Trust Her Instincts: An Interview with Ris Lacoste


Three decades into a career in the food industry, this Washington, D.C., chef is not slowing down.

To say Ris Lacoste trusts her gut is probably an understatement. In a career spanning continents, coasts, and all sorts of culinary tastes, Lacoste has lived by the simple rule of instinct.

It’s certainly served her well. Lacoste is one of the premier chefs leading the restaurant scene of the nation’s capital; first helping open Twenty-One Federal, then as the executive chef of 1789 Restaurant, and later as the owner of her own concept, Ris.

Her innovative regional American fare draws national attention and has earned her numerous awards, including those from Wine Spectator, The Washington Post, and a nomination from the legendary James Beard Foundation. There’s also a stint on Food Network’s popular Iron Chef series and a Julia Child documentary she created for PBS.

With such an illustrious career, it’s hard to image that Lacoste ever wanted to be anything but a chef. But the fireman’s daughter always had the goal of working in, of all places, a medical office. Her pursuit of that career drew her out of her Massachusetts town and into a series of events that made her who she is today.

“I knew I had to go because I was being called forward, pushed forward, something beckoned me,” she says of her decision to abandon her pre-med plans at University of Rochester decades ago. She is sitting in the front café of her Washington, D.C. fine-dining concept, and sunlight is bouncing off of the polished wooden table in front of her as she recalls her past. But she’s not remembering how she got started in the industry. No, we’re discussing the seldom-examined transitions—when a professional moves from one phase of inspiration to the next. In a sense, we’re discussing her exit strategy.

“I get these revelations, and that’s how I know,” she says of her motivation to try new ventures. She describes her professional transitions, which as with most artists are complicatedly intertwined with personal ones, as “difficult.” Whether it was her move from New England to San Francisco or her trek back across the country then across the Atlantic to arrive in Paris in 1976, there were always tears involved.

“In Paris, I had the realization that these transitions were tough because at each place I was creating a world around me and it’s tough to lose everyone,” she says.

While in Paris she experienced somewhat of a divine intervention. A chance meeting landed her a job in an office (her new dream!) at La Varenne École de Cuisine, the famed French culinary school.

“I was typing and editing recipes half a day in exchange for lunch and the opportunity to sit in on cooking demos,” she says. That job expanded into a full-time secretarial position at the school, which came with the compensation of a culinary degree and lodging.

“It was fabulous. I was so happy to have a place to hang my hat,” she says.

So begins the life of Lacoste as many in the industry know it.


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