizations that are supportive. She has also participated in Black Pride events in the past.

“I’m excited to show to other would-be entrepreneurs to know that it’s possible here, as an example. I want to emphasize that I certainly had to overcome obstacles, whether its Black, or female, or otherwise, but it is possible, even with the odds stacked against you.”

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At Michele’s, sophisticated cuisine in an inclusive space

Executive sous chef Rachel Bindel brings her full identity to work

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‘Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too,’ says Michele’s executive sous chef Rachel Bindel. (Photo courtesy Michele’s)

Both traditional and chosen, it’s all about family at Michele’s. Michelin-starred chef and owner Matt Baker named the restaurant after his late mother, but it’s also where Executive Sous Chef Rachel Bindel, who identifies as a lesbian, feels at home. 

“I have never felt comfortable enough to be completely open about myself until I met this team,” she says.

As Executive Sous Chef, Bindel oversees daily operations at Michele’s, located in the mission-focused Eaton Hotel. She also plans menus and runs scheduling, sourcing, and events.

The menu at Michele’s is a reflection of Chef Baker’s upbringing in Houston and New Orleans, resulting in a sophisticated, French-American cuisine. Both Baker and Bindel are trained in classical French techniques, and both also spent time cooking and studying in East Asia. The combination of their background and vision come together at the tables at Michele’s.

Bindel also oversees the chef’s table 10-seat, 14-course, Lorraine’s Counter. Each dish is inspired by specific food memories, designed and cooked by the chefs to tell the story of Michele’s and who they are as chefs. 

Driven and creative, Bindel, who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region, recalls food nostalgia as far back as the wafting aromas of her mother’s baked ziti fresh from the oven. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, steeping herself in French cooking and a specialized focus on Advanced Japanese Techniques.

But it was also while studying at the CIA when she met her wife Marissa. Both were CIA students moonlighting as staff at the on-campus restaurant. A back-of-house romance soon blossomed and they married last month. 

After graduating, the two relocated to Charleston, where Bindel worked at acclaimed restaurant Husk. “While I loved living at the beach, eventually it was time to move back home,” she said. She came to D.C. in June of 2019, landing at Tail Up Goat. 

In September of 2021, she joined 101 Hospitality (the parent company run by Chef Baker that also manages Gravitas and Baker’s Daughter) to run research and development for Michele’s. The restaurant opened last November.

When Bindel graduated, she moved to Charleston in search of the best place to expand her cooking chops. But it was also not the most open space she has encountered in her young career.

In D.C., “a more welcoming city,” she notes, she has the ability to look at both the cooking and the environment for the staff, where everyone can be open about who they are.

“Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too. I don’t have to hide, so I can explore even more who I am as a chef.” 

Her work is on full display for the restaurant’s current seasonal menu. A highlight: the Parisian gnocchi, a flour-based dough pocket in the French style, in place of the traditional potato. The pasta spheres are bathed in a rich Parmesan cream, snuggled by foraged mushrooms and brilliantly green spring peas and asparagus. Other veggie-forward items include a duo of tarte flambee: potato and black truffle, and squash blossom and ricotta. The restaurant also serves fresh French bread, cheese and charcuterie plates, and lofty seafood towers.

“At Michele’s,” she says, “we have created not only a safe space for our diners but also all of our staff. We have adopted a more inclusive standard of service. We no longer serve all females first, and we have eliminated the need for gender pronouns when addressing tables. Being on the management side, I can create space for everyone to be comfortable.”

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