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Star D.C. Chef Kevin Tien Splits With Hot Capitol Hill Restaurant Emilie’s

Majority owner Sam Shoja and Tien both say the breakup was ‘mutual’

Kevin Tien, third from left, with his team at Emilie’s
Chef Kevin Tien, third from left, with the opening management team at Emilie’s
Emilie’s [official]

Nationally celebrated D.C. chef Kevin Tien has left Emilie’s, the communal dining venue that was one of the most high-profile restaurants to open in the city last year.

Washingtonian first reported the news this morning, and majority owner Sam Shoja and Tien each confirmed to Eater that they agreed to the split.

“The story is long, but I just stick with the official line,” Shoja says. “We just had a mutual agreement to go our own separate ways.”

“I think at the end of the day he was looking for more of a culinary director for like a restaurant group,” Tien says. “That’s not really a role I wanted to get into. I’ve always had my own very independent businesses.”

Tien also says graduating from a 24-seat restaurant at Himitsu — a former Eater D.C. Restaurant of the Year where Food & Wine also named him a best new chef — to a huge space with more than 200 seats was a challenge that left him questioning how he wants to approach his career.

“Honestly I felt like I was having a hard time figuring out who I was as a cook and how I wanted to cook. So I’m just taking the time to reflect on the kind of food I want to do going forward,” Tien says. “For me it’s hard as an Asian American, because sometimes I don’t feel Asian enough, and sometimes I don’t feel American enough, so I feel a little bit lost in translation.”

Shoja, who owns three D.C. area franchises of Jinya Ramen Bar and two locations of kebab Sheesh in Northern Virginia, leads the group that will absorb Tien’s stake in the restaurant. In return, Shoja has given Tien his 40 percent share in Hot Lola’s, the chef’s Sichuan-style hot chicken sandwich brand with a stall in a Ballston food hall.

Last Sunday, Emilie’s laid off every member of the kitchen management team that Tien brought in from top-rated restaurants around the city such as Pineapple & Pearls, Tail Up Goat, and Himitsu. Two cooks have stayed on to join a new staff led by Hamilton Johnson, the former Vidalia and Honeysuckle chef who was most recently working as chef de cuisine at American Son, the restaurant in the Eaton hotel downtown that speaks to chef Tim Ma’s Asian-American experience as the son of Taiwanese immigrants. General manager Alissa Costello and bar manager Rob Long are both new additions to Emilie’s.

Billed as Tien’s first solo project, Emilie’s opened in October, shortly after Tien turned over sole ownership of Himitsu to his partner there, Carlie Steiner. The menu at Emilie’s was supposed to showcase Tien’s idea of a New American cuisine informed by immigrants. The communal dining format featured dining carts carrying focaccia and sourdough breads and spreads. A selection of small plates, crudos, and family-style dishes such as Vietnamese pork blade steak and ranch-seasoned fried chicken drew from Tien’s experiences as a Vietnamese-American chef who grew up in Louisiana and trained as a sushi chef in Texas.

Ranch-flavored fried chicken with Texas Toast and caviar-topped deviled eggs from Emilie’s
Ranch-flavored fried chicken with Texas Toast and caviar-topped deviled eggs from Emilie’s
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Shoja says Asian influences will continue to play a large part on Johnson’s menu, which is still in development. Washingtonian described future items such as as General Tso’s-style pork belly banh mi, a fried chicken sandwich with pimento aioli and jalapeno honey, and a toast with pastrami-smoked salmon, which Hamilton served at American Son.

The transition, Shoja says, also includes plans to make Emilie’s a place that reflects its community by developing career opportunities for Black workers in the industry. Former employees criticized an Instagram post from the restaurant that promoted Black Lives Matter by saying the restaurant had created a hostile environment for its diverse staff. Tien subsequently made a $12,000 donation to three social justice organizations, and Emilie’s added a support BLM section to its website listing resources for supporting the Black community.

“We want to promote and bring in a lot of specifically African-American chefs, sous chefs, and people who basically want to grow with us in the industry so they can work under chef Hamilton and then possibly, as they grow, we may become partners,” Shoja says.

Emilie’s will eventually move to serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A private dining room in the back of the restaurant will be converted into an all-day cafe that turns into a whiskey bar at night. Emilie’s could open patio seating in the next two weeks or so, and will move to indoor dining in the next 30 days or so, Shoja says. Tien had been vocal about a desire to stick with a takeout and delivery model until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.

Leaving Emilie’s gives Tien an opportunity to take a breather, although he will still be making meals for hospital workers at Hot Lola’s and experimenting with new dishes at the fast-casual restaurant. He says he hasn’t had an extended visit with his mother in five years, and he would like to travel to Vietnam with his grandmother.

“I’m hoping the next time I cook, it will be a true reflection of where I am as a chef and with my identity,” Tien says.


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