Connect with us

a&e features

Famed Inn at Little Washington celebrated in PBS doc airing March 27

Patrick O’Connell recalls 40 years in business as world-renowned chef

Published

on

The Inn at Little Washington, gay news
Chef Patrick O’Connell in the kitchen at The Inn at Little Washington. (Photo courtesy The Door)

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).

The main building at The Inn at Little Washington. (Photo by Gordon Beall)

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.”

Pepper-crusted duck breast with a puree of autumn vegetables, pomegranate and persimmon, one of Chef O’Connell’s dishes at The Inn at Little Washington. (Photo courtesy The Door)
Continue Reading
Advertisement

a&e features

Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

Published

on

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

Continue Reading

a&e features

As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

Published

on

As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
Continue Reading

a&e features

Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

Published

on

‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular