Patrick O'Connell has plotted every detail of every dinner at his world famous Inn at Little Washington. His Gregorian chant and elaborate welcome seem to create a sense of drama, which, he says, is intentional.
"I visualize the whole experience here and the whole place as a film set," O'Connell says. "I actually walk through with my own little camera and aim it."
It's taken decades of hard work to get The Inn at Little Washington ready for its close-up. Washington, Va., at the gateway to the Blue Ridge, is about an hour's drive from "Big Washington," D.C. But few had ever heard of the town before O'Connell and his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, started their then very modest restaurant, 25 years ago, in what was once a gas station
"It still had a junkyard and outhouse and a little bit of the dump left behind it, so it had that wonderful sort of atmosphere," O'Connell laughs.
The owner of the inn never had any formal training as a chef, but cooking just seemed to come naturally to him.
"I didn't look upon it as a gift until I started to get very frustrated with people who couldn't replicate something," he says. "I would say, 'Make it taste just like this.' And they had no idea where to begin. Then I realized it was something I had kind of been born with."
Once O'Connell started turning out restaurant dinners that went for $4.95, it took only two weeks to earn a rave review from a Washington, D.C., restaurant critic. Soon, people were lining up to get a taste of O'Connell's servings.
"They were actually throwing their bodies against the side of the building to try to get in where there was a little tiny wooden doorway with a dime-store deadbolt," O'Connell remembers.
Eventually, O'Connell and Lynch created the kind of place they had long dreamed of owning - a world-class eatery with luxurious guest rooms, which get the highest ratings from the most discriminating travel guides.
Today, Lynch handles the Inn's business affairs and makes cameo appearances along with the two Dalmatians that inspired the print sported by O'Connell and the kitchen crew. O'Connell worries about the creative side – describing himself as necessarily compulsive.
That means checking how the garden grows, adding new rooms, designing a system for dealing with difficult guests.
One guest wanted to bathe in white chocolate mousse, which O'Connell says was accommodated.
She looked great when she came to dinner," he laughs. "Her skin just had this glow."
These days, it costs about $148 per person to dine on a weekend night at The Inn. It's about $30 less during the week, but the dinners are six courses. Nothing is more important to O'Connell than the food he calls "refined American cuisine."
The Inn has generated a boom in local agriculture. Folks with small farms or garden patches nearby have started growing the delicate, organic produce that O'Connell demands. And the Inn, in turn, makes a big deal of featuring local foods, such as asparagus and cheese, which are produced by farmers and goatherds such as Heidi Eastham of Rucker Farms.
"[The Inn is] grass roots," she says. "It's not fast. It's not Disneyland agriculture, Disneyland restaurant."
In a daily ritual, The Inn's crew prepares dinner before laying a hand on a food. They make sure every dish is polished so you can see your face in it and every glass wiped three times before a customer will drink from it. The wine stewards survey the cellar that contains 15,000 bottles.
Afterwards, the kitchen crew goes out for its daily warm-up, which may look a little outlandish until witnessing the mental and physical work they endure each night.
The cooks begin turning out dishes like Pistachio Crusted Grilled Lamb Chop with Forest Mushrooms and Carrot Ginger essence and Heidi's asparagus, which is done with freshwater blue prawns and sherry vinaigrette. House-made deserts, believe it or not, taste even better than they look. Each course is presented with precision timing. And at 9 p.m., O'Connell and his team are just hitting their stride.
"It's a little like a runner's high," O'Connell explains of the experience. "You start off and you're trotting. Then you're going at a faster rate than you thought you could. And then you go into the zone. So, just about every night you're out of the body for at least half an hour."
In an era of executive chefs who can be seen at many restaurants, but rarely make an appearance at their own, O'Connell may seem like a rare breed.
"We're here for the long haul," he says. "This is home. It just feels right to be here."
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