Nathan Beauchamp and I are in the offices above the 1789 Restaurant, and I’m getting nervous. He, meanwhile, is cool as ice water, and opening up a little more as time passes, as if he’s settling into his element. It’s a little after 6 p.m. on Monday, and the office is empty save for us. Nothing visibly distinguishes it from any other D.C. office forced into a building not made to hold it—in this case, an old Georgetown townhouse. There are some old wooden desks, temporary shelving full of office supplies, various papers tacked on the walls. The smell of the restaurant’s famous rack of lamb and its other celebrated $30-ish entrees don’t make it upstairs. Insulated from the expectant customers in the cozy dining rooms below and the so-called “controlled chaos” of the kitchen, my viscera are knotting up little by little, because the restaurant opened at six, and I feel like the head chef should be in the kitchen, not in an office with me.
Nathan knows what he’s doing, of course. While we’re upstairs, sous chef Scott Atkinson is down in the kitchen playing the role of expediter—the thin line between the chaos and the control. Entering from the main dining room, the first impression you get of this kitchen is unremarkable, with a mass dishwashing operation on your left, and a small counter and set of cabinets on your right where the servers pour drinks (all of 1789’s drinks come in bottles, as the restaurant does not maintain a soda fountain). Take a few steps forward, though, and the kitchen will open wide to your right and left as you’re confronted with the totality of the “line.” The room-length stainless-steel countertop features two open shelves above the waist-high main surface, and all the accoutrements of a restaurant kitchen—plates, measuring tools, spices and the like. The line opens in the middle, allowing people to pass between the hot side on the right and the cold side, home of the salads and the desserts, on the left. The expediter stands on the near side while a series of other chefs known as line cooks stand on the other. Each line cook is in charge of a specific portion of the night’s menu, and the space is tight enough that all the stove tops, ovens, grills and appliances they need to cook the orders are always within reach. It’s like assembly line meets abstract art: every person plays a specific role, teamwork is the rule of law and the only aim is a night’s worth of satisfied diners.
Scott’s role as expediter—which can be fulfilled either by the sous chef or Nathan, the executive chef—is akin to playing quarterback. When a server takes an order, he or she enters it into the restaurant’s computer system, and what looks like a receipt enters the kitchen from a small printer hung in the middle of the hot line. Appetizers come out on yellow paper, main dishes on white, and Scott takes the order and reads it aloud to the line chefs. The cook in charge of that dish repeats the order so Scott knows it was heard, and then gets to work. Once a dish is prepared, the line cook slides it back across the line, and the expediter puts on the finishing touch, in one case a little bit of sauce stored in a thermos. When all of a table’s orders are ready, the server will carry them out with a touch of acrobatics—plates lined all the way down his or her arms. Scott and Nathan switch off as expediter throughout the night, while the other performs all the small tasks that keep a restaurant running, like making sure things are going smoothly elsewhere and setting up for the next day.
“Chefs, by nature, are kind of shy people,” Nathan told me as we chatted in the upstairs office. Twenty minutes ago I would have believed him, but by now he’s serving up explanations on everything from his past to the restaurant business in general to 1789 itself, without much prodding.
“It’s an institution for D.C. dining,” he said, noting that it’s one of just three restaurants in the city that require jackets.
At 31, Nathan is fairly young for an executive chef, especially at such a landmark establishment. After growing up on Maryland’s eastern shore, where he started in the business at 14 washing dishes in a mental hospital, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York at age 20, at a time when most of its students were 24 or 25. Before coming to 1789, he co-founded a restaurant in Minneapolis and worked as a chef in New York, Alexandria, Va. and D.C., including at notable D.C. restaurants Vidalia, Bistro Bis and Restaurant Eve.
“It’s very popular to be a chef these days,” he said. “When I was getting in, it was just starting to evolve … The chef was no longer a blue-collar cook. It’s a hot thing.”
Still, the man brings a blue-collar approach to his management of 1789, despite the whitewashed attire that’s ubiquitous in the kitchen. His day starts around 9:30 a.m. and doesn’t end until well after close, which is at 10 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. He’s not the first person there—some employees show up at 5:30 a.m. to receive deliveries—but he’s the most consistent, and also the most versatile. Both the kitchen and the office are his domain; his tasks range from long-term essentials, like setting the seasonal menu, to making sure the daily prep work—which begins about an hour before he gets there—is on track. Repeated six or seven times a week, this schedule doesn’t leave room for much else.
And save for “try[ing] to exercise, not as much as I should,” that little time left over isn’t really divorced from the kitchen anyway. Nathan lists “eating out a lot” and traveling “off the beaten path” as his favorite leisure activities, with a particular emphasis on searching for new culinary experiences abroad.
“I like to go places with good food and good drink, always searching for what’s out there, what’s fun and exciting,” he said. “I’ll go to the Caribbean, Europe, Asia; it depends what the trip is for … When you can [go], it’s great, but I don’t have time to do too much.”
More than anything, though, what’s really striking about Nathan is how much he’s a student of the trade, and how easily he can talk about it even with someone relatively ignorant. Before I realized I was getting a history lesson, he had taken me through the two types of cooking (French and Italian), the difference between the two (a focus on technique for the former, on fresh ingredients for the latter) and how they came together about 150 years ago to revolutionize what is now the modern-day restaurant.
“Here, everything came from somewhere else, we’re such a young country,” he said. “Under the same umbrella [foods] can be from South America, Japan, France, and you put that together to make a menu, that’s what the modern-day restaurant is.”
While 1789 is famous for its rack of lamb, which was the specialty of his revered predecessor Ris Lacoste, Nathan said he doesn’t have a signature dish of his own yet. He’s waiting until he has his own place for that.
