Will Artley greets me with a bear-claw handshake, wearing bright Nantucket red pants and a matching hat that succinctly and accurately states, “No Farms, No Food.” After a quick cup of coffee, the executive chef of the Evening Star Cafe suggests we head out to the restaurant’s small “farm,” a gorgeous and overflowing vegetable patch about a mile away. “I put the doors on my Jeep since I knew you were coming,” he laughs. “I figured you wouldn’t want to ride on the motorcycle!” Will takes the opportunity to educate me on the “Jeep wave,” which has different protocol depending on the varying degrees of Jeep-ness.
I had met Will before at a few food events, but it quickly became clear that Will is a character in the best sense of the word. He’s incredibly friendly, but if you saw his serious face, you probably wouldn’t want to mess with him. “I like the instant gratification of cooking,” he says. “You can change people’s mood with food. They can have sat in traffic and be in a bad mood. But if you give them one taste and it changes their attitude, that’s rewarding.” Will adds that he also volunteers time each Monday at the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority teaching low-income families how to cook and eat healthy. “Cooking can change lives. If you’re in this business, you should be in it to make people happy,” he says.
There are also plenty of challenges that come with the rewards. There’s the simple challenge of navigating a tiny kitchen in the old townhouse that is home to the restaurant. Evening Star Cafe is set to undergo renovations starting this Fall, but will stay open throughout that time, according to Artley who’s excited about adding his input to how the new kitchen will look. The other challenge the chef deals with is “understanding that everybody has an opinion,” he says. “There’s still value in that opinion whether you agree or not. You’re gonna feed people and not all of them will be happy. It won’t be perfect for everyone and you’re still gonna make mistakes.”
As for why Will went into cooking in the first place, his answer for me was simple: “It’s been in my blood,” he says. He recalls making his first swiss and bologna omelette for his mom, all by himself, at five years old. While he admits that it probably didn’t taste very good, it’s apparent that cooking is something Will grew up around. “My mom was always cooking and I’d always be asking, ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ I knew cooking was my passion for the longest time,” he says.
So at 15, Will started working in restaurants. After a bit of a rocky end to high school, Will kept working at a diner in the mornings and as a sous chef at night in his town in upstate New York. That’s when he asked his older brother if he could borrow some money for culinary school. You know, 75 to 80 grand for culinary school. His brother did loan him the money on the condition that failure wasn’t an option. Luckily, Will rose to the challenge.
For some time, Will was cocky about his flair for cooking, until one of his best friends fired him when he was 20 years old and in culinary school. “He made me eat my humble pie,” he says. “I realized I didn’t know shit. I knew how to make things, but I didn’t know how everything worked and I didn’t know why.” Will’s first chef mentor was Seth Bixby Daugherty, who let him work in his kitchen for free and learn the ropes. “He taught me everything and treated me like a son,” he says of Daugherty. “He let me shadow the chefs and still work in the kitchen. He was setting me up to be great.”
After an externship at Aquavit in Manhattan, he went to Minneapolis to help open the now-closed second restaurant. Following graduation from culinary school, Will interviewed for a spot at Kinkead’s and moved to Virginia. While at first he says he didn’t like the city, mainly because he didn’t know the city and was living out in McLean, he unabashedly loves DC now. “As an army brat, I like the fact that no one’s really from here. Everybody’s from somewhere else, and there’s this built in social network because everyone is in the same boat,” he says. “I love that it’s a big city but I can drive 45 minutes and be out on a farm.” Being from New York, the comparison comes up and Will sums up what I never could figure out how to succinctly say to people: “DC’s not trying to be New York. So why compare it to New York?”
Within the DC restaurant scene, Artley says he likes the diversity, the freshness of the food and the emphasis on using local food and building relationships with farmers. “There’s also a camaraderie here with the chefs. It’s not cutthroat,” he says. There are a couple things the chef would like to see in the DC restaurant scene, namely a successful raw food restaurant and a restaurant partnered with DC Central Kitchen run entirely by their graduates. More restaurants growing their own vegetables couldn’t hurt either, says Artley. “When you grow you’re own food, you look at food differently,” he says, and adds in an anecdote about how upset he was when a few cooks accidentally burned the first batch of beets he grew.
Check back at 3 PM for Will’s recipe for tomato jam. It’s perfect for the season and can dress up anything from burgers to scallops to roasted chicken!