It was a rainy, grey Sunday, which in my book usually means a day spent in bed, catching up on emails while watching some god-awful reality show that makes me question humanity as we know it. But the saving grace this Sunday was Anthony Lombardo, Executive Chef at 1789 Restaurant. He greeted me with a smile and a cup of coffee presented in a large plastic cup, “You gotta drink it like the chefs do” and I happily obliged. And thus, my day as a poser began.
1789 needs little introduction- it is a Washington DC staple, a Georgetown establishment that has fed Presidents, international Diplomats, celebrities and the like. It is also smack in the middle of one of the youngest areas in town, forming part of the Georgetown University campus. As a Georgetown student I never dined at 1789, rather, our friends would gather down at The Tombs, where beer ran cheap and burgers were substance enough. There’s a beautiful juxtaposition between the two; 1789 and The Tombs. The Tombs is packed with students; the culture hungry, the intellectuals, the dreamers, the young and somewhat restless. 1789, above, is where that Tombs student wants to be one day. Established, powerful, settled, taken care of by world class staff and in a world class setting. The harmonizing link between the two is Chef Lombardo, whose responsibility it is to run 1789 and the Tombs flawlessly.
A year ago, Chef Lombardo was given the position as Executive Chef at 1789 after a grueling interview process. In just two hours the man cooked six dishes- all of which he recounted in exact detail, for a panel of judges. The panel undoubtedly made the right choice, bringing in a chef who is focused on quality ingredients, flawless execution, and flavorful perfection, not to mention with the right leadership and right attitude to lead one of the most important kitchens in the city. In the year Lombardo has been at 1789, the restaurant has had its most successful summer yet, and that’s saying a lot seeing as it has been around for 50 years now. He was given full control, changed the entire menu, introduced new techniques and spruced it all up with a fresh, new attitude.
A young Italian-American kid from Detroit, Lombardo grew up around two things- food and diversity. These two fueled a great culinary journey- for one lends itself well to the other. Lombardo was influenced heavily by his Italian family roots, and by his Middle Eastern migrant surroundings, which taught him understanding and acceptance, and a whole lot of humor. His cooking is undoubtedly American with an Italian undertone, a combination which is equally reflected in his persona. Within minutes of meeting Lombardo you are instantly at ease. He is a far cry from what I expected a chef of his caliber to be like- young and unafraid, welcoming and warm, all at the same time. And the dude knows how to crack a joke probably as well as he knows how to cook.
What Lombardo loves most about the restaurant is “Taking care of people. I fell in love with the business of taking care of people.” And does he ever. His staff looks up to him and adores him. We walked through the kitchen and everyone greeted him with a hug and a smile given that he had just returned from a week-long vacation with his family in Michigan. Ever gracious he shares the credit for his success, stating he is “lucky to have a strong staff” who he can trust to run the place just the same as if he wasn’t there. I asked what made him a good leader, “Patience and strong will, but I am not a screamer. I’ve had plates thrown at me and what not, but that’s not how you run a good kitchen.” At only 30, Lombardo has had quite the career already, one in which he has come across many people who recognized his talent and motivated him to pursue it further. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and worked for some of the best restaurants in the country, including Everest in Chicago and Bacco in Detroit. It was at Bacco where he met his mentor, Luciano Del Signore, who taught Chef Lombardo how to really run a restaurant, giving him both cooking and life lessons along the way.
Even with all of the celebrities and power couples that frequent 1789, Lombardo is unfazed. “Every customer is the same” he explains, “every dish that goes out should be the same.” What Lombardo cares about is his kitchen running right, with strong-willed people who can take on the tough challenges but remain passionate. “You have to have the heart. I don’t waste time on people who don’t have their heart in it. Maybe the skill isn’t quite there, but that you can learn.”
For those who don’t already know it, the restaurant industry is a seriously tough one. The long hours and high pressure lend themselves to some big challenges. No weekends, no nights. “We work when other people play, that’s just the way it is.” But Lombardo’s passion is his purpose and it is seen and felt in his cooking.
I’m always impressed by the care givers. Not the kind who bring us back to health, but the kind who feed us, who take care of us when we didn’t even really realize we were being taken care of. Who pour their hearts into a plate for the satisfaction of seeing our happiness. Thank you to the chefs out there. Thank you to Chef Lombardo for taking care of the young dreamers and the seasoned souls alike.
Check back in at 1pm for Part II, which includes a classic 1789 recipe.