Nobody Does 'Local' like Jeremiah Langhorne
For someone who began his culinary career working as a chef in a strip mall pizza joint, Jeremiah Langhorne has come a longway. He's cooked from the ski slopes in Colorado to the beaches of Charleston, and staged at world-class dining destinations from Copenhagen to California. Langhorne's studied from the best of the best—and now, he's created a dining destination of his own. Sourcing virtually all of his ingredients from the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, Langhorne's The Dabney is changing the meaning behind "farm-to-table" food as we know it. Tucked away in D.C.'s Blagden Alley, Langhorne's first restaurant's strict local approach means that every dish reflect's the region's unique geography.
With a speedy Mid-Atlantic accent fitting for such an ambitious mind, Langhorne sat down with Southern Living to discuss his culinary career, and the journey that lead him to open one of the South's Best New Restaurants.
You're not formally trained as a chef. What sparked your interest in the food industry?
JL: That's a really funny question. I was working as a delivery boy at a pizza joint in a strip mall. I was a little skateboard punk, and one night I looked behind the counter and saw the guys in the kitchen just throwing things together, coming up with something. Until that moment, I thought that "cooking" just meant you followed a preexisting recipe that some other person at some other time made. I didn't really connect understand that it was such a creative outlet. I was 16 at the time, and cooking wasn't on my radar at all. My dad is pretty Southern, so we did grow up always going to my grandfather's for country ham biscuits and gravy after church, so food was certainly a part of my life. But I am not the kid who sat with his grandma and learned to cook.
So I went back to the kitchen in the pizza joint and asked the chefs, "What are you guys doing back there?" And they were like, "Coming up with a new dish." And I was like, "you just… you just come up with things, and they taste good…?" and they were like, "yeah!" and I was like, "whoa, that sounds awesome!" The first year or two I spent cooking in a that little pizza joint. Luckily, the owner of that restaurant was really cool and he set me up at the best restaurant in Charlottesville, a place called Oxo. I started staging there, and eventually got a job. I consider that my cooking school—that was where I learned all the basics.
You've trained everywhere from California to Copenhagen. What brought you back to the South?
JL: After I was done at Oxo, I took a little break and went out to be a ski bum in Colorado, and cooked. I really enjoyed that, but I knew that I really needed to get serious about cooking again. One of the old cooks at Oxo had become the fish cook at the French Laundry, and he said that if I ever wanted to stage there, I could. I went out there for a couple of months and it was very intense. To go from a kid in a small-town restaurant to staging one of the best restaurants in the world was a little much for me, the level of seriousness and intensity. I decided that I didn't want to pursue a job there.
The guy who I took over for in Colorado, Chad Carter, had left to become Sean Brock's private dining chef at McCrady's Tavern in Charleston. I had known about Sean, I'd been reading his blog, and I was kind of obsessed with him. So I cold-called Chad, and was like, "You don't know me, I don't know you. I took your old job. I heard that you're working for Sean Brock at McCrady's." Chad was really cool, and was like. "Come on down, you can stay with me, you can stage at the restaurant." He is a really amazing human being.
So, I went down to McCrady's, and instantly two things happened: First, I knew that I was the dumbest person in the room, which was great because I just wanted to learn. Second, I was amazed at Sean's style. You have Metallica blasting while everyone is doing serious cooking, and it was such a great environment. I don't think people understand how rare it is to find a place that is very, very serious about cooking, but where you can also still have fun and you can still laugh.
I knew I had to work there, and I spent a year trying to get the job. Unfortunately, this was around 2007 or 2008 when the economy tanked, so nobody was hiring anybody, but I just kept pushing and pushing. Finally, a guy was leaving. Chad, the guy who took me down in the first place, called me and said, make sure that you are standing in the kitchen when this guy hands his notice in because Sean will hire you. So I dropped everything, drove down there, and Sean called me into his office and was like, "You want the job?"
Can you talk about the process that lead you to open The Dabney?
JL: It wasn't always the plan. I always knew that I wanted to be someone or something, be successful. I didn't really desire to have my own restaurant as much as I just wanted to have my own kitchen, be my own chef, and be in charge. When working for Sean, I told myself that I would work there as long as I felt that I was still learning. I felt that it was very important not to jump at being a chef or being a manager, because there are so many life lessons that come along.
And it's not just cooking. When you're a chef, especially when you're a restaurateur, you have to know about so much more than just cooking great food. I just waited until I felt like I was ready, and that finally was apparent in my sixth year there. I knew inside myself that it was time for me to have my own thing and to not have a boss anymore. We were getting to the point where we just had different opinions about things. Chefs are different; they have different ideas and different styles. When you're working for someone, at the end of the day, you always do what they say, no matter what. I just felt like it was time for me to do my own thing.
Why did you choose D.C.?
JL: I chose D.C. for its geographical location primarily, and for the history. Until recently, I don't think anyone really realized how unique D.C.'s geographic location is. The city had a very poor food scene for so long, because it was based on political or business dinners. There weren't neighborhood restaurants or unique places, there were just steak dinners and expense accounts. But really, the more I thought about it, the more I realized. You've got the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia's mountain range and the Piedmont Region where I grew up and then Maryland, and the entire coastline.
