Patrick O’Connell never had a concern being the only gay in the village. He’s the only Michelin-starred chef in the village, too.
Tucked in the little town of Washington, Va., is the Inn at Little Washington, where founder, proprietor and chef O’Connell says, “everything we do is extraordinary.”
Thanks to PBS, O’Connell can debut a movie star line on his impressive resume. “The Inn at Little Washington: A Delicious Documentary” airs nationally March 27 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS, pbs.org, and the PBS Video App. Produced and directed by Show of Force, in association with VPM, Virginia’s home for public media, as well as with chef Spike Mendelson, the film takes viewers inside the enchanting escape of one of America’s premier dining experiences — one that “every chef and diner dreams to be part of,” according to Washington, D.C.’s own celebrity chef, Jose Andres. The documentary showcases all the ingredients to put together the tasting menu served at the famed establishment ($248 per person, $180 for wine pairings).
O’Connell believes that the Inn’s kitchen is an “incredibly delectable theater and it only feels fortuitous that it … will be played out cinematically in homes across America.”
The documentary details O’Connell’s story, allowing diners to throw open the culinary curtain to learn of the Inn’s history, success and myriad challenges. Whether the painful ricochets of homophobia from local residents, or the anxiety of waiting for the phone call from the Michelin guide to see if the Inn might finally earn its exclusive, elusive third star (its highest designation), O’Connell has experienced it all.
Of course, like just about everything, the Inn is currently closed for COVID-19. It closed March 20 and staff are taking reservations again for early May. Under normal conditions, about 170 people are on staff. About 150 can be seated in the dining room on Saturday nights, which, under normal circumstances is full. There are 23 guest rooms which are also typically full every weekend. Inn staff decline to state its annual operating budget.
Before the accolades poured in like so many glasses of Champagne, O’Connell was just a teenager in Washington, D.C. who fell in love with the restaurant world. A theater major at a local university, he worked in restaurants part-time. One summer trip took him to Europe where he experienced the allure of Paris, where chefs were treated like rock stars. He wanted to become one.
Beyond Julia Child cookbooks, O’Connell realized that his life was a little different than everyone else’s. His theater major had become appropriate for his life.
“It’s very difficult for a young person today to imagine what life was like as gay man almost 50 years ago. I had to become a skilled actor and live on guard at all times and frankly worry not just about acceptance, but also safety,” he says.
Coming of age in the mid-’70s, O’Connell decamped from the bustling scene of Washington, D.C. for the bucolic Blue Ridge Mountains town of Washington, Va., 70 miles away.
“Everything shifts when you live close to nature. Instead of worrying about where to go out, you just need to stay dry and warm,” he says.
O’Connell found home in an unheated country house deep in the woods with his then-partner, where they founded a small catering company, creating dishes in their wood cabin.
“Cooking was therapeutic; I could be connected like nothing else,” he says. But his dream was to become that Parisian chef rock star.
In 1978, O’Connell took a leap that changed his life, the course of Washington history (the Virginia one), and the understanding of what makes haute American cuisine.
An abandoned gas station in “downtown” Washington, Va., called his name. O’Connell had found a home for his vision.
Replacing clapboard with fine china and gas pumps with tea kettles, he opened his restaurant and inn.
Discussing O’Connell’s background, the film moves into soft-edged black-and-white frames, painting a pretty picture of the restaurant’s early days. The viewer soon learns, however, that the restaurant was not without its challenges beyond what to serve each night.
“By opening a restaurant in the center of a village, we became a curiosity,” O’Connell says.
Within a few months, D.C.’s media had discovered and celebrated his talents.
“We made no attempt to disguise who we were, but it became a novelty that the Inn was run by two gay men. It was as if the Siegfried and Roy show appeared,” he says.
After just a couple years, this garage-cum-restaurant became the town. One local paper derided it as “the inn that ate little Washington.”
Like any movement, this one came up against stiff resistance and admirably, the directors do not shy away from the Inn’s difficult moments. The producers sat down with local residents who, 40 years ago admitted that, “we heard there was a new (restaurant) with a new menu but also that there were gay people and if you ate at the Inn you might get AIDS.”
In Washington and in kitchens across the U.S., acceptance has come slowly.
“I’m happy to have contributed to changing culture of a professional kitchen and allowing it to be accepting,” O’Connell says.
Professional drama follows personal drama, as the film unfolds to follow two major moments in the history of the Inn: its momentous 40th anniversary party in 2018 and its searing wait for a three-star Michelin designation after being “stuck” at two stars — still impressive — for two years (Michelin first awarded stars in the region for 2017). The Inn is the only establishment in the D.C. area to have a three-star 2020 ranking (minibar in Penn Quarter and Pineapple & Pearls in Eastern Market each have two-star Michelin rankings).
Director Mira Chang says, “Patrick has spent his life in pursuit of the impossible — perfection,” she says, but realized that the film could not simply present as a biopic.
Chang elevates the film’s message as embodying the American dream.
“Few people today, even the staff, don’t know O’Connell’s story. He as gay man came into a conservative rural town, facing obstacles yet never giving up. It’s a universal theme, larger than just food space,” she says.
Snug in his office — one of two dozen buildings the Inn now owns across Washington — O’Connell is most comfortable in his chef’s shirt and dalmatian-print pants. (Inn grounds serve as a respite for rescued Dalmatians as well).
The Inn at Little Washington, for O’Connell, is “a healing sanctuary where people can escape from harsh realities that we live in.”
O’Connell has become that chef rock star. But O’Connell also has created a uniquely American establishment, reflecting the tastes of his own country and the bounty of its land. The Inn at Little Washington expresses fine dining from an American perspective.
“It’s essential that a restaurant reflect a sense of place,” he says.
The drama for O’Connell and his team does not end eagerly awaiting calls from Michelin. In 2020 and beyond, he is set to open a bakery, a general store and an orangerie in which to throw decadent dinner parties.
Through the drama and the levity, the film wades unintentionally into today’s current health crisis, a prescient note of caution and preparedness.
Introducing what life is like in the back of the house, O’Connell says, “In the kitchen we say hello with elbows. It’s very practical, so you don’t have to wash your hands every time you greet someone.”