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Culinary Giant Robert Wiedmaier Brings his Foodheart to Old Town

photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks  "I started working as a saucier here in Old Town and commuted from Chevy Chase. I remember I took my breaks sleeping in my car behind the Morrison House. I have always liked Alexandria and I am so charged up to be back here," Wiedmaier told Local Kicks' Food Editor Jordan Wright

photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks "I started working as a saucier here in Old Town and commuted from Chevy Chase. I remember I took my breaks sleeping in my car behind the Morrison House. I have always liked Alexandria and I am so charged up to be back here," Wiedmaier told Local Kicks' Food Editor Jordan Wright

By Jordan Wright
February 2009
Whisk and Quill

Sitting down this week at the hammered‐copper bar in the dining room of his gorgeous Vicente Wolf designed new Brabo Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, culinary giant Robert Wiedmaier spoke of his love for classic French cooking and some of his earliest food memories.

Wiedmaier is well known for his generosity of time and talent and Friday’s interview was no exception. I asked him questions that he answered unhesitatingly with his depth of culinary knowledge and great good

The Local Kicks interview:

I understand that you are returning to Alexandria having once worked at the Morrison House’s restaurant when it was Le Chardon d’Or back in the early 80’s.

Yes, I started working as a saucier there and commuted from my home in Chevy Chase. I remember I took my breaks sleeping in my car behind the hotel. I’ve always liked Alexandria and I’m so charged up to be back here.

I call it one’s foodheart, when you enter people’s sensory memories by preparing a particular dish they love, I believe you will be in their foodheart forever.  How do you feel your cuisine affects people’s lives?

For me it’s the sauces. I’m a saucier at heart. One of the reasons I gravitated towards becoming a saucier is because I love sauces.

When I make a sauce I use the entire animal. When I create a veal stock we bring in the entire animal, the whole calf. We break them down, take the bones and caramelize them to get the “fond.” The lamb, the ducks, the chickens, give us the depth of flavor that make the reductions to base my sauces on. So when you eat my food you are eating hours of love put into that sauce. That’s what I call the “full circle”.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

It’s sourcing out the products you want to cook with and then taking that product and using every part. It’s much easier for chefs to buy the lamb tenderloins already filleted, but we do it here. You use the whole animal. We take all the fat from the duck and use the fat and legs for a con fit, and the breasts for a dish and make the bones into a sauce. I think it’s become a dying art. A lot of restaurants don’t do that. Someone who really knows food will taste that. They taste the sauce and go “Wow!

This is the real deal!” You taste the lamb stock and you taste the lamb, the hint of Madeira and the touch of cumin together.

Up until about fifteen years ago Alexandria was pretty much a backwater town when it came to restaurants. You are really bringing up the city’s profile along with our other top chefs, Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve and Morou Ouattara of Farah Olivia.

Yes, I know them and really like them and their food too. Last night some of my guests at our opening told me, “We are so glad you are here in Old Town. Now we don’t have to go across the river anymore.” I’m just electrified to be here.

People are perhaps familiar with your years of charitable work with St. Jude’s Hospital. How do you hope to engage in the Alexandria community?

My current activities include being on the board of the Tap Project. My wife, Polly, and I spearheaded their inauguration in this area. I hope to reach out and do something to touch the people of Alexandria directly. For those unfamiliar, the UNICEF Tap Project asks restaurants to participate in raising money by charging $1 for a glass of water during World Water Week March 22‐28. The funds then go toward providing clean water to many Third World countries.

If you could judge a person by what they eat, who would you most like to cook for?

If I could cook for anybody…well, you may think this is funny, but have you ever heard of a publication called “ La Belle France?” It’s based out of Charleston, SC. The two ladies that put out this newsletter go to France every year. The wonderful way they talk about and describe food, I’d really like to cook for them. They go all over France and eat at every one‐star, two‐star, three‐star, no‐star restaurant and the little bistros too. It’s been around for over 25 years. My mom turned me onto it. If you want to know what’s going on in France you should read this publication.

Can you tell me what are the earliest dishes you remember?

My mom was a fantastic cook, she could make stuff out of nothing. I have fond memories of going to the markets with her, in Germany and in Belgium. She knew where to get the best cheese, the best bread and flats of blackberries and what farmer to go to to find the best quality. She used to make the best chicken soups and sauce for turkey for Thanksgiving. She had no written recipes. She was so into cooking!

I believe, as a chef, that food is already inside our mind. We “see” the dish in our minds because we know the flavors that come from those ingredients. Do you agree?

Absolutely! Yes, we know what to expect. I am constantly telling my cooks, “It’s repetition. Taste it. Taste it. If you’re not tasting, you are not cooking.” They have to study everything by taste. That’s cooking!

I have written about or visited some Kimpton properties (the Lorien Hotel & Spa, here in Alexandria, are Wiedmaier’s partners in Brabo) and always experienced top‐drawer service from their staff. How has your experience been in opening this restaurant with your new partners?

Bringing my team together with Kimpton’s exceptional support staff has been a marriage made in heaven. They have blended so successfully since we are both quality and service‐driven.

As a restauranteur, how do you respond to the current economy?

As a chef my job is to teach my young cooks and train their palates. I tell them to “live that dish”, to imagine that they are sitting in the dining room and receiving that dish and paying for it. If you are dealing with mediocrity in this economic environment you’re not going to make it. We’re packed every night at Marcel’s because we concentrate on service and food.

You will be setting a new restaurant standard in this area, as people will be visiting Brabo from all over the country. What do you foresee as the new trends in food and how does that affect what you will cook?

The classics will never die…that’s why they’re called the classics. Fads don’t last long. My philosophy is, make me a great sauce, and a great roasted tarragon chicken. That’s what I want to eat. Basically what I have done is take the classics and refined and refined them over the years…refined my terrine of foie gras, my torchons and sweetbreads that I do in a roulade with shitake mushrooms and snails…very rich with very intense flavors. It’s the classics re‐interpreted and we use as many locally‐sourced ingredients as we can find from farmers such as Brad Parker of Pipe Dreams and his cheeses from Greencastle PA, and Joe Henderson’s Randall Lineback veal from Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville.

Do you like bison? Have you heard of Davis Winery in Virginia that has its own bison ranch?

I love bison.

I happen to have a six pound piece from there that I would love to see how you
would prepare it.

Okay, bring it over and we’ll cook it up!

This interview was conducted at Robert Wiedmaier’s BRABO on Feb. 13, and condensed and edited by chef and food writer Jordan Wright.

To see more photos of the new Lorien Hotel & Spa, go to DIGITAL KICKS.

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