For the past four winters, while Elias Taddesse shivered behind a flattop grill on the patio behind Wet Dog Tavern in Shaw, the Ethiopian-born, French-trained chef with Michelin star credentials reminded himself that the cold nights building gourmet burgers were all part of his 3-year plan. As word-of-mouth spread about Taddesse cheeseburgers, augmented with brown butter aioli and a Roseda Farm beef blend customized in collaboration with Harvey’s butcher shop in Union Market, the chef inched closer to opening his own restaurant.
Mélange, Taddesse’s new storefront in the former Ray’s Hell Burger space (449 K Street NW) in Mt. Vernon Triangle, served its first carryout customers yesterday. As the French name suggests, Mélange will show off an audacious culinary mixture. The burger he froze his buns off to perfect shares space on the menu with other American drive-thru staples the chef has adapted in the mold of traditional Ethiopian dishes. Taddesse, who was raised in Addis Ababa, didn’t come to the U.S. until he was 9.
His “Classic” smash burger with American cheese is listed for $13. A fried chicken sandwich with smoked Duke’s mayonnaise calls back to the chef’s high school days, when he used to tool around Minneapolis in a Ford Mustang and had a standing appointment with friends to grab 99-cent chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s. Another fried chicken sandwich dubbed “the National” is Taddesse’s version of doro wat, the warming chicken stew that serves as Ethiopia’s national dish. The chef uses berbere spice in the marinade for the chicken. More dried spices, like black cardamom, go into the batter. Niter kibbeh, clarified butter seasoned with aromatics, herbs, and spices, is part of an aioli. There’s a turmeric slaw and an egg, a staple of doro wat, that can be boiled soft or hard depending on the customers’ preference.
“I’m not reinventing anything,” Taddesse says, comparing his preparation to the process behind Nashville hot chicken.
While Taddesse uses the word “fusion” to describe his French-Ethiopian cooking style, he also resents the need to use a label at all.
“Let things just be, ‘Are they good?’ Do they have a purpose? Why do we have to label them?” Taddesse asks. “Why can’t an Ethiopian guy make the best burger?”
Taddesse says so many times, when people cook “fusion” dishes, they water down the flavors from the original source. He believes Ethiopian customers will recognize his fried chicken as doro wat, and the uninitiated will find it to be delicious on its own merits.
The Beyaynetu sandwich follows a similar path to the National, compressing an Ethiopian vegetarian platter into a single veggie burger. Taddesse enlisted local vegan sausage company Just AJ’s to form the base of a patty that folds in roasted beets, lentils, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Other components of the platter show up as toppings: timatim (tomato and pepper salad), a misir spread made from spiced red lentils, and confit swiss chard to stand in for stewed collard greens.
Eventually, when the burger operation is running smoothly and he’s comfortable hosting customers at the restaurant, Taddesse wants to put his fine dining chops to work with a French-Ethiopian menu. One of the dishes he’s workshopping pairs slightly sweet ambasha bread with whipped ricotta and a wild white honey that comes from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Kibbeh-poached, charred octopus served over shiro (ground chickpea stew) is another consideration.
Before moving to the District, Taddesse spent a year as the executive chef in charge of maintaining a Michelin star at Caviar Russe in New York City. He was also a chef de partie working the fish station under chef Paul Liebrant at Corton, which had two Michelin stars in its heyday.
Taddesse, who attended a French international school in Ethiopia, got his first restaurant job at the Sofitel hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota, after a friend told him they were hiring anyone who spoke French. He worked his way up to senior server by the time he was 19.
“The chefs used to come and cook at my place because we used to throw parties,” Taddesse says. “Then I got pretty much obsessed with cooking.”
Eventually, Taddesse worked his way into the kitchen. The chef, a Nice native, helped him apply to the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. Taddesse spent three years cooking around the country before moving to New York and landing a job on the line at Adour by Alain Duccasse.
During all those years in kitchens, Taddesse says it was common for chefs to hold burger competitions. At one point he attempted to help launch a burger chain in Ethiopia. When that didn’t work out, he came to D.C. and started a burger pop-up by Union Market that led to the job at the Wet Dog. When he was working at Corton, getting screamed at and challenged on a daily basis, Taddasse developed a principle that he would commit to a new project for three years, that persistence could pay off over that time frame. He applied that to his next job, and he kept that in mind when he was flipping burgers.
“Let me tell you something. That sucked. That sucked big time, especially when I see my peers running major restaurants,” Taddesse says. “I was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’”
Burgers, it turns out, were a smart play in an industry decimated by COVID-19. To open his restaurant when so many were closing, Taddesse secured funding from mega developer Edens as part of a new Catalyst program.
While other attempts to adapt traditional Ethiopian food for the massive population in the D.C. area have failed, Taddesse is confident Mélange can be different. He says the market for Ethiopian food has been relegated under a “cheap” and “ethnic” tag for too long. Putting a premium on sourcing meat from Maryland farms and spices from African producers can help erase that stigma, he says.
“It’s so labor intensive that it’s unfortunate that it’s been stuck in that category,” Taddesse says.