Ask Fabio Trabocchi what the biggest challenge for him is and you’ll get an interesting answer. “There are no challenges,” he says, and promptly laughs as if to correct himself. Normally, I’d be surprised by such an answer, but when you think about what the chef of Fiola has achieved–a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic in 2006, Chef of the Year from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington in 2005, Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2002, oh and not to mention working at a 3 star Michelin restaurant by 16 years old–you might think this super-chef has indeed transcended any challenges. Trabocchi clarifies: “It depends on how you look at a challenge. That’s what makes it fun. It’s challenging to run out of challenges. Every challenge is very exciting.”
The chef explained that while some other people might look at work in terms of hours, he chooses not to and frankly, says he doesn’t have time to. “I do this because I really like it,” he says. “I’m involved in the food, the financial side–in every part of the restaurant. I like all the aspects of [the restaurant industry].” As he moves around the kitchen and talks to me in our interview, it’s clear that Trabocchi operates with a certain degree of intensity and razor-sharp focus. Every move is done with purpose. He explains how his work as a chef differs from most: “Other professions can go back and fix their work. A cook puts food on the plate and gets that one chance.”
Growing up in a food-focused family, you start to wonder if Trabocchi’s talent is simply innate. His father had a farm in Italy and “passed along a way of living that I didn’t realize he had passed onto me,” says the chef. Trabocchi reminisced about spending time in the kitchen and awaking on Sundays to the smell of roasting meat, seeing piles of flour turn into fresh pasta. Because of his upbringing with an appreciation for food and fresh ingredients, and despite certain teachers telling him he was “too smart to go to culinary school,” Trabocchi headed to culinary school, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back on his career, Trabocchi credits Maestro as the “place where we made our reputation.” While working in New York was always something he wanted to do and indeed succeeded in doing so at Fiamma, he returned to DC in 2011. “In DC more than ever, there’s a roadmap to expand and evolve,” he says. The chef says the competition in the restaurant scene is healthy and that it raises the bar for the city as a whole. Though people outside of the city may not view DC as a “culinary destination” yet, due to stigma from what the scene was like 10 or so years ago, Trabocchi says he believes the city is “aggressively changing” with even more changes happening in the next six years or so.
For the skeptics about bringing in culinary talent and restaurateurs from outside of DC, Trabocchi has one of the best answers I’ve heard. “I don’t have a problem with people coming in from out of town. It’s human reaction to think, ‘Why are they coming here?’ But let’s see what they can do and if they can teach us some tricks. It’s okay. It brings more interest to DC and hopefully everyone wins and sharpens their game,” he says. Sitting with Trabocchi it becomes abundantly clear that he’s a confident and meticulous chef whose food backs up his stellar reputation every step of the way.
One thing Trabocchi loves about DC is the customer base. “The loyalty level of customers here is second to none,” he says. “It’s quite unique. The customers are like an extension of your family and friends. I’ve always thought the strength of the attachment of clients to restaurants is stronger here than in other places.” He jokes about how he’s had long-time customers apologize to him about trying other restaurants in the area.
Looking ahead to what’s in store for the chef who’s been running Fiola for about a year, Trabocchi hints that he’s starting to look at other places and think about other concepts for a second restaurant in DC–”something completely different, probably Italian, but not necessarily.” Stay tuned for more on that one, DC.
Check back at 3 PM for Fabio’s recipe for mozzarella toast and a Tuscan tomato soup–the perfect throwback to anyone’s childhood favorite of grilled cheese and tomato soup, but with an Italian and Fabio-esque twist.