Georgetown Irish pub Ri Ra has a new chef with an interesting history: Charles Sutherland once served food to Michelle Obama and the New York City mayor during his decade-long trek through the hospitality world.
But in June, Sutherland was up to something totally different. He revamped Ri Ra’s menu and added upscale options to its upstairs whiskey bar, including foie gras, pate, and poutine. Sutherland’s new dishes “bring color and life,” with an emphasis on Mid-Atlantic favorites.
While he kept staples like shepherd’s pie on the menu for fear of revolt, now there are local oysters served raw or broiled; local crab sandwiches spiked with Old Bay; vegetarian risotto; and — possibly the dish to try — buttermilk fried chicken flanked by his take on D.C.’s iconic mumbo sauce. Wings also get slathered in the sauce, and tough critics are signing off: “The beer delivery guys [from here] said I should bottle it,” Sutherland says.
Sutherland’s path to cooking wasn’t totally straight. He says he grew up in South Harlem with music producer Damon Dash. The neighborhood friends eventually found themselves popping bottles with rap god-in-training Jay-Z in New York City nightclubs. And just like that, Sutherland was a partner in their wildly popular Rocawear clothing brand.
Always a fan of cooking, Sutherland says his NYC crew convinced him to attend the now defunct Culinary Academy of Long Island in 2006.
After graduation, Sutherland continued to brush shoulders with celebrities: He scored a job at hospitality giant Restaurant Associates, which included cooking for then-first lady Michelle Obama at the Lincoln Center, and catering high-profile events such as the U.S. Open and glitzy Met Gala. Then the recession hit, and the partying ground to a halt.
“JP Morgan and Viacomm weren’t spending money anymore,” he says. Sutherland watched opportunities dwindle, while colleagues fled to other departments. He relocated to North Carolina, near family, to work in corporate dining.
Fast forward to 2017, when his wife landed a job in D.C.; a head hunter helped him find the executive chef job at Ri Ra’s last remaining D.C. outpost (3125 M Street NW).
“Georgetown reminded me of SoHo,” Sutherland says of the immediate attraction.
Along with putting his stamp on offerings served on the first-floor level (a mecca for sports fans), he’s also created a second menu entirely exclusive to its upstairs whiskey den. There patrons can find foie gras pate; short rib poutine; lamb skewers; charcuterie; and baked brie. Everything, of course, can be paired with one of the bar’s exhaustive whiskey selections (just ask).
Later this year, the bar is expected to undergo a facelift downstairs and level off its first-floor areas so there are more vantage points for watching sports across the room. Over the past six months, its original turn-of-the century Victorian bar on the first floor was restored. And the beverage team recently sourced hard-to-find clear goblets from across the pond that are housing some of its new drinks.
Come September, Sutherland says executive chefs from all 14 Ri Ra locations across the country — the chain has themed restaurants stretching from Las Vegas to Atlanta — are coming to D.C. to cook in a public Chopt-style competition.
“It’s the first time we are all getting together like that,” Sutherland says. “Hopefully they take ideas back to their cities.”
When the conversation circles back to the wild times he had in NYC while attached to Rocawear, Sutherland falls silent. He does volunteer that part of his passion for food — and his elevated palate — stems from all the international traveling he did while working for the iconic clothing label.
“I think about how there was no Twitter or nothing back then. No social media. Everything we did we had to create the buzz on our own. But it was new and fun because no one was doing it,” he says.
These days, Sutherland takes care of upping excitement levels all by himself.
Scroll on to see the new menus Sutherland has introduced in D.C.: