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Bourbon Steak – Chef David Varley

By Jordan Wright
The Georgetowner/Downtowner
August 20, 2009

Photo by Jordan Wright - Chef David Varley beside his herb garden at the Four Seasons Georgetown

Photo by Jordan Wright - Chef David Varley beside his herb garden at the Four Seasons Georgetown

Witnessing the enthusiasm of Chef David Varley talking about his herb and vegetable garden at the Four Seasons is like hearing a proud father wax adoringly about his perfect child. Varley is the Executive Chef at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, the recently launched stylish restaurant in the Four Seasons, Georgetown location. He grew up on a small farm in New Jersey, came to DC via Las Vegas, and is one of our true champions of local, organic and sustainably harvested foods.

Standing in the 500 square-foot garden he designed with Mina, Varley is most inspired. While perched above the canal’s towpath, with runners streaming by and strollers listening in to his demonstration, he plucks, twists and thumbpresses herbs under your nose as you imagine into what gastronomic wonder this plant will be incorporated. With a highly creative ingredient-driven menu that revolves with the seasons, Varley is establishing Bourbon Steak as much more than a steakhouse. In fact that’s a misnomer. His approach is more in line with Michelin-starred French chef, Edouard Loubet who sources all his food seasonally from the fields around his native Provence and who has come to represent the Slow Food movement’s praise of the local farmer.

JW – Recently plans have been approved for a large rooftop garden at the hotel.
What will you plant in it?

DV – All the things that are fragile like green and yellow wax filet beans, Romano beans, eggplants, tomatoes, fennel, peppers, beets, Swiss chard, tender lettuces and squashes. Maybe cardoons.

We’ll keep the small garden for annual herbs that we now grow like lemon basil and thyme, lemongrass, hyssop, lavender, dill, chervil, cilantro, lovage and five kinds of mint…pineapple mint, peppermint, spearmint, “Best” mint and orange mint.

JW – Explain the LEED certification the hotel received and how it applies to the kitchen.

DV – Mainly we have been really proactive with our recycling and composting. We work with a company called EnviRelation that picks up all our “wet waste” including bones from the stocks, coffee grinds and leftover rice, tissue and paper products and transforms it into top soil for our garden. Guests are really responsive to the program too. There are notes around the hotel asking them to turn lights off. They love it. They really like to pitch in.

JW – I have a theory that if your mother or grandmother gardened eventually you’ll come around to it. Who was your biggest influence in the garden?

DV – My mother! I call her the Alice Waters of the East Coast. We grew up in New Jersey. My mother was an old hippie and lived on farms all her life. We had three acres with chickens and a large herb garden and supplied all the local restaurants around Sussex with herbs. She grew everything from beets and Swiss chard, to beans and squash and had ten different kinds of fruit trees. She was big into food production. She taught me about where food comes from. Kids that don’t grow up with that don’t know what a beet’s supposed to taste like when it just comes out of the ground.

JW – Do you ask your growers to grow certain things for you?

DV – Well, when I was in Las Vegas there was a woman who was also a dealer at the casino and she supplied me with my herbs. I told her, Paula, this is fantastic can you grow this and that for me. And before you know it she had 50 different herbs and we set her up with a business license and by the time I left for the East Coast she was supplying all the restaurants and casinos on the strip. We became great friends and the whole experience was really rewarding.

JW – Some chefs are literally foraging in the woods for herbs to use in dishes like wood sorrel for salads, nasturtium for pesto, hyssop infused into syrups, and even catnip in sauces. Do you forage around here?

DV – We do harvest a lot of things like wood ear mushrooms and wild Buckler’s sorrel makes an appearance too. We made carrot pollen with Queen Anne’s lace flowers.

In California I used to harvest wild fennel flowers around Santa Monica. We’d pickle them or dry out the pollen for sauces.

JW – What is the philosophy of Bourbon Steak?

DV – Michael’s (Mina) vision was to create a restaurant that is accessible and interesting, but not so far out that it would alienate our guests. It wouldn’t be pretentious or fancy, but a place to do fun things, like our truffled French fries. I have always wanted to make the most interesting and intricate food possible.

But I also wanted to put the best food on the plate no matter what the critics say. There’s nothing wrong with putting green beans on a plate if they’re the best green beans. I felt that I would have the freedom to do what I wanted to do here.

Photo by Jordan Wright - Passion fruit Panna Cotta at Bourbon Steak

Photo by Jordan Wright - Passion fruit Panna Cotta at Bourbon Steak

In New Jersey I grew up next door to Polish immigrants who also had a great garden. They used to make pierogi for everyone in the neighborhood. Now I can do them here too.

JW – Can you tell me what ingredients excite you now?

DV – I just got in 80 pounds worth of Balaton cherries from Michigan and jarred some in bourbon to use in our manhattans. And last night I did a Cherry in Foie Gras dish for a VIP guest who was drinking a beautiful Gevrey-Chambertin wine that is a perfect pairing with cherries.

And now, here comes my esteemed mixologist, Dwayne, dropping off his experiment of Bourbon and Cherry Cola. Okay, this is a virtual tasting. High five, Dwayne! We’ve got a winner!

JW – Who would you most like to cook for?

DV – My mom, and I wish Julia Childs were around so I could cook for her too. I like to cook for anyone who gets it. Every day I try to hit it out of the park for the real foodies who come in that might be drinking a special bottle of wine or who are having an anniversary or birthday. I’ll send over something special and I feel like Santa Claus whenever I can do that!

JW – What is the sauce that is poured over the top of the magnificent Passion Fruit Panna Cotta you serve at the restaurant?

DV – That was Chef Lincoln Carson’s signature dessert [Mina Group’s Corporate Pastry Chef]. He is one of the great, unsung heroes in the pastry world. He uses a lemongrass consommé. It’s a distilled essence of lemongrass.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

For questions or comments contact [email protected]

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