Alex McCoy, the chef and co-owner of Duke’s Grocery, really doesn’t like to make a dish unless he’s traveled to its country of origin.
“You can go online right now, and if you want to learn how to make Indian food, you could spend hours and hours and hours watching videos and tutorials and reading up about it,” McCoy said.
“Twenty years ago, in order to do the same, you would either have to live in India or work with an Indian chef,” he told me one recent sunny afternoon while sitting on the patio of his East London-inspired bar and restaurant.
McCoy believes there is an element of authenticity to the latter approach, which he takes very seriously. For example, the young chef very much enjoys papaya salad, and perfected his own after travels to Thailand. While anyone may look up how to make a papaya salad, it’s a totally different experience to experience the food directly from a street vendor who has lived with the dish her entire life and who has made it in front of you, he said.
“In many cases, unless you’ve seen someone making that dish in its element and in the place it was created, it’s really hard to respect food the way food should be respected,” McCoy said.
Today, he quipped, he envisions a little old lady from Thailand sitting next to him whenever he makes his papaya salad. This woman represents the street vendors he grew to love there. If he gets the salad wrong, she scolds him.
There is very little, if anything, to find wrong about Duke’s Grocery, the 17th Street pub McCoy founded with two business partners a little over a year ago. The cozy, friendly establishment seems like an extension of the affable McCoy’s personality. And it serves up food he knows very well.
McCoy’s parents grew up in London and met there. Starting from his birth, he would travel there a lot with his mother, a chef, and his father, a government official. And from a young age, he experienced traditional British and immigrant foods that pervaded the city of London, particularly its East End.
Eventually, McCoy determined he too would be a chef, and worked at various restaurants, eventually running the kitchen at the Rugby Café in Georgetown until it closed. But a couple of equally influential things occurred along the way. McCoy and his brother won an NBC television competition called Chopping Block in 2009, which led to an opportunity to work with Marco Pierre White, who is now enshrined in portrait at Duke’s.
“That was massively influential,” McCoy said of the month-long experience of learning from the youngest British chef ever to earn three Michelin stars. “It’s asking the Dalia Lama, What’s the meaning of life? You can spend a whole lifetime researching it and trying to figure it out or you could ask this guy.”
McCoy also has worked with Roberto Donna, most notably managing the bar at Al Dente, where Donna shared his love of Italian food with the younger chef.
“He gave me the opportunity to learn recipes from him. He’s a spectacular teacher and a really nice guy,” McCoy said. “Roberto is such a chef through and through to the core, he would put 800 things on the menu just so he would have the opportunity to work with 800 different ingredients. He just loves food and making food so much.”
McCoy vowed to open his own place by the time he was 30 years-old, and indeed signed the lease on Duke’s only days before his deadline.
Once McCoy and his two business partners set the restaurant in motion, he knew the kitchen would draw its inspirations from East London, and specifically the neighborhood of Shoreditch, home to Brick Lane curries—and in my opinion an endlessly fascinating nightlife scene.
“I kept hearing people talk about how the food in London is terrible. I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, you don’t know London then, because there’s fantastic food in London!’” McCoy declared.
London itself has a truly international atmosphere, McCoy said, and nowhere is that more obvious than during a walk through Shoreditch, where you can find a banh mi shop, a funky bar, a traditional pub and a Bengali restaurant in the same block. There along Brick Lane, a stone’s throw from the famous Rough Trade East record shop, you’ll find the world-famous Beigel Bake, home to a renowned brisket called salt beef, a dish Duke’s Grocery has introduced to D.C. with resounding success.
The international backdrop of East London and its immigrant-heavy population also gives Duke’s Grocery an opening to put a lot of different dishes on its menu.
“Because we idolize a neighborhood that has so many culturally diverse influences, there is really no limit to what we can do,” McCoy said. “I can really experiment with a whole spectrum of cuisine and then mix and match. And try to see how we can combine different kinds of influences together that’s unique but still representative of that part of town.”
