It was five years ago this week that Bourbon Steak made its first splash in Georgetown. The MIchael Mina-helmed restaurant produced several chef superstars, fed the cream of the crop in D.C. and national celebrities, saw major events like the 2009 inauguration go by, and stayed a consistent and critically-acclaimed restaurant throughout it all.
On Monday evening, Mina, along with former chefs David Varley, Zachary Mills, William Morris and Adam Sobel, as well as current chef John Critchley and corporate pastry chef Lincoln Carlson, came together for a special, multi-course dinner celebrating the restaurant's five years of business. Each chef presented a dish that reflected their time at the restaurant, whether it be black bass and razor clams from Sobel or Mina's own Wagyu strip loin and butter-poached lobster. The chefs, alongside with President of Mina Group Patric Yumul, checked in with Eater before and after service to reminisce and reflect on their time spent at Bourbon Steak.
So has Bourbon Steak's business grown steadily, or were there various dips throughout the years?
David Varley: The growth of this entity is remarkable. This restaurant has seen growth at times when we've seen stagnation or slipping in other markets. On this one we can have bullish projections because there seems to be no end in sight. I go to bed every night knowing this place is going to grow.
Part of it is great leadership. When you look for consistency, someone like [general manager] Mark Politzer - you can set your watch by him, he's so consistent. There's a guarantee he's taking care of people .
What kind of mark do each of you think you made on the restaurant while you were here?
DV: My goal was just to survive.
Adam Sobel: David and I both came her from Vegas, and it was just such a change. Way more demanding on all levels - the hotel, the Four Seasons' reputation. It was really intense.
DV: There was always a lot of pressure. Not only is it a tremendous location, but everything that goes with it. You're cooking for the world at this restaurant. On any given night, there are heads of state.
DV: Celebrities. Rock idols. You never know who's going to come in. It's a whole 'nother level. And it's a challenging space.
In terms of the layout?
AS: The kitchen is not a chef-friendly kitchen. It's tight quarters.
DV: Another [challenge] is that you don't want to alienate the people who have been coming here. That guy there could have been ordering the tomato soup here for 30 years. There are just so many layers. On top of that, you just have to be flexible that anything can happen at any minute.
AS: Throw room service into the mix. You might have to prepare 4-5 courses in the royal suite at any given moment.
DV: It's pretty awesome. I think John [Critchley] has really brought a consistency, a maturity to the [menu]. It will only continue to move forward. John's a pro. He has a different palate than Adam and myself, runs a different shop. It's great to see what he can do, now that the foundation is laid.
What did each of you take away from the experience?
DV: This restaurant settled me down, that's for sure.
Lincoln Carson: …When? [Laughs]
DV: I've got a bullseye painted on me.
AS: After 2 and a half years here, it got me where I needed to be. It made me a better chef, a better person to work for.
Zachary Mills: It made me who I am today. It taught me to be meticulous, how to do things the right way. It taught me how to run a restaurant.
William Morris: [It improved] my people skills, by far. Not to speak at people, but with people. And to really see everything as a whole; it's not just the food, it's everything.
What was your most memorable night of service over the past five years?
DV: Inauguration, definitely.
We had been busy beyond busy. We had been open for maybe a month. We had no idea how to run the place, we were exhausted. It's like the last big mountain stage of the Tour de France. You had to give all you had to give when there was nothing left to give. For four days it was brutal. At 11:30 there were people out in the lobby waiting. We served 350 people for lunch. And if you remember, there were no trucks coming into the city. I had to get product in during all of this. We kept running out of stuff. Important stuff, like French fries. So I would be trading product with every other restaurant in town. I had my cooks running out in the street. And no one could drive in. I lived in Arlington and walked in. I got in maybe at 9:30 and one of my runners spilled something all over the floor and I fired him in the middle of service. It was such a mess.
I remember watching the inauguration on television, the restaurant was empty. I looked out over the bridge and there were people running towards the restaurant. It was the whole corporate team. I remember thinking we were going to be destroyed, and the first limo pulls up and it was Aretha Franklin. Without naming names, it was just the biggest people in the dining room at every table. We're talking A-list celebrities, not the quote unquote celebrities of today like Kim [Kardashian]. It was absolutely incredible. And I realized I didn't have any mis en place. We were grinding meat to order and grabbing it [out of the grinder[ and making patties and throwing it on the grill.
ZM: I would say inauguration. It was just crazy. I really think that's when the whole team came together as a family.
WM You know, it wasn't one memorable night, it was the experience in itself. Every day was a new experience, and there was just a constant push to do better. I think we all walked in there thinking we were really good chefs, and quickly learned that we had a lot to learn. The special thing about Bourbon Steak was that it wasn't the food industry there — it was the hospitality industry.
AS: Cooking for the president was probably one of the most memorable nights of my life.
Another night, it was the Kennedy Center Honors, it was absolutely crazy. Let's say we had a famous late night television host sitting here.
DV: With red hair.
AS: I walked by and he said, "Can you feed me?" I said, "Absolutely, what can I get you?" He said, "You make a good turkey burger?" "Sure." So he crushes it in like 30 seconds and says he's going to come back with his friends. That was the same night we had the Woodlands Pork release, so we were going to have a bunch of chef buddies come by, do this big blowout and cook a bunch of dishes. So we're about to start that and he returns with four famous comedians.
