The Inn at Little Washington's recipe for success

Inn at Little Washington's 40th anniversary

In a world where diners are always searching for the next big thing, it's hard to imagine someone maintaining a standard of excellence for 40 years – let alone celebrating that milestone with 200-year-old recipes at the home of one of our founding fathers, Mount Vernon. But chef Patrick O'Connell has never cared about what's popular.

And that helped him accomplish what most people said was impossible.

Before it was a world-famous restaurant, the Inn at Little Washington was just a run-down gas station in a town with fewer than 200 people. Now, the rural Virginia eaterie is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

"There is no shortage, and never will be, of people telling you why something won't work," said O'Connell. "But if you feel it in your gut, there is a great thrill in going against all the negativity."

In 1978, O'Connell arrived in the rural town of Washington, Virginia, 70 miles west of Mount Vernon, and turned a former gas station and garage into the Inn at Little Washington.

CBS News' Jan Crawford asked, "What was your vision?"

"Well, my mother always said I wasn't too well-grounded in reality. But I say it has served me well," he replied.

People thought he was crazy, this local boy who loved to cook but never even went to cooking school.

Even his mother had doubts: "She said, 'Now, dear, if things don't work out we could always sell that wonderful granola you make door to door," O'Connell laughed.

"Was that encouraging?"

"I was so pissed!"

Instead, O'Connell built a masterpiece – a two-star Michelin restaurant and five-star hotel in rural Virginia that attracts visitors from D.C. to Abu Dhabi.

Entering the kitchen is stepping into the middle of a well-choreographed ballet.

Chef Patrick O'Connell in the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington. CBS News

After starting as the inn's only cook on opening night, when dinner was $4.95, O'Connell now oversees dozens of kitchen staff with discipline and humor.

That humor can be found in the details – cheese served on the back of a cow ("We just milk it for all it's worth," said one server), and chefs are decked out in dalmatian-spotted aprons in honor of the inn's mascot.

Chef Patrick O'Connell, staff and mascot at the Inn at Little Washington. Inn at Little Washington

But what's most remarkable is that O'Connell found satisfaction with what was right in front of him, 40 years in this one place. "All you have to do is, whatever you did yesterday, try to make it a teeny-weeny bit better today," he said. "That builds a kind of momentum."

Along with success comes pressure to deliver.

"Nothing's ever perfect. So there are moments when something comes together and you go 'Yesssssss!' And then you look to your left, but that's not right."

"But you can at least let yourself have that moment?" Crawford asked.

"You can have half a moment," O'Connell replied.

But he's not the kind of tyrannical chef whose employees live in fear; his are like family. Director of dining services Neil O'Heir has worked here 25 years – now alongside his sons.

"I think you have to buy in to chef's vision, which is perfection," said O'Heir. "But we're never going to get there."

O'Connell and his business have transformed this little town, renovating dozens of historic buildings, many that stood when George Washington first arrived here as a teenager – four decades spent bringing an impossible dream to life.

"Dream the dream; you can always scale it back," O'Connell said. "Otherwise you lose your ability to dream. You know, fairytales can come true."

Crawford observed, "You've transformed a place and created a beautiful experience."

"Not without sacrifice. You have to be willing to give something up; in order to do that, you have to want it pretty badly."

And what did he give up? 

"Life as you know it!"

"This is your life," said Crawford.

"Yes. So it's not a bad trade!"

O'Connell says he's not done yet. There are more buildings to renovate, and two more books in the works – even a film project with Virginia Public Media, where O'Connell will take viewers through the doors of this kitchen and inside his magical world.