There are very few places in the entire country where you have that many different ecosystems in one area. The Chesapeake Bay is the greatest thing on the face of the planet. This entire area provides like so many great products. My cooking is solely based on products, so I have to have good things to pull from. It was a no-brainer for me. And then, DC itself? I love it. It's the best city to walk around in; its super green; it is a big city without being a big city. It has really, really good energy.
What's the story behind the name. "The Dabney?"
JL: Dabney is an old family name. But seriously, naming a restaurant is painful. Every name that you can think of that is really cool, you search it up, and its already there. For us, it was really important to have a name that was totally unique. Once a name is attached to something, whatever that entity is, the name represents the place. We tried to pick apart names and make fun of them, and we would search it and find that there was a restaurant that already had that name. Like, one was already the name of a bar in the Czech Republic. We really wanted it just to be ours. So eventually, we decided to pick a family name. The Dabney stuck out. It was short and unique enough for people to remember it.
The Dabney's menu is seasonal, but do you have a signature or favorite dish?
JL: Our vegetable salad is probably my favorite dish. Most people that cook seasonally can't really have a signature dish because the product isn't around year-round, but customers really like signature dishes. They want to have something that the restaurant is famous for. It's always been a dilemma for me. A lot of critics have nailed me for it. But I think the restaurant's good, and whatever you get is going to be good. But anyway, people like having a signature dish, so we created this vegetable salad. Essentially, it's ever changing.
It's a collection of whatever vegetables are in season at the time, with some sort of a grain salad. In the summertime, we make it out of farro and it's more like a pasta salad with ricotta and a local Pecorino-style cheese. In the wintertime, we make it out of a risotto, or something rich that anchors the salad. Then, it's just all the different vegetables that are all around us. We have a garden, so whatever herbs are growing in our garden go on it too. It ends up being a fun salad, and it's ever changing because it's all seasonal products. But it's still kind of the same formula.
You obtain your local ingredients primarily through foraging. Can you explain your process?
JL: Foraging is something that is very interesting to me. It's very important when you cook the way that I do. For example, the purpose of The Dabney is to showcase the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed—Virginia, Maryland, and the bay itself. I want to showcase the region, and the best way to do that is by using the ingredients that grow within the region. So foraging is kind of a prerequisite for my cooking—I have to do it.
But because I now own my business, I'm a lot busier. Instead of going out every single morning to forage ingredients, we've started working with local farmers. We still visit all our farms on a regular basis, but now we teach them how to forage, where they can find products, and how they can collect them. I'm creating a little army of foragers that are going out into all sorts of different areas, collecting things, and bringing them in for us. It's a win-win. When a farmer's crop isn't in season, they can go pick whatever wild herb or berry that is growing around them and bring it to me. It still gives them a method of bringing in income, and we get local product.
What's the strangest thing you've foraged and then tried to cook?
JL: Yeah… there's a lot of things. We like to refer to them as "challenging," From the ocean, Channel Whelks. They're like conches, and they are almost impossible to make taste good. We haven't served them yet, because they're pretty much impossible. I've been working on that for like five years.
But conversely, some of the most challenging things are the best. There are these things called Autumn Olives. They have a little pit in them and after a frost, they are incredibly sweet and delicious. But beforehand, they are very tannic. To the point where, if you eat them, it will lock your mouth up. So, we are working on different ways of processing them to make them delicious.
SL: What's the biggest challenge for locally sourcing your ingredients?
JL: D.C. has been particularly challenging. There's tons of agriculture in the area, but most restaurants don't use local stuff. There wasn't a base structure, like there is, for example, in Charleston. In Charleston, even restaurants that aren't trying to achieve something great use great local products because that's just the way they live. It's part of the South; that's why the South is wonderful. People care about food and agriculture, and they tie it into their lives.
D.C. is getting better as well, but when I first moved here there just weren't any restaurants like that. Luckily, Spike Gjerde from Woodberry Kitchen is a very good friend of mine in Baltimore, which isn't very far. He had been building a network of these people for the past 10 years. I also started going to every single farmers market and talking to farmers. At first, farmers were leery—many restaurants have used and abused the farm-to-table term. Farming is a very personal thing, so once a farmer gets burned by a chef, he's not too excited to go back down that road. It took a long time to build relationships with them and start to get that network built.
After we'd been open for a while, farmers have started coming to us, which has been great. Every month, someone new comes in that has some new product that we've never seen before. Just the other day we had a guy come in that was collecting wild pawpaws, but he also forages mushrooms. It takes time to build and get better, but through it, you develop a cuisine that is representative of your area. That's why we have a pantry, and that's why we forage. When a new beautiful product comes in, whether it's a turnip or a black bass, you've got this group of items and ingredients to pick from. When you create a dish that way, it has no choice but to be representative of the region that you're in. If anyone is in D.C., come to the restaurant.