Café Saint Ex and Bar Pilar |
D.C. native Barton Seaver learned early on about the values
of cooking, growing up in a family that got together for a family
meal every night of the week, usually cooking and sometimes walking
to an ethnic restaurant in town. Eating dinner with his family was
an involved process from shopping for the freshest ingredients at
local markets to eating together at the family table. Mac and Cheese
was never just out of the box, but prepared with a homemade béchamel
cheese sauce and pasta made from scratch. Summers spent at a family
friends’ hog farm on the Chesapeake Bay, along with crabbing
and going with his father to buy fresh seafood from local fisherman,
taught Seaver the importance of supporting local purveyors and using
quality and fresh ingredients. Seasonality and locality made sense
to Seaver early on.
Seaver began his professional career working for
D.C. restaurants Ardeo, Felix, and Greenwood.
After three and half years of invaluable kitchen experience, Seaver
made his way to New York where he trained at the Culinary Institute
of America. During his schooling, he spent time in the kitchens
of Tru and The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton,
Chicago under Sarah Stegner. He graduated on a Friday, and the following
Monday, took a fellowship position at C.I.A. as a graduate teacher,
providing the meat and fish for the whole school. Working in this
hands-on environment taught Seaver the importance of proper handling
while giving him direct access to sources of fish through the eastern
seaboard ports. Under the guidance of mentor Chef Corky Clark, Seaver
became a proponent of sustainable ocean products.
After his tenure at the C.I.A., Seaver went on
to The Finch Tavern in New York to work under renowned
Chef Dan Kish, where he was eventually promoted to Executive Sous
Chef. Seaver’s classical training inspired him to travel extensively
throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Africa where he participated
in old world traditions of farming and harvesting from the sea.
He spent time working in small seaside restaurants and cooking with
families in their homes. Seaver later returned to Washington, DC,
in order to work for Jose Andres at Jaleo, where he gained
experience at a classic tapas bar.
In early 2005, Seaver accepted the position of
Executive Chef at Café Saint-Ex which has become
a platform for informing and educating diners about issues concerning
health and the sustainability of food products. Using local organic
ingredients and focusing on sustainable fish species, Seaver blends
Mediterranean simplicity with stylized organic cuisine. The simple,
market driven food of Seaver’s childhood home and worldly
travels have translated to a strong commitment to the idea of a
chef’s responsibility for sharing gastronomic tradition, culture
and information. Seaver’s belief in the minimal changing of
high quality, responsibly sourced ingredients comes through in dishes
like a barely manipulated, lightly garnished Walu with Sweet Potato
Puree and Orange Parsley Salad. Beginning with sustainable Walu
(or white tuna), and using no more than lemon, chili and parsley
to highlight the fish’s inherent flavor, Seaver builds a simple
and delicious dish with smoke-infused water rather than a traditional
heavy stock or butter.
Seaver is a certified sommelier through the Sommelier
Society of America and is continuing his studies with Wine and Spirits
Educational Trust in London. In addition, Seaver and Café
Saint-Ex are proud supporters of Humane Farm Animal Care and
serve certified humane products in the restaurant He is one of the
few chefs in the Washington, DC area to use only sustainable fish
on his menu. Seaver is also an active member in the Slow Food movement,
most recently cooking at the Slow Food Terra Madre conference in
TR: Who are your mentors? What
are some of the most important things you’ve learned from
BS: Corky Clark and Thoman
Schneller from the CIA. Their attention to detail and appreciation
of products really inspired me. While I was teaching a fish class
under Corky I had experience using endless species of fish. I had
access to the whole fish market and I had the opportunity to taste
so many interesting products.
is your philosophy on food and dining?
BS: I believe very much in
a high quality of ingredients treated very simply by the chef. I
would say I have a more feminine approach to cooking; a celebration
of ingredients as they are, dressed up to fit the bill of the restaurant,
rather than manipulated to fit my role as the creator. About 90
percent of my produce comes from family farms because I think it’s
a chef’s responsibility to record and pass on gastronomic
culture and tradition through his cooking, just like doctors and
other professionals pass on their knowledge.
