The downside of being a busy, profitable chef is there’s no time to eat at restaurants led by other noteworthy chefs.
That problem is what inspired Mike Isabella, chef-owner of Graffiato and G’s Sandwich Shop in Washington D.C., to launch a guest-chef series at both eateries.
“I like to hang out with my friends, and I like to eat and have good food,” says Isabella. “That’s what I do for a living.” By bringing guest chefs into his kitchen to cook for customers, he can see and taste what his culinary friends are cooking up.
In January 2013, he introduced a guest-chef series called “Industry Takeover Night” at his Italian-themed restaurant Graffiato, which opened in 2011 in Washington’s Chinatown neighborhood. It occurs on the first Monday of each month, on what is historically a slow day in restaurants.
“I leave, they come in and take over the kitchen,” he explains. Customers pay $10 in cash at the door, with half of that money going to a charity of the chefs’ choice. Often the chefs are flown in from other cities.
In December 2013, guest chefs included Greg Basalla, chef de cuisine at Boqueria in Washington, D.C.; Josh Brown, executive chef at Level in Annapolis, Maryland; Andrew Fox, Level’s owner and bartender; Eli Kirshtein, executive chef/partner at the forthcoming The Luminary in Atlanta; and Andrea Litvin, executive pastry chef at The Spence in Atlanta. An additional $5 gets the customer a drink from the guest mixologist, or a glass of beer or wine. Proceeds from the December event went to Martha’s Table, providing food, education, and clothing to low-income families.
“People come early just to get in line. Otherwise you can’t get in,” says Isabella. “A lot of people don’t get to travel to Kentucky or Vegas and won’t ever have the chance to try their food.”
At G, a sandwich shop open since the summer in the nation’s capital, a guest chef develops a signature sandwich only available during a particular month. In November, the first month of the guest-chef series, chef Scott Drewno introduced “The Drewno,” featuring housemade kielbasa, Italian beef, and sauerkraut. Drewno, a good friend of Isabella’s, is a chef at The Source, a Wolfgang Puck Asian-fusion eatery tucked into D.C.’s Newseum. “It’s a sandwich he likes to eat when he has a couple of drinks,” says Isabella. “It has been selling so well we are keeping it on the menu.”
Guest-chef series are popping up across the country in an effort to introduce diners to other restaurants and also feed a chef’s need to learn techniques and innovation from other chefs.
Eric Jorgensen, chef de cuisine at Little Market Brasserie in Chicago, launched a guest-chef series—with a charitable mission—in September. The “Melts for Meals” year-long program rolls out a different grilled-cheese sandwich each month, developed by Chicago chefs like Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia and Mark Steur of the year-old Carriage House. “We wanted to do something to give back,” says Jorgensen. “The all-day grilled cheese is a big hit over here, especially during lunch.” One dollar from each sandwich ordered goes to a local Meals on Wheels chapter.
Although it’s attracting high-profile chefs, “Melts for Meals” is not about being famous, explains Jorgensen. “I looked for chefs whose food I’m already eating and chefs I already like,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun for us to see what other chefs’ ideal grilled-cheese sandwich would be.”
In November the sandwich creation came from Cory Morris, sous chef under Jose Garces at Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago. Serrano ham, rosemary-peach jam, truffle butter, and Manchego cheese are piled onto brioche bread. “It’s almost like a meat and cheese platter,” says Jorgensen.
To get the word out, Jorgensen recruited a local publicity firm to handle outreach to media, including bloggers with shorter lead times than print media. Attractive cards promoting the “Melt for Meal” program were also printed and placed on tables at Little Market Brasserie, “so the customer doesn’t have to ask,” says Jorgensen.
Both Isabella and Jorgensen tapped into their culinary network to find chefs willing to participate. “I started by emailing everyone I knew in the industry,” says Isabella, who then pitched the news himself to media, particularly bloggers. When Jorgensen started to contact chefs he was surprised that six committed right away, proof that the idea is a hit.
Other restaurants that have dabbled with guest-chef programs include Two in Chicago, which rolled out its Midwest-focused series just two months after opening in August of 2012. Guest chef Chris Marchino of Spiaggia developed two dishes: gnocchi stuffed with Medjol dates, ricotta, aged Gorgonzola, walnut, and sage; and porcetta with creamy polenta, pickled cauliflower, Calabrian peppers, and fennel pollen. Houston’s Triniti Restaurant launched a guest-chef series in June with four set dates for an eight-course dinner designed by three visiting chefs. Tickets were limited to 22 diners at each and cost $75.
By Kristine Hansen