Why this chef plans to avoid lemons and olive oil

Posted on: October 6, 2015

The Berkshire sow has flopped down on her side inside a sunny, semi-exposed shelter at Cabin Creek Heritage Farm in Upper Marlboro. A couple of piglets, no larger than pugs, are nursing while the remaining newborns gather around their mother’s head, as if looking for face time.

Jeremiah Langhorne is beyond smitten. The chef and owner of the Dabney, the forthcoming restaurant in Blagden Alley, and his two sous-chefs simultaneously release the same sweet, unguarded sound when they lay eyes on the black piglets with their stubby pink legs: Oooooooh!

“They got their little pink socks,” Langhorne says. “They’re so cute!”

Langhorne, former chef de cuisine at the influential McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., is not shopping for a pet. He’s scouting farmers who might supply his restaurant, dedicated to the flora, fauna and fermented flavors of the Mid-Atlantic. This trip to Cabin Creek is just one of many he has made ahead of the Dabney’s opening later this month. The 30-year-old Langhorne wants to inspect every potential supplier, not just to form a bond with farmers who might be skittish about working with (historically unreliable) chefs, but also to review their agricultural practices. He wants farmers who respect their products as much as he does.

“They’re doing it right,” Langhorne says after visiting two Maryland farms in August with sous-chefs Chris Morgan and Mike Tholis. “They put their animals’ happiness first and foremost. Most other farms, you’ll see some part of the chain where convenience outweighs the happiness of the animals.”

In turn, Langhorne and his business partner, Alex Zink, want to do right by the Mid-Atlantic with the Dabney, which is shaping up to be one of the District’s most ambitious restaurants, perhaps ever. The chef wants to source virtually every ingredient, whether the vinegar on your greens or the sweetener in your dessert, from the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (save largely for liquids such as coffee, tea and some wine). The Dabney won’t have a set menu. It won’t even have a signature dish. Langhorne expects to create small, personalized menus based on the products available to him from day to day. Many will be prepared in a large, open-flame hearth, and some will feature vinegars, misos, pickles, preserves and other pantry items made in-house with ingredients plucked from local woods and valleys.

It’s an approach that can frustrate both prospective diners and companies that set up point-of-sale systems for restaurants: They want much clearer answers on what the Dabney will serve.

 

“Everyone seems to really not be able to comprehend and understand the fact that I just come up with dishes, like, the day the ingredients come in. That’s how it works, honestly,” Langhorne says. “The menu doesn’t exist.”

Where history left off

At a time when restaurants are defined by their “concept” — maybe a fast-casual Mexican joint or a Mediterranean small-plates emporium — the Dabney will have no easy shorthand description to classify its food. What, after all, defines Mid-Atlantic cuisine? Does it incorporate Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and the sweet specimens pulled from the “Chesepiook,” as the Algonquian natives used to call the “great shellfish bay”? Does it embrace the products that have become tourism commodities, like Virginia ham and peanuts?

Or is it something else altogether?

Over the months that I’ve been following him, I’ve watched Langhorne explain the Dabney to the curious and the confused. A few folks have remained that way even after the chef’s explanation. Their confusion is understandable: The Dabney will be a reverse image of your standard restaurant.

The Dabney will not latch onto an identifiable cuisine, like French or Southern, and then search for ingredients to create the necessary dishes. Instead, it will start with Mid-Atlantic ingredients and rely on Langhorne’s ingenuity to prepare something satisfying. The food will be informed by his study of the historic cookbooks of Maryland and Virginia, but his plates will not be museum-level recreations, like tabletop dioramas. No modern diner would eat such food: 19th-century cooks had a limited pantry available to boost flavor.

Langhorne sees it as his duty to continue the evolution of Mid- Atlantic cuisine, which was halted prematurely — by war, by industrialization, by America’s fascination with cuisines far older than its own.

“My goal is to continue this region’s development and movement as far as gastronomy is concerned,” he says. “The idea is not to re-create [historic recipes]. The idea is to learn from them and pick up where they left off.”

 

For a man so focused on history, Jeremiah Langhorne prefers not to talk about his own, at least not his childhood. In some ways, he doesn’t know much about it. Asked where he first lived, Langhorne begs off and says he’ll need to call his older brother, the family historian.

Langhorne was midwived in a Bethesda hospital, the middle of three sons to a father who ran a concrete company. Langhorne spent his early years in Sterling, but his family moved around Loudoun and Fairfax counties. When his parents split up, Langhorne and his brothers lived with their mother in a small mountain town in the Shenandoah Valley.

 

“We had a massive garden, tons of woods,” Langhorne recalls. “My little brother and I, we used to dam the creek and make swimming holes or build fjords or do whatever we could to just have good time.”

His parents reunited when Langhorne was a teen, and they settled in Charlottesville, where the middle son started his life in the restaurant industry. Sort of. He took a job at McDonald’s so he could buy equipment to videotape his skateboarding antics. He later delivered pizzas, which led to a grunt job at the now-closed OXO restaurant under chef John Haywood, an Englishman trained in French cuisine. For Langhorne, working for that old-school taskmaster would be his culinary school.

“I thank him to this day, because he spent four years just beating into me all these wonderful, wonderful values” about food, Langhorne says.