TR: Are there
any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
BS: Pumpkin — I am really
big on this pumpkin season. Radishes are awesome right now. I get
them from a farm on Chesapeake Bay and serve them with olive oil.
I use Arbequina olive oil from Spain. Spanish oils are very well-balanced
and so luxurious on the palate.
TR: What flavor
combinations do you favor?
BS: I love lemon with parsley
and garlic to finish dishes. I don’t use any stock at all
in my kitchen! I don’t use cream. I don’t use butter.
I don’t have any crutches, so to speak; the food has just
got to be cooked right. I often use garlic, chili flakes, and shallots
to begin dishes. I like classic flavor combinations used in a non-classic
way. I love throwing anchovies into things, to enhance the flavors
already there. And I use smoke-infused water instead of stock for
depth of flavor.
TR: How do
you make your smoke-infused water?
BS: It began as a byproduct
from cold smoking salmon. One day I tasted the ice from the cold
smoking process and it was full of a delicate smoke flavor. It’s
non-toxic, non-chemical, really soft, sweet and pleasant. I started
using the water to cook lentils and sweet potatoes so I didn’t
need bacon or stock. Vegetarians were sending it back saying, “You
put bacon in there!” And I had to assure them it is 100% vegetarian.
do you eat?
BS: At an El Salvadorian joint
called Pupuseria San Miguel. For $7 you can stuff your face with
consistent food. I’ve been eating tacos de lengua and pupusas
del revueltas with pork and cheese for 15 years.
TR: What is
your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
BS: The wood grill allows for
such simplicity in preparation because of the amazing flavor it
imparts. I really do sit down and eat my food. I am so accustomed
to eating food off the wood grill that when I eat something cooked
over gas, I can taste the fuel. It’s a flavor I’m not
used to and I appreciate the smoked flavor much more. I also enjoy
the traditional aspect of cooking on wood. Before we had gas, everything
was prepared over wood.
TR: Can you
talk a bit about black pepper?
BS: I had a cook once whose
overuse of black pepper was absolutely intolerable. So, it occurred
to me, why does this guy use so much pepper? I think we just take
it for granted, that it goes in everything. I find in some kitchens
the use of pepper is habitual, rather than an intentional addition
to the flavor of the dish. I tend to use chili flake instead because
I think it infuses with a dish better, it’s not so overwhelming.
TR: What is
your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential
new line cook?
BS: What the hell do you think
you’re doing? No, not really. My interviews tend to be very
personal. I like to ask then what they’re reading. I’m
looking for someone who’s aware. When people read it shows
a willingness to learn and learning should be a habitual process.
You don’t have to read Hemmingway, Proust or Julia Child.
Stephen King is fine too. It’s amazing how much you learn
about food reading non-food books.
TR: What are
your favorite cookbooks?
Suppers at Lucque’s is phenomenal. Jeremiah
Tower Cooks is unbelievable! He’s obviously sitting there
writing it. He goes on and on, ending up with 15 variations on everything.
That’s real cooking. I enjoy all of Elizabeth David’s
books. She wrote about food, she lived food and had a great prose
style. She pushed a lot of boundaries by sharing her anthropological
studies of food culture with the world at large. I like Paul Bertoli’s
by Hand. He includes a recipe for something that takes 2 ½
years! That takes courage!
TR: What cities
do you like for culinary travel?
BS: I was in Piedmonte, Italy
for 2 weeks for a Slow Food festival in the countryside. I’d
really love to go back to San Francisco; I really respect Incanto
and Chez Panisse and Aziza and their chefs for what they are accomplishing.
I loved Zuni Cafe. The quality of food in San Francisco is so good
even at corner bistros. People really take pride in their food there.
do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
BS: I’ve been thinking
about that a lot recently. I’d like to say still cooking.
I have a third restaurant opening in less than a year and I’m
seeing myself go more and more towards management. I’d like
to see myself coming back to actually dealing with food on a daily
basis but still in charge of a restaurant. The art and joy of creativity
is in execution and that is where I would like to be focused.
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