While the international flavor of Duke’s cuisine might go over well with the denizens of well-traveled D.C., McCoy thinks the comfort of a local, familiar spot has just as much if not more to do with the success of Duke’s Grocery to date.
“When I was a kid growing up here, you had a lot of big restaurants and types of places where you are working on the Hill and swipe your corporate card and take someone to a meeting but you didn’t really have a focus on things like 17th Street or 14th Street,” he said. “There wasn’t that space with a neighborhood gathering point, but now more and more neighborhoods are trying to find those places.”
A comfortable, familiar space gives McCoy an opportunity to introduce his diners to things they may never have tried previously. By the same token, McCoy favors a familiar format for delivering that food—sandwiches (or “sarnies” in the British vernacular).
“One of the reasons we chose sandwiches is that you can be from Southeast Asia or South America or Europe or the United States and you still feel comfortable ordering a sandwich, because a sandwich is a sandwich,” McCoy said. “It’s a vehicle to introduce people to things they may or may not be comfortable with on a regular basis in a way they are okay with it. They will give it a shot.”
The Brick Lane Salt Beef (the signature brisket of which appears in other sandwiches like the Ruby on Rye) was a hit in part because it was new yet familiar, McCoy said. The salt beef has been surpassed in recent months by the Proper Burger, which has won accolades at home and across the country for being remarkably tasty. McCoy originally resisted the idea of a burger because he wanted to avoid typical D.C. “pub grub.” He warmed to the idea eventually but he wanted it to be the best it could be.
“As opposed to the big thick burger, I kept saying to myself, ‘What’s the best burger? What are the burgers I go crazy for?’” McCoy said. “They are usually the greasy, cheesy Five Guys or diner burger. Those are always the best burgers. You always eat them at 3 o’clock in the morning and nosh on some massive, greasy burger. We tried to do our spin on that. That’s why we do the thin patties and the double decker piled high with toppings.”
McCoy personally enjoys the curries at Duke’s Grocery, which are made from scratch. He’ll ship ingredients from India to get them right (just as he sources authentic ingredients for all of his dishes).
In the future, McCoy plans to expand his kitchen so that he can offer the salt beef all of the time instead of only periodically, as it takes two weeks to prepare the beef, which then sells quickly at 600-700 lbs. a clip.
“I generally don’t plan menus ahead of time. They appear when they appear,” McCoy confessed.
That said, he is interested in adding charcuterie, cured bacon and homemade pastas to the rotations on Duke’s menus. And he would like to see more Indian curries on a regular basis, along with tikka masala, lamb vindaloo and Indian Dal.
Personally, I discovered Shoreditch and its wonderful variety of food, the very staples of Duke’s Grocery, because of my own musical interests. During several visits to London, I’ve done little other than shop at Rough Trade, hit the stages and turntables during the Stag and Dagger music festival, or marvel at the environments that housed such places as John Foxx’s recording studio The Garden.
So of course, I had to ask McCoy about his own taste in music.
“My menu is very representative of my music choices–a little bit of everything,” he said.
Today, that includes some EDM as well as classic rock and modern R&B.
“In the same way food can be beautiful because each dish is the sum of its parts, music is the same way,” McCoy said. “I don’t think one genre of music is better than another. You have to take each genre of music as its own thing and look at all of the different components that go into that. All genres are beautiful in their own way. I love folk music. I love country music. You can’t compare them.”
Duke’s Grocery has won praise for its music playlists as well as its food, and the observation sparks McCoy’s enthusiasm.
“The ambience is as important as the food. Restaurants live and die off details, and the nuances are the most important thing,” McCoy said.
And so all details of a restaurant are equally important, he said. Hold them all the same level of care—whether lighting, music, food, service or bar.
“If you do that and you really respect every little detail in a restaurant, you are going to create a really dynamite atmosphere,” McCoy said. “Great atmosphere makes the food taste better; great food makes the atmosphere feel better; great music makes everything better. They all work together, and that’s what really creates a successful restaurant.”