A lot of people will say that food can open up a whole new world for a person, be it a new world of flavors and ingredients or insight into a foreign culture. Quanta Robinson, executive chef at Black’s Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda, sees it as her job to open people’s minds with cooking.
“It’s rewarding to hear, ‘I would never have tried ‘blank,’ but I did and I liked it,” she says. Quanta says that sometimes it’s as easy as changing the seasoning or the approach to a dish or particular ingredient, in order to get people to try something new (and like it). “I’m horrible with change, so I know it’s hard to break out of a comfort zone,” she jokes. But when a server or a guest at Black’s tells her that they enjoyed a dish they never thought they would, that’s when she can smile and cherish a “small victory.” “A lot of people aren’t chance-y or they’re picky, so it’s about making those people leave happy,” she says.
‘Black’s Bar and Kitchen‘
‘courtesy of spiggycat‘
When I asked the standard question about how she became a chef and got into cooking, Quanta says, “It was the one thing I always felt comfortable doing. Culinary school seemed like the logical choice.” She originally went into the restaurant industry thinking she would be in catering. For Quanta, the challenge of cooking in large amounts and doing so without sacrificing quality was appealing. She left the DC-area to attend the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where she graduated from in 2000 and then returned home to the District. After working for McCormick & Schmick’s where she learned more about seafood, she worked at BlackSalt, where she worked her way up to sous chef and then moved to Black’s Bar and Kitchen in 2009 to be the executive chef.
I’m always curious about how female chefs handle the restaurant business, if only because, well, there aren’t as many female chefs and there’s always the tired banter of how it’s “harder for women to work in a professional kitchen” or how female chefs are unfortunately not recognized as much for their work. According to Quanta though, it’s all about respect in the kitchen. “I don’t care if someone likes me in the kitchen, but I care about them respecting me. I can’t work in a disrespectful setting–that’s when you’re not focused on the food,” she says. She adds that while she agrees that it is often tougher for women in the professional kitchen, she is seeing more female students coming out of culinary school. For any of the stereotypical, kitchen hasslings, Quanta just says it’s about an individual’s attitude and “how much you let things like that get you off your game.”
From our conversation, I got the sense that Quanta is a chef who enjoys a challenge–she welcomed the challenge at the start of career in cooking banquet-sized proportions, she likes to try to get more people interested in seafood, and she said that she often looks for more negative feedback than positive. “I take the vibe from the public. I want people to have a good time,” she says. “Complaints always make their way back to the kitchen.” She adds that occasionally feedback from guests can prompt her to change a dish. “You shouldn’t ever get so comfortable that you don’t care about the opinions of your guests. Some chefs take offense to that kind of feedback, but it’s important to listen,” she says.
Similarly, she says that feedback is important for the DC restaurant scene and restauranteurs. She says she’s seen a lot of changes in the last few years in restaurants in DC. She cautions that restaurants in DC shouldn’t lose touch with their customers when the restaurant becomes more about the business side of the operation than the food. That being said, Quanta adds that what she loves most about the DC restaurant scene is that the chefs here are passionate. “I don’t feel like you find that everywhere,” she says.
Check back at 3 PM for Quanta’s recipe for malt mussels. Start dreaming of that brothy bowl of mollusks and your weekend.