Mint-a-Medal

Phyllis Richman / January 2009

How best to celebrate 30 years of Country Inn fabulosity? Create your own award and hang it on your famous friends.

The way The Inn at Little Washington's Patrick O'Connell tells his story, he and his partner Reinhardt Lynch were hippies and self-taught cooks who'd moved to the country when they were in their 20s. They did some catering to support themselves, then in 1978 took a big leap. They opened a restaurant in a former gas station in Washington, Virginia. This "little" Washington, an hour-plus from the big Washington where hardly anybody had heard of it, was (and still is) an unlikely spot for an ambitious restaurant. While not quite as rustic as O'Connell depicts it (the gas station had become a gift shop, and a renowned furniture-maker had a shop down the street), Washington, Virginia, was nevertheless a tiny town whose sole guest accommodations were in a motel with a decorative theme of cinderblock.

While it's true that O'Connell's early culinary training as a teenager had been limited to flipping burgers, he and Lynch had worked under Alsatian chef François Haeringer at the region's beloved L'Auberge Chez François before they settled out in the sticks. And probably most important in the long run, O'Connell had been a drama major at Catholic University.

The partners hired an English stage designer, who refurbished the former gift shop as a Victorian fantasy-on-a-shoestring. The dining room was modeled after an English country house but more ruffled and more pink, with poufs and fringes and no corner left undecorated. Undeniably theatrical.

The food hovered between homey and haute, with most of the ingredients local. By the '80s The Inn at Little Washington was one of a handful of restaurants in America that was transforming French classics into a distinctly American cuisine. A custardy timbale on a spinach base was chock full of Maryland crab. Rack of lamb was coated with pecans. The food was never highly engineered nor tortured into elaborate shapes. It was straightforward yet original. From the first, it was very good, and every year it grew better.

As the inn expanded to include 18 guest rooms and suites plus three freestanding houses for guests and a gift shop, it has become more formal, more renowned, and vastly more expensive. Its wine cellar has grown to legendary proportions. Its staff comes from around the world. The prix-fixe dinners range from $148 to $168, depending on the day, and generally must be reserved a month ahead. Guest rooms are reserved as long as a year ahead and begin at $410, climbing steeply to over $1,000 on weekends in high season.

From the beginning, the inn distinguished itself most remarkably with its service. The partners rehearsed a staff--all locals at first--to act the part of the world's best servers.

While American cuisine has evolved, so has the inn's. Already devoted to what's local and fresh, O'Connell has lightened and brightened his dishes, drawn from Asian and Middle Eastern flavors as well as European, and added theater to the presentations. Dinner begins with passed hors d'oeuvres that are cunning miniatures of American classics such as ham biscuits. Macaroni and cheese is elaborated with country ham and black truffles, sweetbreads with country ham and huckleberries. The inn's old favorite lobster with grapefruit and citrus butter remains, while the long-adored caramel sundae has morphed into a sumptuous ice cream sandwich poised to become a legend. So far, the Seven Deadly Sins, a dessert combination garnished as if by Jackson Pollock, is the most famous finale.

The perennial rumor, that O'Connell and Lynch were splitting up, eventually did prove real, and it remains the one part of the inn fantasy that failed to come true. The separation has obviously been tough. "We've just completed the first year," O'Connell says, out of the blue. Nobody needs to ask, "Of what?"

When a chef has won all the awards, filled every table, settled firmly at the top rung year after year and into the decades, he usually has developed an appetite for expansion. Not so, O'Connell, whose Inn at Little Washington has raised inaccessibility to an art and reached its 30th anniversary with no investment in spin-off restaurants--yet. Like any driven, passionate, and creative businessman, O'Connell plows profits back into his business, but not by building a far-flung empire. He doesn't expand, he deepens.

In the most recent decade it has accumulated three magnificently furnished guest houses in town and out in the countryside. Across the street is its shop, where visitors can buy O'Connell's two hugely successful cookbooks and a bag of the inn's granola. The kitchen expanded and incorporated a chef's table, treating staff and guests alike to a view of the kitchen garden and the soothing sounds of Gregorian chants. A plush new lounge provides an intimate hangout for pre- and post-dinner.

Most important for the inn--and for American restaurants in general--has been O'Connell's expanding his role from running one country inn to running the American wing of a worldwide association of exceptional country inns.

After a decade developing the inn, O'Connell was able to slow down enough to realize what he was missing. He needed a group to belong to, a context. He joined Relais & Châteaux, the worldwide association of luxury restaurants and inns, many of them in the countryside. Despite distance and language barriers, O'Connell right away felt at home. R&C also boosted the morale of the inn's staff--not just because of the prestige of the organization but by showing them that there were other restaurants as demanding and meticulous as theirs.

O'Connell now had a bigger canvas. Not only did he rise to president of the North American Relais Gourmand--the chefs' arena within the organization--he became a board member of the international Relais & Chateaux. He organized exchanges of chefs between France and the United States: First the French came here; then, unprecedentedly, American chefs cooked in top French kitchens. When finally last year they all came together in Washington for their first ever international meeting, what did O'Connell serve them? Thanksgiving dinner, or at least his unfettered vision of the same.

Has his audacity helped move American chefs onto French center stage?

"I knew a sea change was coming," he said, when Alain Ducasse visited the inn and asked if O'Connell had been to Gérard Boyer's Les Crayères in Reims. O'Connell assumed Ducasse was implying that he could learn a lot from Boyer. But no, to his astonishment, recounted O'Connell, "Ducasse said, ‘Boyer's people need to see how it's supposed to be done.'"

For the inn's 30th anniversary gala, a black-tie dinner for 500 this past April at the Mellon Auditorium, O'Connell decided to celebrate the success of American "culinary pioneers"--not those who invented beaten biscuits or perfected cooking in an iron pot stored by day in a covered wagon, but those who reinvented the polyglot cooking that was American and won it a primary place among the world's cuisines. He had been dismayed--and then inspired--by a young chef from The Culinary Institute of America who didn't know who the late Craig Claiborne, seminal New York Times restaurant critic and the first man to run a major American newspaper food section, was.

Innkeeper O'Connell named his newest guest building after Claiborne to assure that he would be remembered forthwith. There were many more he hoped would be remembered, so he started a list, honing it to 30 food people who had inspired him in his 30 years of innkeeping and played a role in America's culinary ascendancy (generously including his first hometown restaurant critic: me).

Not many restaurants in this country last for 30 years, and certainly not at the top, especially in this era of quick and casual dining. Yet O'Connell professes to have more confidence than ever in the inn's future.

How does he appeal to the new young diners with his seriously meticulous and costly dining? "We educate them."

Yes, they have short attention spans, and yes, they hate rules. But once you put them at ease, O'Connell insists, they respond to the inn's romanticism. "They don't need noise all the time."

As for O'Connell himself, he says his mood these days is more relaxed. Surely he means in a relative sense. Only last year he was reported to have taken out a $17.5 million loan to buy out his ex-partner. He says he is less anxious about visibility, publicity, promotion, and all those modern business concerns. But with the 30th anniversary celebration for 500 guests over, uncharacteristically he will be without a big project. Now he confesses to flirting with expansion, even going so far as to consider a location in the big Washington last year. He's waiting for the project to emerge from some unconscious part of himself. "I can't force something," he says. "It will reveal itself." All he knows is that he'll do something "mainstream."

He will also write a third book, this one a memoir. Everybody wants to pass on a body of knowledge and thus live on, as he put it. What he'd like to share with posterity is the behind-the-scenes story of the inn, which is to say "the uncensored, true version of what took place."

With recipes?