When Julien Shapiro created the opening menu for Eat the Rich, he consulted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get some idea of which fish he should use and which to avoid.
The NOAA scientists could not tell him what to do, of course, but they could provide him with data and help him interpret it.
“If you look at the fishing reports, it says the numbers are such, and then you make a conclusion based on what you think is good,” Shapiro told me. “They will say whether it is overfished or underfished or if there is no data.”
To round out his view of the fish available in the mid-Atlantic, Shapiro makes an effort to visit each mid-Atlantic state and check with its Department of Natural Resources to discover local numbers on fish and confirm what is available.
These habits serve Shapiro and Eat the Rich well, as the chef and owners focus on local, sustainable seafood, derived heavily from the Chesapeake Bay.
“We are trying to focus exclusively on Chesapeake seafood. That’s our calling card,” Shapiro said.
Cocktail mogul Derek Brown and oysterman Travis Coxton opened Eat the Rich last year, naming it after a Motorhead song. Coxton is also behind Rappahannock River Oysters, which has expanded locally into Union Market in 2012. Eat the Rich serves those same oysters. Coxton is concerned about being a good steward of the local oyster population, Shapiro said, and the chef applies the same outlook to the rest of the seafood served at Eat the Rich.
An interest in making eel pie, for example, faded because the eel numbers in the Chesapeake have not been strong, so Shapiro turned to the invasive Snakehead instead. He relies on local bluefish and redfish as menu staples.
“We do a marinated bluefish with a ratatouille,” Shapiro said. “I try not to use French words because are supposed to be a mid-Atlantic rock bar, but there is no other word for it.
“It is not a common fish. It has a short shelf life, and it has a relatively strong flavor,” he continued. “But we pickle it, so it’s nice and mild. It’s acidic, so we prepare it in an olive oil. It comes out very well. We torch the skin so the skin is edible.”
The Virginia redfish comes poached in a consommé with Carolina shrimp, squid, onions and carrots. The restaurant’s chowder, dubbed Chowderhead (again after Motorhead), consists of a corn and potato soup with fish collars, steamed clams, salted pork jowl and crab.
“Everything we do complements each other,” Shapiro explained. “We get two uses out of everything. We cook the collars for the fish sticks that we serve for our fish fry on Friday. We serve some of it in the chowder, and from that stock, we make the consommé. Everything is full circle; nothing goes to waste.”
Shapiro also serves as chef at Southern Efficiency, located next door to Eat the Rich in the bustling corridor developing along 7th Street NW outside the Shaw metro station. So he strives to maximize the use of his menu items between the two establishments without actually duplicating dishes.
“You have to be creative. Nobody makes money by simply putting a price on it. To make money, you have to work for it,” Shapiro stated.
“So when we get shrimp, we get fresh shrimp from the Carolinas, and if some are broken, which invariably some are going to be, I use those to make a boudin, which is seafood sausage. I serve that at Southern Efficiency with the catfish,” he said. “There is a lot of labor in it; there’s effort; and you have to know what you’re doing to make them right. But for me it’s satisfying to take broken shrimp and make something different out of it—something good and original and hopefully something that tastes good.”
As Shapiro concentrates on sourcing his seafood from the mid-Atlantic, he looks from New Jersey to the Carolinas, avoiding highly migratory fish except perhaps the tuna albacore. Although he tries to find striped bass in season locally, the bass travel a bit along the coast, and currently come from Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
“The cooking is very traditional French in technique, but then we try to put it through a mid-Atlantic prism,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro certainly knows his French cuisine. He went to culinary school in Paris, but he found he was focusing more on hospitality rather than cooking as much as he would like. Shapiro went to work in Paris and then San Francisco and New York City before first coming to DC in 2002. He ended up working for Frank Ruta at Palena for more than five years, an experience that taught him more than any other.
“There, I relearned everything I thought I knew, and I thought I knew how to do stuff!” Shapiro said. “Working with Frank, everything was how it should have been—very good discipline, technique, recipes and consistency. It’s very rare that you will find someone who knows as much as he does and has the discipline that he has.”
Ruta, of course, served for a decade at the White House, where consistency was highly valued. The chef’s techniques left an indelible mark on Shapiro at Palena.
“That’s really where I got into the process of thinking differently—measuring everything as you go along, so that you have a window of error and you know what the boundaries are and which way to go when you do it again. It’s something that not enough people do,” Shapiro said.
After serving as butcher at Palena for two years there, Shapiro returned to Paris as a butcher at Gilles Verot and Hugo Desnoyer. He came back to the DC metro area to work as a butcher at Society Fair in Alexandria and then as the butcher at Range. Butchering is still very much a passion of his, and he hopes one day to operate his own butcher shop.
“I’ve always liked the idea of a European-style full-service butcher shop and grocer,” Shapiro said, adding that perhaps it’s a concept that he could explore with Brown in the future.
But the chef is also keenly interested in working on systems so that would inform kitchens and consumers as to where their products originate.
“I think a lot of people shop or choose where they eat because it satisfies their conscience,” Shapiro elaborated. “People say, I want to buy this product because I know that it’s good and it comes from a part of the world where the people are treated well and the environment is treated well.
“But if I’m not selling you that product, there is a little bit of fraud and duplicity there, and I don’t like that. I would like to try to make the purveyors and everyone a bit more accountable, so I know what I’m getting,” he added.
When he orders Carolina shrimp, for example, he’s confident that he’s getting the correct product, but sometimes there is no way of knowing. A purveyor may say a swordfish comes from Nova Scotia because that’s where the fishing boat landed. The boat could have went anywhere.
“There’s a little bit of mystery where the food comes from, and I would like to try to reel that in,” Shapiro said.
In the meantime, the chef enjoys honing his skills and precision at the “mid-Atlantic rock bar,” although he’s decidedly not a headbanger. When it comes to music, Shapiro prefers the sounds of the ‘70s—artists like The Band, Van Morrison, Earth, Wind and Fire, or Chicago.
And in the kitchen at Eat the Rich, the crew often listens to bluegrass!
“I think bluegrass is very soothing,” Shapiro said. “You don’t have to pay so much attention to the music. If people have to concentrate to listen too much, they could get lost in what they are doing. With bluegrass, it’s soothing, and no one fights over the station.”