“Boys and their toys,” I laugh to Cathy. She and I are leaning against the counter in the kitchen at The Grille at Morrison House, watching Chef Dennis Marron pull out all his kitchen tools. He whips out a set of huge tweezers, tapping them together. “These are looser, more flexible,” he explains, comparing them to the pair he’s got in his other hand. Cathy and I nod knowingly.
Chef Marron is flipping big fat cuts of bacon in a cast iron pan using tweezers, and I was poking fun at him, teasing him about his tool of choice. His partner in crime, Brian Turowski, chef de cuisine at Jackson 20, is sticking up for him. “There’s a lot of detail work in plating here,” Turowski says. “The tweezers are good for that.” And it’s true. Chef Marron oversees the kitchen at two Old Town restaurants, the more casual southern-American themed Jackson 20, and the more buttoned-up The Grille at Morrison House. Chef Turowski has taken over duties at Jackson 20, and Marron spends most nights at The Grille. The plates at The Grille are more fussy, and thus, the tweezers. The home-cooking at Jackson 20 is much more basic in presentation. Today, both tweezer-wielding chefs are together in the kitchen, teaching Cathy and I to construct Jackson 20′s signature Wedge salad – a fatty delight of blue cheese, pickled onions and bacon.
Chef Marron pulls out a spoon. “We call this one the shovel”, he says. He’s rummaging around, trying to find all the second-hand tools he’s bought and stocked the kitchen with. “I got a sandwich press for six dollars once!” he exclaims with glee. “Chefs are cheap,” Turowski jokes. And that’s not all. Together they’ve collected tons of spoons, a seltzer, even an ice crusher. Cathy inquires where they get all their cookware, and Marron points towards King Street, where Look Again Resale Shop is located. The thrift store is a treasure trove, apparently. “Good stuff over there,” Marron agrees.
We started out the afternoon creating the pickled onions. Turowski is stoked about pickling. “What do you guys pickle?” Cathy asks. “Everything!” Turowski exclaims. The menu at both Jackson 20 and The Grill is laced with pickled things. The chefs say it adds flavor, it’s economical to preserve, cuts the fat and cleans the palate. Marron chops the onions, and boils the pickling liquid.
Picking up his tweezers, he turns to the bacon. It’s happily frying in a small cast iron pan, which the chefs seem to love. It’s a no clean pan, they explain. “You can get them at Sports Authority!” says Marron. It’s got salt, grease, everything it needs to make the food taste good, and they’re easy to use. Just steam off the previous meal, and you’re good to go for the next.
Turowski gets to whisking up the blue cheese dressing. I’m asking him about his history, he comes from Evening Star Cafe, and before that Indigo Landing. “Back when it was good?” I ask. “Yeah, exactly.” Indigo Landing is an insult to DC, in my opinion. Situated on the water at the National Sailing Marina in Alexandria, it could be perfect. “The National Parks run that place now,” Marron says. “Ugh, such a shame,” I agree.
As Turowski is blending together the dressing, Marron looks in the compost can and finds a styrofoam container. “Get that out of the compost, please”, he scolds his staff. As part of the go-green initiative, all of Kimpton’s restaurants compost in the kitchen. “We compost everything,” Marron states proudly. The scraps from the kitchen go to a pig farm in Pennsylvania, and a few vegetable farms in Maryland. If they’ve got overflow, it goes to making fill for local parks.
The dressing is done, and the bacon has cooled. We’re ready to dress up the iceburg lettuce. Chef Marron dunks the entire lettuce wedge into the blue cheese salad bowl. Cathy says exactly what I’m thinking; “That was NOT what I was expecting us to do next” she states as Marron slathers the blue cheese dressing in the lettuce using his hands. “Me neither,” I call out, laughing. It’s messy. “Sometimes you just gotta get messy,” Marron instructs.
And soon we’re seated at the bar, chowing down on the salad. I ask how the menus are built. Marron explains that he’s really into historical research with food. “You can’t forget the past,” he says, explaining how he found an old menu from the Waldorf Astoria that he used as a basis for a New Year’s menu.
Marron enjoys researching a theme, and then tweaking it to fit. He said one of his lamb dishes at The Grille is an example. “I took everything that goes well with lamb in the history of men and put it on a plate together.” The perfect interest/hobby for a chef that is located in Old Town, Alexandria, surrounded by history.
To try out The Wedge salad, or the lamb dish – or any of Marron and Turowski’s cooking – head over to Old Town and stop by The Grille or Jackson 20. And stay tuned at 3 p.m. for Cathy’s adventures in pickling, and the full salad recipe.