Phyllis Richman / June 2013
Food Arts presents the June 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Patrick O’Connell, chef/owner of The Inn at Little Washington, which 35 years ago shifted the culinary boundary of the nation’s capital 70 miles west. The best restaurant in Washington, many food-wise observers say, is more than an hour’s drive into the Virginia countryside, at O’Connell’s luxurious inn. They have been saying that for three decades now, and the chorus grows only louder.
From its first days, in an era when fancy meant French, and French meant the fish was flown in and resuscitated with beurre blanc, O’Connell looked for ingredients more likely to be delivered by bike. What wasn’t available locally he commissioned to be grown to his standards. It was the diners who began to be flown in.
The inn’s story has all the drama of theater, which O’Connell studied at Catholic University. He was raised in the Washington area’s least culinary suburb, Prince George’s County, Maryland (where Thomas Keller also learned his way around a kitchen), working his way up from fast-food outlets.
Act II found O’Connell, having risen to respectable French kitchens, decamping with partner Reinhardt Lynch to rural Washington, Virginia. They aspired to be hippies and caterers until they bought a gift shop that had been a gas station and transformed it into what looked like an English country house—a fine dining restaurant in a county where nobody had ever even applied for a liquor license before. It was an American restaurant at a time when its price and ambition would lead a diner to expect French. It was a bold vision for the simple white shop in the middle of nowhere, which New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne eventually called “the most magnificent inn I’ve ever seen.”
O’Connell, the world soon discovered, was creative, ambitious, visionary. His standards were unshakable, his methods meticulous, his style dramatic. His taste ran to pink ruffled lampshades, dalmation-print chef pants, and faux finishes. He proudly identified his cooking as American. Thus, his honors were shared with the entire country. The inn has climbed to the top of every ranking, from the James Beard Awards to Zagat. The International Herald Tribune picked the inn as one of the 10 best restaurants in the world. The top chefs of France began sending their sons for training there. Then the chefs themselves came to cook with O’Connell.
By their third decade of stardom, many chefs would be spinning off other restaurants, establishing profit centers in other world capitals. O’Connell, instead of expanding, deepened. He built more guest quarters. He produced books as sumptuous as his tasting menus. He rose to the presidency of the North American branch of Relais & Châteaux. He raised curiosity and admiration for American cooking abroad. Never ignoring tradition, he has always kept on the cutting edge. From the doll-size passed hors d’oeuvres—perhaps a very adult one-bite rabbit turnover—to the miniature cookies in a tiny paper replica of the inn to take home, the inn’s dinners weave wit and whimsy with unfaltering sophistication.
At a time when his cohorts are retiring, O’Connell seems reinvigorated. Across the street, he’s adding guest rooms and a garden. Two new books are underway, one a lush production on the inn’s design, the second a memoir, “the kind of book you write when you don’t care anymore,” says O’Connell. He expects its revelations to leave Claiborne’s infamous memoir in the dust. And don’t be surprised to see “exciting satellite opportunities” evolve into little inns in Big Washington. Act III has just begun.