While laboring at OXO, Langhorne learned about chef Sean Brock’s experiments at McCrady’s, where the future James Beard Award-winner was reclaiming long-dormant low country ingredients and putting modernist spins on them. Langhorne became obsessed with Brock’s blog, Ping Island Strike, a minimalist and illuminating “digital notebook” that the chef started after opening McCrady’s. Langhorne was determined to work in Brock’s kitchen one day.

It would take some two years and multiple visits to Charleston, where Langhorne apprenticed for Brock, before the young cook caught a break: In 2008, McCrady’s had an opening in the kitchen, and Brock hired Langhorne. After a year or so at McCrady’s, Langhorne took a sabbatical to work at Nomain Copenhagen, where chef René Redzepi’s team taught the American about foraging. Langhorne would take the lessons and transform McCrady’s kitchen.

“Jeremiah is a lot like me. He’s a very obsessive person, and when obsessive people get attached to something, into something, we tend to take it way too far,” says Brock. “And foraging really became that for him. This guy went nuts. He was creating these notebooks, plotting these maps and going out every morning and filling his car full of all this stuff.”

By 2011, Langhorne was chef de cuisine, running the restaurant that made Brock a rock star. Eventually, Brock says, every dish on the menu was Langhorne’s.

“He slowly created his own thing,” says Brock. Such ambition sparked both pride and worry in Brock. “You’re like, ‘This guy’s not going to be around much longer,’ ” he remembers.

Brock was right. By the fall of 2013, Langhorne and his future wife, Jenny Mooney, left Charleston for the Mid-Atlantic. It was time for Langhorne to take all he had learned — about foraging, about cooking, about a sense of place — and apply it to the region he considers home.

‘It’s market-driven cooking’

If you need to better understand the Dabney, look at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, owned by Spike Gjerde, the Beard-winning chef who has become a mentor, student and friend to Langhorne. Since opening his place in 2007, Gjerde has been slowly building a pantry and a menu that reflect the region around him; the work is both treasure hunt and reclamation project. It requires brutal dedication. But it can unearth once-lost jewels like the fish pepper, a chili popular with African American cooks in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I would say Jeremiah and I start with the notion that we’re going to source from local growers and the local food systems,” says Gjerde. “It’s market-driven cooking going back, probably, a millennium at this point.”

The approach goes beyond farm-to-table, even though that tag often gets applied to both Gjerde and Langhorne. Langhorne, in particular, has been contemptuous of peers who proudly list farms on their menus but buy only an ingredient or two from local growers, sourcing everything else from traditional wholesalers. Langhorne is not interested in using a menu to convince diners of his convictions; he wants to use local products to convince diners of the natural beauty of the ingredients around them.

But first he has to source the ingredients or forage for them himself. Once they are in hand, he might pickle them. Or he might convert them into molasses. Or he might ferment them into misos or vinegars.

Whether on his own at Union Kitchen or with assistance from theHoneycomb team at Union Market, Langhorne has already produced more than 150 pantry items. A woefully partial list: watermelon molasses, pickled ramps, canned Roma tomatoes, fish pepper pickles, walnut miso, sunchoke miso, popcorn miso, black garlic, aged sorghum vinegar, carrot vinegar, beet vinegar, cabbage-and-carrot kimchi, vinegars based on local beer and a Worcestershire-like “bay sauce,” adapted from the late 19th- ­century collection, “Housekeeping in Old Virginia.” He’s just now starting on his own fish sauce, fermented from 100 pounds of Atlantic menhaden.

“That’s really the tip of the iceberg,” Langhorne says, “because once we get into the kitchen, [preservation] will be a daily occurrence. Every single item we get in, we’ll figure how to utilize it” for the pantry.

Langhorne has developed a network of farmers and chefs, like Gjerde, who have helped him find other ingredients needed for a functional kitchen. Like salt (which Langhorne will buy from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in West Virginia) or citrus (which will come from Next Step Produce in Southern Maryland, where the farm grows “flying dragons,” a lemon-like fruit) or cooking oil (which the Dabney will source from Shenandoah Agricultural Products in Virginia, where they press canola oil). It has to be the hardest way to build a pantry, far more difficult than placing an order with a distributor or loading up at Restaurant Depot.

“I call it an illness, because it comes with health concerns,” says Brock, who influenced Langhorne in these flavor-reclamation projects. “It’s not healthy to be this obsessive and passionate and hard-working . . . It’s exhausting physically and mentally, and that’s why very few people do it, because it takes 10 times the amount of work that anybody would ever want to do.

“Jeremiah’s got that illness, and thank God,” adds Brock, with a laugh. “We need more people who allow their passion to cloud their judgment when it comes to healthy living.”

So a question or three flow logically from Brock’s comments: Why on Earth would anyone go to such extremes? What’s the point? Are these chefs the real-life equivalent of the main character in William Golding’s “The Spire,” a cathedral dean who decides to build a towering spire to bring people closer to God even though the construction might hurt those involved?

In a sense, yes.

“The most powerful thing that comes out of this is a sense of pride,” says Brock. “It’s almost like the pride that comes along with college football. It’s like, this is ours, and it belongs to us. This is the food of the people before us and our ancestors and our family members. This is the food that we’re supposed to be cooking here.”

By Tim Carman

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