Executive chef Jason Shelley is a 14-year veteran of the Ocean Prime empire, having now helmed kitchens at nearly half of the nationwide chain’s 14 locations.
“For the last decade I’ve been nomadic and roaming around,” he said, of cooking at a gamut of markets.
Now, with a kid on the way any day now, the Adams Morgan resident plans to call D.C. home for the indefinite future. Downtown’s Ocean Prime is the year-old addition to the seafood/steakhouse empire under restaurateur Cameron Mitchell.
Shelley’s to-do list this year has included tweaking the menu to include ingredients that celebrate D.C.’s flavors and culture. Mumbo sauce, a condiment found in local takeout restaurants, is made in house and slathered onto its sweet and spicy shrimp appetizer, for example. Other D.C.-specific menu items being tested out include a tuna burger — a best-selling lunchtime entree — and shrimp po'boy.
“Sometimes being a multi-unit concept, people view you as a chain and you’re cookie cutter, but that is not the case with us,” he says.
Ocean Prime’s kitchen, which makes everything from its own soups to sauces, has won over the likes of Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema. It’s also fed notables like former President Barack Obama, newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, The Real Housewives of Potomac cast, and other D.C. notables.
Here are some highlights from his past year at the dark wood-lined restaurant situated blocks from the White House:
That night the Obamas came in. The surprise visit this summer was the first time the restaurant group served a president. The former first couple came in with a large group, he reports, and sat in a back private dining room following their French Polynesian vacation. “Their table did it up with oysters and sushi and they had steaks,” he says. “It was a pleasure to shake Mr. Obama’s hand. They are super cool and down to earth and approachable,” he says. The next week, when reports came out about their visit, he says the restaurant was slammed.
How D.C. stacks up to other cities. He’s run kitchens across the U.S., including stints in Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and more. “D.C. has a more intimate setting and a lot of people know people in the industry. There is a camaraderie and hope to succeed.” He’s also noticed there’s a difference in species of fish and seafood that customers are craving in each market. When locals lobbied for bigger portions, Shelley enlarged the crab cakes. “The cool thing is D.C.’s cuisine isn’t defined yet and it’s still figuring itself out,” he says.
His unconventional cooking background. Shelley didn’t go to culinary school; instead, he got a degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State. But he first fell in love with food while growing up with an Italian grandmother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “She was always making raviolis, pastas, and red sauce,” he says. Meanwhile, his grandfather would always be hanging soppressata in the rafters.
Their crazy good happy hour draws new clients in. On Fridays, the bar will blow through 300 to 400 $1 oysters in mere hours. “People go to town on them. We aren’t making money off them — we are buying them for a buck — but it’s a way for people to come in and check us out,” he says.
On the nearby competition. Ocean Prime sits in the heart of expense account land, but Shelley says “there is room for everyone to be successful.” “We are not saying we are better than this or that guy. People try to pit you against other restaurants, and it’s easy to compare steakhouse to steakhouse but we each have something different to offer.” He considers Ocean Prime a “seafood house first” and steakhouse second.
Rare wine program. This past year he just started using a Coravin machine — a gadget that pours without ever pulling the cork or letting oxygen hit the wine — enables Ocean Prime to pour uber-expensive bottle by the glass. “We can offer a $50 pour instead of you having to buy a $350 bottle,” he says. And the company’s coast-to-coast connections have paid off; an investor is friends with Napa’s Waugh Cellars—and Ocean Prime is the only spot on the East Coast to serve the brand. The California fires didn’t affect the winery, he reports, thanks to a built-out cave that protected the barrels.