2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Restaurateur Derek Brown of Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill and Southern Efficiency

2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Restaurateur Derek Brown of Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill and Southern Efficiency
December 2014

Derek Brown has one of those dream jobs that your high school counselor never tells you about. He drinks for a living. Brown is a cocktail and spirits writer, spirits judge, and owner of bars Mockingbird Hill, Columbia Room, The Passenger, Southern Efficiency, and Eat the Rich. He is almost single-handedly shaping the cocktail scene in Washington, D.C. Brown also travels round the globe, teaching (and still learning) about how drinking is an integral part of our culture and values.

Brown landed his very first bartending job with exactly zero prior experience, bluffing his way through a rum punch by creating an elaborate concoction of nearly every bottle on the bar. Moving on from that early fluster, he has since developed celebrated beverage programs as a bartender, sommelier, and consultant for some of Washington, D.C.’s and the country’s finest restaurants and bars. Brown has received numerous accolades for his bartending and teaching, including being named one of “Five Top New Sommeliers” in the country by Wine & Spirits in 2007, “Sommelier of the Year” by DC Modern Luxury in 2008, “Bartender of the Year” by Washington City Paper in 2009, and has made drinks at the Whitehouse. In 2012, he was the only bartender to be nominated for James Beard’s “Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional.” In 2014, Bon Appetit named Mockingbord Hill, Eat the Rich, and Southern Efficiency top new restaurants of the year. His simple greatest pleasure is introducing others to great drinks and food. Brown’s favorite dram is Bourbon.

Interview with Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Restaurateur Derek Brown of Columbia Room, Eat The Rich, Mockingbird Hill, and Southern Efficiency

Korakot Suriya-arporn: When did you begin your career as a restaurateur?
Derek Brown:
I started working at a restaurant at 16, prepping salads at B.J. Pumpernickels. Then I moved behind the deli counter. Slowly I realized I wanted to work behind a bar. It’s been 24 years now. I first opened The Passenger in 2009, and then in 2010 I came up with The Columbia Room. I’ve always been anxious to do whatever I want, to serve whatever cocktails I want to put out. So that’s the drive behind it. In retrospect, you never realized how hard it is to work and how much sacrifice people have to make in order to be successful running your own thing. My business partner for my first two barsThe Passenger and Columbia RoomPaul Ruppert, whom I also consider my mentor, helped provide money, space, and insight. He was very instrumental in the entrepreneurial aspect of the business, as well as development of the bar system.

KS: Sherry is a big part of Mockingbird Hill. Tell us more about it.
I think Sherry is a drink that is often misunderstood. As the only bar dedicated to Sherry, we want to show people that Sherries are special and magical. We’re looking to inspire people as much as I was inspired when I first got interested in Spain when I was young [through the English punk rock band The Clash’s song “Spanish Bombs”]. Though Mockingbird Hill entails Spanish culture, it's not meant to be Spanish Disneyland. We just want to show the beautiful products from Southern Spain. Coming up with the idea for Mockingbird Hill, many people contributed. I have great chefs and bar staff who’ve had great input on how it is now. As a restaurateur, I have all control and everything is under my canopy. I have the ability to taste and try everything, but at the end of the day, it’s a collaborative effort.

KS: How do you inspire your staff?
Everybody is different, so I always look for people who care about others, the ones that make other people feel welcome around them. At my restaurants, we’re working very hard to create an environment that is pleasant not only for our guests but also our employees. You need to try to inspire everybody to discover new things. I guess what the inspiration comes down to is, creating a mission and work with it.

KS: What is your customer service philosophy?
It comes down to saying hi and goodbye to everyone that comes and goes through the door. Make sure to engage with the guests. Overall, just be nice.

KS: What’s your five-year plan?
Have a vacation! On a serious note, I think it’s to make sure [my restaurants are] the best they can be, and to continue to put out great products. It’s not just about expanding, but keeping the standards. We’re not out there to create chains. I’m not one who would own 24 different places with a new one about to open in Vegas. That’s not me. I hope to continue to be inspired by my staff. The people I’m working with right now are keeping me on my toes. They’re always learning and presenting me with new techniques, new wines, or new spirits. There’s always so much to learn and enjoy. It’s a perfect environment when people keep teaching each other.