Jeremiah Langhorne's eyes brighten when describing the hearth at The Dabney, opening next month in Shaw. "That's the cornerstone of the entire restaurant," the chef tells Eater. "It’s 10 feet wide, five feet deep and five feet tall. We’ll burn wood... for either grilling, actually cooking in the embers, for smoking or whatever we want to do."
It's a natural fit for this chef who is so deeply inspired by the culinary history of the Mid-Atlantic region. Langhorne won't cook everything over open fire (they'll have a fully equipped kitchen of course), but the hearth has always been integral to his vision for his first restaurant. "Throughout this entire process, the original concept has stayed the same," he recalls.
Langhorne and his business partner, Alex Zink, have now been working on The Dabney (named after Langhorne's Virginia family) for over two and a half years. Now it's one of Eater D.C.'s most anticipated fall openings.
The idea for The Dabney germinated about five years ago. At the time, Langhorne was working at McCrady's in Charleston, S.C. under Sean Brock, renowned for his modern Low Country cuisine and dedication to heritage ingredients. Working with the James Beard award-winning chef has obviously shaped Langhorne's approach to cooking. "It's given me a great foundation and a good approach that I can now apply to this area...," he explains.
Langhorne, who was born in Bethesda and grew-up in Charlottesville, particularly values the Mid-Atlantic region's geographic diversity that yields a huge variety of raw ingredients. "The number one most important thing is the products we’re going to serve... D.C. is really in a good spot for it." The city has easy access to fresh produce, seafood from the Chesapeake Bay and the country hams of southern Virginia.
Between seeking out Virginia peanut and sorghum farmers and overseeing restaurant construction, Langhorne has also surveyed historical cookbooks to understand what the cooking of the region was like in the past and what it can be in the future. "The restaurant is more about continuing the region’s gastronomic culture and moving it forward," he says. That means, of course, he won't be recreating a 200-year-old recipe just for the sake of it.
The restaurant's design, inspired by a modernized, mid-19th century farmhouse, will also reflect this theme. It incorporates several regional touches like woodwork by a local craftsman, custom tables from Maryland and reclaimed windows from a Baltimore rowhouse. The restaurant will seat about 50 diners, excluding the bar area.
While construction marches on, Langhorne's ambitious concept presents some challenges for the menu. Actually, he can't even determine what will be on it until the kitchen is certified by the Health Department.
"I approach menus very differently than a lot of people do," he explains. "We’re making a pantry. We don’t build individual dishes. Instead, we build condiments, sauces, vinegars, pickles, relishes, dried things, preserved things, seasonings and spices. In building that, we create this beautiful pantry that is distinctive to this region..."
Langhorne's distinct approach means he has to procure fresh products (vegetables, fish and meat) from purveyors before composing dishes. "I could sit down and write some things on a sheet of paper, but they would be meaningless," he explains.
The chef continues to build his network of suppliers and farmers for opening day in October. Thanks to his stage at René Redzepi's storied Noma in Copenhagen, foraging will likely play a role in this ingredient-driven restaurant.
But how challenging has it been to find ingredients that measure up to his standards? "Challenging," the chef says with a laugh. "It’s definitely tough, but it’s been a lot of fun at the same time."