When you grow up having a breakfast of blueberries lovingly plucked from your back garden by mom, food has a completely different meaning. As a teen in Sussex, New Jersey, David Varley worked as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. By pure chance, he went from scrubbing floors to baking biscuits one day when a cook called in sick. Something clicked, and he made it his aim to work at the best restaurant in town.
Varley expanded this goal to the county, then the state, and soon was working in the New York kitchen of Lespinasse—all before attending culinary school at The Culinary Institute of America. He honed his skills at Boston restaurant Clio, and Parcel 104 in Santa Clara. In 2005, Varley accepted a position as chef de cuisine for Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas. Still in Las Vegas, Varley helped launch the Company American Bistro brand before moving to the Trump International Hotel and Tower as opening chef de cuisine.
In 2008 Varley accepted the executive chef position at Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC’s Four Seasons Hotel. He proceeded to do the last thing anyone would expect at a restaurant with the word “steak” in the name: plant a garden. Sixty-five varieties of herb and 25 types of vegetables mean that very few dishes are free of produce from the garden in season. He continues to step outside the Washingtonian comfort zone—with fabulous results.
Interview with Chef David Varley of Bourbon Steak - Washington, DC
Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
David Varley: I would have to say my mother and her involvement in food and the garden. I grew up in a rural area, which is kind of cliché for chefs to say, but she cooked all the meals we had in the house. She wasn't into processed foods; she picked blueberries off the vine and made our breakfast off that. It was an eye-opening childhood for me as far as food was concerned.
When I was a kid my parents put me to work. The only job you can get when you are 14 or 15 is as a dishwasher. For 25 to 30 hours a week I scrubbed floors; I kind of hated it but one day one of the cooks couldn't come in. They needed someone to make biscuits, so I said this could be fun; I kind of immersed myself in it. I realized, ‘you can take this a long way.’ So I started following the cooking movement and decided if I was going to work in the restaurant business I was going to work in the best restaurants. As soon as I got my drivers license I worked in the best restaurant in town, then the county, then the state. From there I went to New York; at the time the best restaurant was Lespinasse. Then I went to culinary school.
FV: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
DV: I'll definitely look at people from any background. Some of my most rewarding hires are people that haven't gone to culinary school. I'm kind of on the fence; the schools have changed. I recommend an education over not getting an education. The difference is that a lot of people go to culinary school but not a lot of people are educated. I'd rather have someone educated in fine arts and interested in cooking. Culinary schools aren't what they used to be.
FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DV: There are a lot of different answers to that question. It depends on the intention of the diner. If my intention on my day off is to eat a great cheeseburger and to have a beer, that'll demand a certain experience. So there's an excellent opportunity to create great food on all levels. Whether it’s the greatest burger or caviar, there’s an opportunity to pursue greatness. I like to find the greatness in all those things. It was important to me to have the right cheeseburger, but there might be a guy who just got off a flight from Egypt sitting at a table next to a guy who is there celebrating his 30th wedding anniversary next to a guy getting a huge bill passed in the House. I try to cater and tailor to each guest's experience. The way we handle the guest, celebrations versus whatever, every table is a new experience, at least in the kind of restaurant I'm operating now. If it was a 30-seater, 15 courses, it's going to be all about me and what I think you should be eating, but my challenge here is to make sure every guest leaves satisfied.
FV: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
DV: At the restaurant we’re working with local vendors and sourcing products from the region. We planted a kids’ garden this year and partnered with DC schools, and we’re working with the White House on their new initiative, designed to get chefs into school [food]. They’ve tied in the Get Moving campaign, and we hosted the first meeting at the restaurant here, with [White House Chef] Sam Kass and RJ Cooper and did a round table with Todd Gray from Equinox and Chefs Move to Schools. We have the White House on Friday the 4th [June 2010] to kick start the program. It’s a nationwide campaign and it actually started in our restaurant.
FV: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
DV: Travel more. I'd spend time in Europe and Asia. Right now I’m planning a trip to Tokyo.
FV: If you could cook for any chef, who would it be and why?
DV: Michel Bras. His approach has been one of the most studied approaches and has influenced my cuisine. I would enjoy cooking for him. People would expect me to cook one thing for him, with a lot of showmanship, but for me Michel Bras is not about the abstract plates and the drama but about the properly done potato, the foundation of cuisine.
FV: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
DV: Anything that's not glamorous; not heirlooms but the sunchoke, for example. I love those humble ingredients—sunchokes, black radishes—they all have an amazing flavor. Vegetables are the next pork belly. Pork belly is so 2007. The future is the direction I'm taking now. We’re moving away from giant plates of protein and focusing on innovative cooking techniques for more vegetables, to clean up the plate.
FV: How is a chef at a steakhouse able to focus on vegetables?
DV: Every once in a while you have to go out and have a juicy steak, but the trends are moving away from that, and more toward a balanced program. We serve more vegetables than any other steakhouse. It's an amazing thing because I'm at a steakhouse in a recession in a city that lives on the steakhouse: and I've got heirloom beans, my checks still cash, and Anson Mills knows they're going to get paid. We're a strong business; in times like we've been through this allows us to do the right thing.
There is a lot of strength in this concept: guests come just for our steaks, and that's great. Then there are guests who come for a dining experience, and it provides us with the financial security we need to buy whole pigs and heirloom products. We're on track to do nine million dollars and if we do that, that’s a lot of money to work with. It gives a lot more flexibility than the guy down the road doing three million, because we can pursue product that others can't deal with so we can provide that experience to the guests.
FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
DV: One of the toughest things has been dealing with the corporate side of things— corporate layoffs and stuff like that, which became my job. Failing is always a challenge; there are lessons you learn and failure is the toughest. Another thing was to accept the fact that it's a changing world and the days of big elaborate European-themed restaurants have changed. American culinary tastes have evolved but there’s a trend away from restaurants that I trained in—the student who thinks he'll learn French to become a French chef has wasted four years. But definitely one of the toughest things has been dealing with the corporate side of things.
FV: What has the corporate side of the business taught you?
DV: I’m learning so many lessons in this restaurant, like refining my knowledge of product, really learning the ins and outs of managing people, and dealing with numbers on a large scale; those are tools I'll take with me. That's really the key. If you are a simple diner and your husband isn't and he wants squab and foie gras and cognac and you want a Caesar salad and a well done skirt steak—I’ll get that business, because the Caesar salad pays for the caviar. It’s a perfect symbiosis.
FV: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career?
DV: The teams we've put together, the lessons the cooks have learned, and the important people who work with us and walk away with something more than what they started with.
FV: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
DV: I don't know, I can't even imagine. I don't have the patience for anything—I barely have the patience to be a chef. It’s all about instant results: you brown a scallop and it's perfect or it’s not. You’d have to rule out jobs that require patience.
FV: How would you define success?
DV: It ties in with the team-thing; success is easy to measure if you are talking about financials, but there’s the human side of things. It's sending out a dish and being able to satisfy on three levels: profit, people, and passion to younger cooks.
FV: Where will we find you in five years?
DV: I enjoy my job and love what I do, and I have an amazing opportunity here, but I don't feel like I'll ever be fully satisfied until I have my own restaurant. I love what I do and whether it’s a partnership with Michael [Mina] or opening up a neighborhood spot…I don't think I'm ever going to do a big marquis—I don't see Per Se or Daniel—but kind of like a country inn with a garden and great product and a little boutique hotel.