Some people seek out their careers, and others have careers that seek out them. The latter was the case for executive chef of Vermilion, Tony Chittum, when he started working in a Mexican restaurant at 14 years old, just washing dishes. “It was easy to get a job in a restaurant then, and I liked it because of the energy,” he says. “Eventually I got sick of dishes and learned how to cook. I was 17 when I met the first real chef I worked for and realized that I could make a career out of this.”
It was then that Chittum “learned why and how to make things,” he says, describing the first time he learned how to make a roux. The Maryland native later moved out to San Francisco, where he worked for and learned from the “classically trained and intense” chef, Don Link. Chittum says that working for a chef of that caliber was a “big eye opener” and he began to learn what it would take to make it as a chef. Fast forward to today, and Chittum can honestly say he can’t see himself doing anything else.
Eventually cooking took him back to DC in 1999, where he worked at Equinox, Notti Bianche and Aria. Watching the dining scene change in the area, Tony highlights the increase in choices, particularly in the suburbs, as improvements. However, the one thing the chef steers clear of is getting swept up in food trends. “I like local and seasonal,” Chittum says, adding “simple and fresh” to his list of criteria for putting something on his menu. As part of his independence from food fads, Chittum says he’d like to see an increased awareness from the public about where their food is coming from, and butcher shops in more communities. “The restaurant scene reflects what people want,” he says. “Until people push for slow food, it’s not going to happen as much as it should.”
Throughout all of his career, Tony says the most rewarding part of being a chef is “making people happy,” adding that he strives to keep both the customers and his staff pleased. The chef rattles off a few of the examples that make an impact: the good comment cards, when guests want to say hello after a meal they’ve enjoyed or teaching his staff a new dish after the menu changes. Like many other chefs, Tony says taking any negative feedback, continuing to improve and balancing his personal life and work life are all challenges.
If you really want to see the chef at his greatest, Vermilion hosts farm table dinners in their upstairs dining room for up to six guests on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Chittum serves a special tasting menu for the table and says he uses it as an opportunity to play around with ingredients and new dishes. It also allows the chef to spend a little time outside of the kitchen, explaining the courses and where all of the ingredients are sourced from.
Check back at 3 PM for Tony’s recipe for a brussels sprout salad with farro, apples, black walnuts, blue cheese and dates. Sounds like a party in your mouth, doesn’t it?