Chef Hamilton Johnson has left Emilie’s less than two months after stepping into a role that proved difficult to perform. The departure comes after the Asian-influenced American restaurant in Capitol Hill attempted to move on from a breakup with Johnson’s highly acclaimed predecessor, founding chef and partner Kevin Tien, while also reeling from a decline in business during a persistent public health crisis.
Owner Sam Shoja says Emilie’s will continue to operate while management considers its next move. When asked if rebranding or closing the restaurant were options, Shoja said “all of the above” were on the table.
Johnson says Saturday was his last day. He says he accepted a layoff from the general manager because the restaurant could no longer afford to pay his salary. Shoja says that Johnson sacrificed his job so other members of the staff could stay on. Johnson says keeping the position wasn’t much of an option given the lack of revenue at Emilie’s, which had tweaked a casual, takeout-oriented menu implemented by Tien with new items like a Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich with pimento-chile aioli and General Tso’s pork belly banh mi.
“When I first started it was pretty busy,” Johnson says. “I’m not sure for what reason, whether it’s a COVID thing, or people just asking about what happened there prior, or just August in D.C., but business fell off really bad.”
Shoja says he has “nothing but praises” for Johnson, who took the job after a stint as chef de cuisine at Tim Ma’s American Son in the Eaton hotel downtown. The owner attributes the drop in business at Emilie’s to a COVID-19 pandemic that has leveled the hospitality industry nationwide, saying every fine dining restaurant is “in the same boat right now.” Tien and Shoja have described Tien’s departure as a mutual agreement, but Johnson says the split continued to cast a cloud over the restaurant.
“I didn’t really know anything about that coming into it,” Johnson says. “I have no idea what happened. I wasn’t there for any of that. That kind of just lingered. It was kind of hard to get out of that shadow.”
Tien, who won national awards from Food & Wine and Eater at his first D.C. restaurant, Himitsu, brought attention to Emilie’s by sharing a vision of a massive communal dining venue where rolling carts would distribute breads and spreads, and customers could share high-end plates of crudos, a miso-based play on cacio e pepe, and Vietnamese pork blade steak. Tien personalized the restaurant with its name, both a tribute to a close family friend and to his fiancee, and with an idea of serving a New American cuisine that drew on his experiences growing up in a Vietnamese family in the Louisiana and Texas.
Former employees shared video on Instagram stories that shows Tien accusing Shoja of both using racist language and stealing from the restaurant while arguing with security guards who appear to be blocking him from entering the restaurant. Anonymous accounts sent to the Barred in DC blog allege financial disputes that Eater has not independently substantiated. Shoja declined to comment on his past dealings with Tien, saying they’re both bound to a non-disparagement agreement.
“Even when Kevin was here the business was losing money, just like all the other fine dining restaurants [during the pandemic],” Shoja says. “The situation hasn’t started now. It started in March, just like all the other restaurants.”