DV: The kings of comedy.
AS: It was just epic.
DV: Sometimes you walk through the dining room here and it's like being in a wax museum.
AS: We also threw some amazing wine dinners over the years, really over the top. One time I made Peking Squab for a 30 top. I carried them all in myself, hanging on a wooden dowel.
I have to say, taking this job was the best decision I ever made as a chef.
DV: For me, too, I'd say that 100 percent.
We bust each others' chops, but we also have the best chef [for the Four Seasons] to work with, Doug Anderson.
And you're serving great product to people who really get it.
Talk a little about the customers you've served over the years.
DV: There was that one night, the big snowstorm, what did they call it?
DV: Snowmageddon! People were stuck in the hotel. I had an SUV so I could drive but I though, the hell with it, I'm going to stay. I thought maybe there'd just be a couple people coming in, plus anyone in the hotel. Then I saw these cross country skis sticking out of the snow, a pair of snow shoes. People started coming from all over the neighborhood. We did 150 covers on a Monday, I don't know when that had happened before. I remember looking around and thinking, everyone here right now is here because they want to be here. They walked here to be here - Heather Henderson, one of our most loyal guests. She walked all the way from Arlington to get here. People who say they walked barefoot in the snow both ways - she can say that!
AS: We just have the greatest guests. Gerry Sigal from Sigal Construction. He built this place.
DV: He's a national treasure, one of our greatest guests.
AS: Conrad Kenley. All these guys are the best. They're just as much a part of this as any of us.
Michael, has the growth of the restaurant exceeded your expectations?
Michael Mina: It's been spectacular. The business has just grown every year. It's a special restaurant and I think every chef has put his stamp on it. I've really loved seeing them pass the baton. I think they have similar palates but they each have their own style. When I read the menu now, it has a nice feeling of everybody who worked here. It makes you happy. And the beverage program that has been created. The fact that they can do the kind of volume this bar does, and still have a real beverage program.
Patric Yumul: I think the fact that we've had such consistent people working the bar. They're almost local celebrities in their own right.
MM: I think it's hard to find a place that does amazing business, puts out consistent food, and has this kind of beverage program. To have all three under one roof like this restaurant does - I think that's why people like Duane [Sylvestre, head bartender] come here.
PY: I think with people like Duane. They didn't necessarily have all the skill sets developed when they first arrived. But they had passion and excitement and that became an unbridled fire. He's traveled the world now. He just got back from Scotland.
MM: And didn't have time to get a haircut. [Laughs]
The restaurant just really has the feel we were hoping for.
How much has the menu evolved over the years? Have certain dishes remained constant?
DV: There are some scared cows.
AS: Like two.
DV: The tuna tartare, the wedge salad, the [lobster] pot pie, the mac and cheese. I think John's more creative, uses more risky techniques. I kind of played it close to the vest.
John Critchley: You were in the building stages; you had to lay a foundation.
Is there any one dish that will always remain on the menu, no matter what?
DV: I think the mac and cheese. It's just the gold standard for me. Everyone's got a mac and cheese, and your mom or your grandma has her own version. It's stiff competition.
John, what's been your focus since taking the helm?
JC: I've basically been focused on growing the confidence of the team, continuing to develop the meat program, our 50 day dry aging. We've really taxed the local beef supply - we go through a lot - and have been tried to find some other artisanal sources. Painted Hills is one of them…we've kind of spread the love around.There are only so many pieces on a cow.
Then also, imparting a Mediterranean influence, adding more seafood, dishes like our Moroccan tagine. I've been doing some fun things with foie gras.
DV (to JC): I've got a deal for you on foie, by the way. Hit me up later.
JC: It's been a lot of fun. It was a challenge for me, coming to a steakhouse, when I had primarily been doing fish.
The fact that so many of you moved on to positions within the Michael Mina Group. Is that typical for the company?
DV: I would say it's typical. The restaurant's standards are so high, it was like school for us. There have been a lot of alumns.
AS: And we've now got some kids from the West Coast working their way up.
Will, you're the only one who branched out on his own [now at Vermillion]. Do you feel like you're out of the club?
No, not really. It's funny, because I actually thought about that when we were doing the group photo. I was talking to Doug Anderson, saying, "Wow, I'm the only one not with the group anymore." He was like, "I'm not with the group." "Yeah, but this is your house." But I still talk to Varley all the time. I still talk to Sobel. We worked together, but we created friendships. The thing with the Mina group is that once you're in, it becomes a family affair.
What kind of impact did Wit & Wisdom [in Baltimore] have on the restaurant, and vice versa?
VS: I think it was like a blessing and a curse. People came into there with certain expectations.
What's next for 2014?
JC: We're getting a dessert trolley together. It's still in the design phase. It will be more fun for guests to interact with. I'm also looking to add some larger dishes meant for sharing, tableside, something like a whole salt-encrusted fish. We've already done some massive chateaubriands.
MM: There's also the outside area, which I think each chef has kind of made his own. We'd like to focus on that area more, it's a tremendous space.
JC: We want to create a bigger edible garden, with more fruit trees.
Michael, could you see another DC restaurant in the future, or is this one enough to keep you busy?
MM: We've been growing every year, to the point where we haven't really had to think about it. But we never say never about anything.
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