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The Watergate’s New Chef Wants to Reproduce the French Riviera in D.C.

Sébastien Giannini hopes to make the rooftop feel like a Mediterranean beach resort

Sébastien Giannini is the new chef at the Watergate hotel.
Sébastien Giannini/Violette Markelou Photographer
Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

After months of searching for a replacement, the historic Watergate Hotel has a new executive chef. Sébastien Giannini, a native of the South of France, will attempt to bring the dining rooms on the banks of the Potomac River a taste of the glamorous seaside culture that boomed back home in the 1960s.

Giannini, who left D.C.’s St. Regis after more than a year as executive chef, plans to re-establish the Watergate to what it once was under star French chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s watch in the 1980s and 90s.

To import the iconic atmosphere from chic beach resort towns like Saint-Tropez and Cannes, he’ll roll out rooftop Mediterranean mezze plates, whole fish simply prepared with French olive oil, and a more refined service model.

Just two weeks into the new role, Giannini has a huge job, managing a team of 90 employees across three restaurants — including Kingbird downstairs — and overseeing 24-hour in-room dining along with 30,000 square feet of banquet and catering space.

Over the next few months Giannini plans to completely change the current menu left behind by Michael Santoro, a Blue Duck Tavern alum who moved on last fall after a three-year stint that included overseeing the iconic hotel’s $125 million transformation in 2016.

Hyper-seasonal seafood will be a focal point of the a la carte lineup. That means there could be Chesapeake Bay rockfish with olive oil and salt cooked a la plancha with carrots, parsley paste, and lime juice. Blue crab with avocado mousse and lime zest is another early idea.

“You don’t want to serve a John Dory in September,” he notes.

Unique species of fish not commonly found on D.C. menus will also make an appearance, like the red scorpionfish — a tender fish that has a meaty neck, the chef says.

While Santoro was big on pizza at Top of the Gate, Giannini wants to incorporate a medley of colorful Moroccan, Lebanese, Italian, and French flavors into mezze on the rooftop.

“Because you’re in front of the water, you want to feel the ambiance of the feast of the South of France,” he says.

After spearheading the kitchen at W Montréal, Giannini transferred to St. Regis in fall 2017 as executive chef and helmed the transformation of its Spanish restaurant into the Mediterranean-inspired Alhambra as his first stateside gig. But the 37-year-old had a disconnect with the banquet chef because he thought he would have overarching control of the food program.

“I said, ‘Thank you, but this is not for me,’” he says.

The St. Regis confirmed to Eater that they are searching for a replacement for Giannini, whose career includes time working in Cannes and Paris in kitchens run by revered chef Alain Ducasse. He was also executive chef at Le Meridien in Nice, France. His grandmother worked in a butcher shop and helped hone his love for cooking.

The chef’s first order of business at Watergate is stepping up its service.

“When people arrive we need to create an experience,” he says.

Guests will start off with bread alongside butter, a rose wine reduction, and dry figs. They’ll also be presented an amuse bouche reminiscent of Jean-Louis Palladin’s days.

Giannini envisions cutting grilled whole fish tableside for groups of four, letting each guest pick and choose their preferred sides and sauces. Other dishes in the works include shrimp cocktail served in a martini glass and “sexy” fries designed for sharing with parmesan, parsley, and truffle oil.