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Bob Kinkead

Phyllis Richman - March 2001

Food Arts presents to March 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Bob Kinkead, chef/owner of Kinkead's in Washington, D.C., and the soon-to-open Colvin Run Tavern, for refining and modernizing the American seafood restaurant. Kinkead's, four blocks from the White House, is a prime site for showing foreign visitors the glory of American ingredients and the talent of American chefs. For locals, its bustling dining rooms are a beloved home base.

"I see it an not casual, but as an informal restaurant that people use very frequently rather than only for special occasions," says Kinkead. "It's an adult refuge."

It's also the winner of such awards as DiRoNA, Mobil four-star. and Fine Dining Hall of Fame. Kinkead himself was named James Beard Best Chef: Middle Atlantic in 1995. Many consider Kinkead the successor to Jean-Louis Palladin, who moved to Las Vegas, as Washington's top chef.

Like Palladin, he works to develop a spirit of community in the restaurant world. Last year, after long dreaming about the idea with other chefs, he brought to life CIRA—The Council of Independent Restaurants of America. "I always felt there was a big need for independents to have a voice in the foodservice industry," he says. The organization has nearly 300 members and held its second conference in Napa, California, in January.

Kinkead is boldly outspoken and demanding; some call him a curmudgeon. Yet he is also the most generous of chefs. He opened his kitchen and bank account to prepare sous chef Tracy O'Grady for the Bocuse d'Or. He boasts the highest payroll in the city on a per-person basis and plans to eventually share ownership of both his restaurants with his key employees. No wonder many have been with him since the beginning of Kinkead's. But there are reasons beyond money. Kinkead is a natural teacher, though he looks like an air-traffic controller, wearing headphones to communicate across the long kitchen. "It doesn't matter that I cook well," he explains. "It matters that I can get 105 employees to execute my visions of what a good restaurant should be."

He started as a dishwasher on Cape Cod at age 15, and after college moved up to Joseph's in Boston, Chillingsworth on Cape Cod, and then Cambridge's Harvest. He describes his experience at that pioneering new American restaurant as "Food Lab 101." From there, he opened 21 Federal on Nantucket and in 1987 brought it to Washington. It started with a splash, but died six years later, due to "bad landlord, bad economy, bad partner," says Kinkead. When, nine months later, he opened Kinkead's, he had learned his lesson. "I got a good lease." He also corrected other problems: noise, cavernous room, and price. "The hardest thing about running a restaurant," Kinkead sums up, "is staying focused and enthusiastic about it over a long, long time." He personally has garnished more than 300,000 pepita-crusted salmons, enough that "pepita salmon paid for my house." And still he can say, "I love the dish."