A highly anticipated New Orleans-style restaurant preparing to open in downtown D.C. this spring has hired a high-profile executive chef who relocated from the Louisiana city after working in kitchens there for more than 20 years.
The hospitality group behind standout Navy Yard seafood spot the Salt Line has handed Kristen Essig the reins to Dauphine’s, which already lists another big name from New Orleans as a collaborator: Neal Bodenheimer of nationally celebrated cocktail bar Cure.
Essig is looking for a fresh start after splitting with her former professional and romantic parter, Michael Stoltzfus, at contemporary Southern restaurant Coquette.
“New Orleans wasn’t the right place for my heart to heal,” Essig says. “I needed to find a place where I feel supported, where I could contribute, where I could work. I’m a worker.”
Following her breakup, Essig says she reached out to Bodenheimer because she knew he was working on a project in D.C. She says he assured her he was attached to Dauphine’s as more than a consultant, and pitched her to Long Shot Hospitality. The company plans to open a second location of the Salt Line this summer in Ballston. Chef-partner Kyle Bailey says Long Shot always intended to bring in an experienced chef to manage Dauphine’s even though he was billed as the chef when the company announced the project.
“How silly is it to think that you can be the chef of three restaurants?” says Bailey, who won a local Rammy award for Chef of the Year in 2019. He says Long Shot “lucked out” by finding Essig, a longtime advocate of sustainable sourcing like himself.
For Dauphine’s, Essig says she’s bringing in long grain rice from Prairie Ronde, Louisiana, just north of Lafayette, and small-batch cane syrup from producer Charles Poirier in Youngsville, Louisiana. She’s collected small jars of filé, dried sassafras powder used as a thickening agent in gumbo, off porches of locals who harvest it and put out an “honor box” full of $5 contributions.
The idea for Dauphine’s, according to Bailey and parter Jeremy Carman, was never to transplant a New Orleans restaurant to D.C. They knew that wouldn’t work without the atmosphere and pervasive party culture in the Big Easy, but they thought they could translate it through a “D.C. lens” using Mid-Atlantic seafood and other regional products.
It’s been forever since Essig cooked with lobster or scallops and cold-water fish like arctic char, she says. Sourcing local dairy was a challenge in New Orleans because of the extreme heat and humidity. The Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast share blue crabs, though, so at Dauphine’s she plans to serve crab claws with a tarragon and grated celery remoulade from the raw bar. Bailey has done the heavy lifting for a charcuterie menu that includes hot capocollo, genoa salami, pistachio mortadella, and a bresaola that pairs well with a Sazerac. Essig is excited to serve hog’s head cheese and professes to have “an affinity for pig ears.”
She says widespread dishes like gumbo, po’ boys, and étouffée will all be fair game, but she’ll work to identify regional differences and give them her own touch. For example, she’s planning to present duck jambalaya in a dutch oven with aged and whole-roasted breast meat, duck and jalapeno sausage, sauerkraut, duck skin cracklin’, duck liver butter, and braised duck legs. Essig says she’s spearheading a reference guide for the restaurant’s website that will include a glossary of dishes, ingredients, and important figures in the history Creole and Cajun cuisine.
“We’re not trying to do a mash-up,” Essig says. “We’re trying to be very respectful of the fact that there are 20 different ways to make jambalaya, or 25 different ways to make a gumbo.”
At Coquette, Essig and her ex were co-chefs and co-owners since 2016, earning recognition from the James Beard Foundation as finalists for Best Chef: South for the past three years in a row. Citing the challenge of doing business during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Beard foundation did not designate winners in 2020. It did, however, remove a handful of finalists from its list of nominees, including Essig and her ex, that supposedly withdrew themselves because of murky “personal reasons.” Essig says the Beard foundation made the call to take them off without conducting an investigation after receiving “unsolicited information about our work culture.”
“That was all going on when I was removing myself from the business end of our relationship,” Essig tells Eater D.C. “I was actually not included in any of these conversations. Neither the James Beard Foundation nor my former partner included me in those conversations.”
When reached by Eater D.C., Stoltzfus declined to comment on that characterization of events. Representatives to the James Beard Foundation did not respond to Eater’s request for comment.
While Essig did not provide specifics about the work culture at Coquette, she says she’s working to improve communication and exercising compassion — for herself and for others — in the workplace.
“How am I creating and fostering a culture that allows agency for people?” Essig asks. “I really want to start off on the right foot. No one is going to be more mean to me than myself.”