Growing up, Ris Lacoste thought she would be anything but a chef. She was a pre-med student for two years at the University of Rochester; then she had visions of becoming a UN translator when she got her degree in French at UC-Berkeley. But all the while, Ris was working in the food and restaurant industry in some capacity since she was a teenager. “It was going on my whole life, but I didn’t know it,” she says. When she was 12, she started working at a Polish market on weekends helping out by stocking shelves. By the time she was 16, she was a short-order cook and later an assistant manager at Friendly’s.
Then came France. In 1981, Ris moved to Paris to study French and got a part-time job at La Varenne Écôle de Cuisine as a receptionist and an editorial stagiaire. Her payment? Cooking classes in exchange for work. Slowly, she came to see that all the experiences along the way–talking to the milk man at the Polish market, learning about purveyors, interacting with customers–all of those things pointed her in the direction of becoming a chef. After receiving her grand diplome in French cooking, Ris moved back to the states and started working for Bob Kinkead, before making the move to 1789 in 1995, where she was the executive chef for 10 years.
Chef Ris Lacoste
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Having been in DC for so long, I asked Ris what she thought of the dining scene and where she thought it was headed. “It’s a very challenging town to feed,” she explains. Ris adds that the population (and consequently its tastes) are largely transient, coming and going as politics and Congress changes. “There was no foothold to demand excellence from the cuisine. People came and went but didn’t demand of us.” But all of that is has been changing, says the chef. Over the past 15 years, she says, as more and more people have chosen to live within the city limits and make the District their home, restaurants are coming in to support residential life and are developing a food culture. For all its transiency though, Ris says she loves the diverse mix of clients in DC. “I love having a restaurant in such a powerful city,” she says.
Having been at 1789 for so long, I wanted to know what was the final push towards starting her own restaurant. Ris, of course, had a story. On a wine trip to Australia, she walked into a wine bar in Melbourne and a “lightning bolt struck.” She fell in love with the space and the rusticity of the place, that she knew she had to have something like this for herself in Washington. “The wheels started turning. It took some time to know it was right,” she says. “Then it was like opening a door in my brain, allowing the furniture to move in and establish a vision.” Today, she says the greatest reward is developing her staff, which she compares to forming a football team.
In the kitchen, Ris says a big source of her creative energy comes from her childhood or her memories of her mother’s cooking. She describes how it starts with one small thing–remembering the taste of toast with jam as a kid. And then that slowly morphs into something else such as a strawberry tart, paying homage to the memory but making it something new at the same time. Like many chefs, Ris also looks to others in the industry, magazines and farmer’s market for more inspiration. “Creating a dish takes time. To let myself be free to create is difficult,” she says.
Besides working on new dishes, Ris is also working on a new project called, Ris Walk 60 which starts on February 1st. The project is simple: anyone who wants can show up at the restaurant Monday through Friday at noon and walk with the chef for about an hour. For those who walk, there is a suggested donation of $1 per mile, and all proceeds will go to the Women’s Heart Center at GWU. Ris Walk 60’s goal is to raise $25,000. The chef says the project came about when she realized she needed to take better care of her health and decided that if she made a commitment to walk everyday with others, then she could do it. Ris Walk 60 is in memory of her mother, who passed away from a heart attack and stroke.
Check back at 3 PM for Ris’ endive, walnut and blue cheese salad. It’s a burst of fresh air as we make our way through the rest of winter.