Like many chefs, John Critchley, the new executive chef of Urbana, is cooking because he says, “I don’t know anything else.” Cooking, albeit his full-time job, doesn’t even feel like work sometimes. John started working in a kitchen in his freshman year of high school where he learned that many times your kitchen staff becomes like a family.
“I try to promote that same feeling in my kitchens now,” he says. “You spend 60 hours a week working with each other so it becomes a family. It becomes what you grow to love doing.”
While working in the kitchen creates a family of sorts, he does admit that it’s a challenge to balance everyone’s different cultures, attitudes and work habits. However, John strives to bring his team together and says that he likes seeing people reach their goals because it helps the development of his team in the kitchen. “I want to see my line cooks move up to sous chef. I want to see that they’re motivated to improve,” he says.
Prior to moving to DC to head up the kitchen at the restaurant below Hotel Palomar in Dupon Circle, Critchley was in Miami at Area 31, where he became passionate about sustainable seafood. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, who own Area 31 and Urbana, had partnered with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which became an important cause to Critchley. He says he will continue to push for using locally sourced and sustainably fished or farmed fish to use at Urbana. Taking sustainability into account “forces you to be a little more creative with fish you don’t usually use,” he says.
Originally from outside of Boston, he says that he’s looking forward to being back in the northeast where there are four seasons that can offer a variety of produce and new challenges. While DC is no Miami (and vice versa), John has already found some things to love about our city. “I love the diverse amount of people living and working here,” he says. “Even on this block there are so many different kinds of restaurants. It’s fun to be back in an area that’s so diverse.”
Although he’s still getting a feel for the DC restaurant scene, he agrees that the District has a pool of very talented and creative chefs. “The chefs here really embrace farm to table and have fun with it. There’s a strange casualness in DC restaurants, even in the nicer restaurants. It’s unpretentious.”
As for what John has in store for Urbana, he says that he’ll be pushing to change the menu monthly or even make tweaks to dishes every few weeks so they’re constantly evolving. As more spring and summer produce comes out, he says, it will work with making subtle changes to the menu to showcase items that are available for shorter periods of time. He’s already taken advantage of the change in seasons in DC by going to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market to look for fresh produce and new ideas.
Check back at 1 PM for his recipe for a rich and creamy Shellfish Stew with Coconut and Lime.