When the beef tartare hits the table at Emilie’s, the new Capitol Hill restaurant that Himitsu founding chef Kevin Tien will open next week, the boss asks a question now familiar to his staff.
“Does it slap?” Tien asks, giving Mikey Fabian a chance to explain how the horseradish he grated on top of raw meat, crab fat mustard, and cherry peppers was stronger than he expected. Tien suggests pulling back on the bitter root, adding more crab fat, and incorporating some pecorino cheese.
Tien, who drew national notice at Himitsu for food that married Vietnamese, Japanese, Latin American, and Southern traditions, is continuing to take that hodgepodge approach at Emilie’s with a crew of chefs who have worked at top-tier kitchens like Pineapple and Pearls, Rose’s Luxury, Tail Up Goat, and, of course, Himitsu. Communal eating is the big theme, and there will be breads, spreads, pastas, a Vietnamese-style, 32-ounce pork blade steak served with mini blankets of woven rice vermicelli, and what Tien describes as “mountains” of ranch fried chicken” with the kitchen’s version of Texas toast.
With that style in mind, the Vietnamese-American chef with a background in sushi and fine-dining is taking the opportunity to buck the “fusion” label and call out a double standard.
“Don’t expect me just to do all Vietnamese food or all Japanese food because that’s my background or that’s the cuisine I grew up in,” he says. “I’m just here to cook. It’s ‘fusion’ because I’m an Asian guy. ... But if it’s like a white guy using Asian flavors in his food, then he’s just being progressive, contemporary new American.”
Tien is addressing that dichotomy head-on by bringing in roving carts that will deliver dishes to tables. The chef already knows people will expect dim sum to come off the carts, but it won’t. They’ll have the same multinational focus as everything else on the menu, and Tien is anticipating bad reviews from customers who expect to see shumai and har gow come off the carts.
“Yeah it’s not a dumpling, but is it tasty? If it’s tasty, then I don’t really care,” he says. “I’ve always been nervous to talk about that and call it out. I’m calling it out now.”
With former business partner Carlie Steiner, Tien helped Himitsu earn a title as one of Eater’s 12 Best New Restaurants in America (2017). His crudos, gochujang-glazed fried chicken, and other frequently changing dishes earned him a finalist nod for a national James Beard award recognizing the Rising Star Chef of the Year last year.
In the tiny, 24-seat restaurant, he also worked the line and washed dishes. At Emilie’s, which encompasses more than 5,000 square feet and has room for more than 100 people, he’s delegating to a diverse, deep staff that brings experiments to him for approval.
On a day earlier this week, members of his kitchen management team were all deep into individual projects that play to their strengths. Davy Bourne was pressing fingerprints into a hotel pan full of focaccia dough that takes on a ton of olive oil and forms a similar crust to pan pizza. He’s also in charge of pastas like a ricotta cavatelli with a vegetarian ‘nduja.
Autumn Cline, formerly executive chef of Rappahannock Oyster Co., was overseeing her latest pickling project. Fabian is acting as Tien’s ace butcher. Coming over from Himitsu, Brian Jeon impresses Tien with his sauce work. At a pastry counter in another room, executive pastry chef Willa Pelini and pastry sous Claire Miller were workshopping dark chocolate biscotti to go with a post-dinner cheese course and talking about blue cheese panna cotta.
Tien says he had to work his way through several restaurants to pick up different skills, but there’s so much going on at Emilie’s that the staff can bypass a lot of that work by learning from each other.
“I feel like you can find your own style here,” he says.
Emilie’s (1101 Pennsylvania Avenue SE) will open for dinner Thursday, October 10. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, with an 11 p.m. close on Friday and Saturday. Lunch and brunch will begin at a later date.