Now that the restaurant’s open, the prep kitchen in the basement is quiet and will generally stay empty for the rest of the night, except for isolated visits. Much more spacious than the main kitchen directly above it, the prep area is centered around a large wooden table where a plethora of chefs prepare a night’s worth of food. The kitchen is also a repository for bulk spices, and features a storage area marked “This door for FLOWERS only.” On the far end of the room, a silver door hides a walk-in refrigerator several feet wide and at least twenty feet long. Even though the fridge holds just about every ingredient the restaurant uses, including the vegetables from company-owned farms in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the smell of fish overwhelms.
“In a restaurant, this is where the money is,” Nathan told me. He elaborated that 65 percent of all the cash in a restaurant is in the food; beer, wine and liquor are a distant second. For perspective, the restaurant did about $1.5 million in wine sales last year, and has a changing wine list of 250 to 300 wines.
The prep kitchen, which is shared with 1789’s downstairs neighbor, the Tombs, clearly serves other purposes, too, as indicated by the washer/dryer near the exit at the far end of the room. Going out by this exit will land you in an alleyway between 1789 and Wisemiller’s Deli, and as you head back toward 36th Street you’ll reach the entrance to the bakery, the last of 1789’s prep areas. The dessert and pastry kitchen is visible from the street, and from inside you can catch a glimpse into F. Scott’s, the sometime restaurant-bar that is now used exclusively for private receptions.
Back in the main kitchen, it’s a smooth, even slow night. The restaurant can serve between 80 and 150 meals on the average night, and between 200 and 240 on Friday and Saturday. It’s certainly going to be on the low end of that today. Still, the place is in constant motion, most of it sudden and quick, and I do well to stay as out-of-the-way as I can, perched between the dishwashing station and the end of the hot line. The servers rushing by are inordinately polite whenever we have the inevitable near run-in, considering that I’m just a new obstacle in what’s already a bit of an obstacle course.
La lengua española is the lingua franca of the kitchen, at least as much as English is. At one point earlier in the night a server, Selbi, chided the line cook in charge of desserts, Jacqueline, in Spanish, saying that “he’s writing for the magazine that you’re not doing anything.” Jacqueline came to D.C. from Guatemala two years ago, and has been working at 1789 ever since. Nathan and Scott prove versed in Spanish as well, and, although their accents don’t change a bit, it doesn’t hinder their ability to communicate effectively.
Scott is a 35-year-old convert from the corporate world, a graduate of Case Western University in Ohio who wanted to find something more creative and worked his way up from line cook at Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street and then at 1789 to his current position as sous chef. He’s stern but not angry as expediter, giving the occasional pointed message such as “Right now, okay?” when necessary, and is thoroughly friendly when engaged in conversation. Later on in the night he can be found down in the prep kitchen, cranking out cavatelli, a type of pasta.
“I tend to be the guy that figures out the pasta recipes,” he explained. “We had another sous chef here who spent time in Italy,” he added.
The steady rhythm upstairs is broken by a minor disaster—a table’s worth of plates come crashing out of a server’s arm right in front of the line, before he’s even taken two steps—but on a night like tonight that’s not causing much of a commotion. The team mentality is evident, as everyone in the vicinity swoops in to pick up what they can in one pass, but the urgency of even a slow night in a restaurant shows through when they all then head back to what they were doing instead of fully finishing the clean up job. A few leftover scraps are a small price to pay to keep everything running on time.
“I need a chicken on the fly,” Scott said without hesitation. “Two chicken on the fly.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Even this, the most hectic moment of the night, would have fallen far short of the threshold for being broadcast as reality TV, a la Chef Gordon Ramsay and his temper tantrums. Nathan described these programs in one word: fiction.
“Yelling and screaming, there are times when it happens,” Nathan said, but he stressed that constant berating in the kitchen is a thing of the past that “doesn’t happen anymore.”
It’s easy to lose the mental connection between kitchen and dining area when you spend a lot of time in the former, but you can see how the seeds of 1789’s reputation are planted in the kitchen and bloom outside. At one point, Scott called out an order, then added “number two is a lady.” I wondered if it was some kind of kitchen code, but Nathan must have read the thought on my face.
“We serve the ladies first; that’s what fine dining’s all about,” he said, adding that 1789 strictly observes all of the rules of high-end establishments, such as specific server positioning and service methods. A similar call comes out for VIPs—a clear nod to the restaurant’s status.
It’s not only in the kitchen where the top-notch service begins, though. It really starts as soon as you phone in a reservation, and the restaurant places it in its Open Table reservation system, which keeps track not only of current and future reservations, but also keeps full data on anyone who has eaten there since the computer system was put in, including the dates and times you visited, whether you fall into a category such as “friends,” “regulars” or “VIPs,” and even which table you sat at. On this night, a pair of women was dining at 1789 for the 153rd time.
Their loyalty, along with similar commitment from other regulars, is another point of pride for the employees, all of whom seem to genuinely care about the restaurant.
“You’re [writing about] a good restaurant, the best,” Selbi told me. Still, many of the employees here tonight, whatever their feelings about 1789, are working more than just this job, something Nathan told me with an almost regretful air, as if he wished they didn’t have to. He’s invested as much in this place as anyone, and continues to try to modernize the restaurant—environmentally-friendly methods—while maintaining its old-school charm. So far, the investment has paid off; Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema wrote in 2006 as part of his three-star review (the first of Beauchamp’s tenure at 1789), “With any luck, we’ll have Beauchamp around for as long as the talent that preceded him.” Beauchamp doesn’t seem to care much, though. He’s not in the business for Sietsema or anyone else.
“I try not to get involved, I just try to do what I do,” he said. “Whether people like it or not, you cook for yourself. You cook for what you believe in.”