Doing the “dairy math” out loud makes Marjorie Meek-Bradley burst into giddy, incredulous laughter. On a Saturday earlier this month at St. Anselm, the executive chef says, the restaurant sold 128 orders of buttermilk biscuits with pimento cheese. That came out to more than 500 biscuits over the course of brunch in dinner, amounting to more than 25 pounds of butter just to make a day’s worth of layered squares so crunchy on the outside that one customer asked if they’re deep fried (they are not).
“That’s so crazy,” she says, clearly tickled at the thought of moving that much butter.
The cult following her biscuits have developed is just one surprise to hit Meek-Bradley, Eater D.C.’s 2018 Chef of the Year, since she opened the restaurant, a D.C. offshoot of the popular Brooklyn tavern, for partners Stephen Starr and Joe Carroll last September. Some have been pleasant, like the popularity of the barbecued oysters with smoked herb butter that she had to lobby to put on the steakhouse-style menu. Others — like the daily difficulties of overseeing a nearly 200-seat operation with four sous chefs, seven line cooks, and a pastry chef — have been more taxing.
Five months after opening, Meek-Bradley is relishing her influence on the whole enterprise. She’s injected the meat-focused menu with a self-described “California chef” point of view, one that comes from a childhood spent in Mendocino County’s Ukiah that would never accept stocking frozen spinach. She’s also committed to fostering a kinder, gentler workplace culture in an unforgiving, at times abusive industry. At St. Anselm, the Top Chef alumnus is enjoying the challenge and spreading the joy. In the process, she’s delivering simple yet surprising dishes that steal attention from the steak.
To get to this point, Meek-Bradley had to find a happy equilibrium between doing too much and not giving herself enough to do.
In 2013, after working her way up the D.C. ladder under a pre-collapse Mike Isabella at Zaytinya and Graffiato, Meek-Bradley snagged the executive chef job at the now-closed Ripple in Cleveland Park. Over the next three years, she’d be shortlisted for several local and national awards, take on responsibility for a second restaurant at Roofer’s Union, and succeed Isabella on Top Chef, where she advanced to the final round.
After opening Smoked & Stacked, a sandwich counter that immediately raised the bar for pastrami in the city, Meek-Bradley finally felt overwhelmed by the weight of her obligations. In 2016, she left Ripple and Roofer’s Union, made sandwiches during the day, and tried on a life where she wasn’t donning chef’s whites night after night.
“I’d say about six months in, I got real bored,” she says.
She missed the energy of a packed dinner service humming at full throttle, so she started hunting for a job. She didn’t want to own her own place. She felt she had more to learn. She wanted to work for someone who would give her freedom to cook her way but challenge her to be better, too.
Then she saw that Starr, who had made Le Diplomate a scorching success from its start, was looking for a chef at his second D.C. restaurant, which would follow the mold of Carroll’s modern steakhouse in Brooklyn. Despite her television pedigree and extensive resume, Meek-Bradley pulled up the company website and applied through the job portal.
“I wrote a cover letter that said, ‘Hi, I’m interested in applying for the chef position at your new restaurant in D.C. I don’t know if you already have somebody hired. Let me know.’” she says.
She heard back from a recruiter and hour later. It didn’t hurt that two of Meek-Bradley’s first jobs were at Starr restaurants in Philadelphia, Washington Square and Barclay Prime. She cooked a tasting dinner for the owners, and once she passed muster, traveled to Brooklyn to to get a feel for the original St. Anselm.
When developing recipes for D.C., she fought for what she believed in — bringing on the barbecue oysters and clams in chartreuse, herb, and butter sauce despite some pushback from her partners. She conceded at times, too, granting Starr’s wish for a side of creamed spinach — at one point she dubbed it her “hate spinach” — by sourcing local greens, washing them, shredding them, steaming them, and cooking them in cream.
“Now we go through like 30 cases of spinach a weekend,” Meek-Bradley says.
Although Starr has said he wants St. Anselm to be thought of as “a tavern” that happens to serve steak, Meek-Bradley admits that she’s always had a soft spot for indulgent steakhouse meals, especially around Christmas and during vacations. She wanted to stay true to that food, giving people plates they didn’t have to think too hard about, but at the same time straying from anything she found boring. “It’s kind of that craveable comfort but still interesting,” she says.
Unlike any other cut of beef on the menu, Meek-Bradley’s ax handle ribeye comes without a sauce. Copious fat gives it all the flavor it needs. But a thick New York strip gets au poivre sauce, because that’s what Meek-Bradley would want to dip it in at home. She tried to replicate the Brooklyn flagship’s recipe for iceberg lettuce salad with a Dutch bacon vinaigrette, but it never felt right to her. So she put on a traditional wedge salad “because I freaking love wedge salads.”
It’s not all love, of course. Sometimes the tension winds so tight that Meek-Bradley wants to smack her palm straight onto metal counter opposite the grill and scream. But she can’t. For one thing, the open kitchen makers her station the center stage of the restaurant. If the wheels fall off, she knows the responsibility falls on her. She’s not perfect, she admits, but she’s made it clear to her staff that pressure, mistakes, and burns are no excuse for bullying and belittling. She believes in accountability and respect.
“We should all be competitive,” she says, “but we should be competitive together to make the restaurant better. Not competitive, well, ‘I’m better than him and I’m going to prove it by making him not look good.’ Ten years ago, kitchens, that’s what it was. For me it’s just really important to help people be better.”
At 34 years old, Meek-Bradley has recognized she has to help herself, too. After the opening crush, when she would work 30 out of 31 days a month, she’s taking time off again, giving herself a night just to borrow a friend’s pasta sheeter and make spaghetti alla chitarra at home. She knows that prioritizing the time away makes her better when she’s in the building, too. She’s turned down invitations to festivals and events she used to accept. She’s planning to travel to Lebanon and Turkey.
But right now, when steaks and salmon collars are selling like hotcakes, there’s no place she’d rather be.
“It’s a fun restaurant,” Meek-Bradley says. “The energy in it is good. What I love about that is when you’re in the service, the time flies.”
So does the butter.