Disruptor, purist, forager – one could use any of these words to describe Chef Jeremiah Langhorne of Washington, D.C.’s The Dabney, but “visionary” is perhaps the most fitting. After all, it’s one thing to cook Michelin-star food; it’s another to build a local ecosystem around sustainable ingredients in the process. Together with business partner Alex Zink, Chef Langhorne has shaken up the D.C. dining culture – one hearth-cooked meal at a time.
Chef Langhorne says that his philosophy on cooking has always been that “[i]f you are passionate about what you are doing, and you really enjoy and believe in it, then that’s enough. And if it’s right, if it’s the way things should be, it’ll work out in the end.” And with Chef Langhorne, it’s definitely right. As a young line cook keen on cultivating his craft, Langhorne frequently looked to industry veterans for inspiration. He tells us that he read Chef Sean Brock’s blog each day before starting his shift; the famed chef would later become a pivotal figure and mentor in Langhorne’s career. [And it was the experience of cooking for him that inspired Langhorne’s credo – a “desire to make something as good as it possibly can be.”]
After apprenticeships for Chef Brock – at Charleston’s McCrady’s – and Rene Redzepi – at Copenhagen’s Noma – an opportunity emerged for Langhorne to chart a new course with his own restaurant; this time, in D.C.
The Dabney’s concept was a break from convention: from the location, in an obscure alleyway in the up-and-coming Shaw neighborhood, to the year spent procuring the best (and, oftentimes, most obscure) local ingredients, and finally, to forgoing a traditional gas line in favor of a hearth as the centerpiece of the kitchen, little of Langhorne’s operation fits a playbook.
Image courtesy of The Dabney.
“For the year leading up to the opening of the restaurant, my sous chef and I spent all of our energy visiting every single farm and purveyor that we could – really getting to know them, seeing how they treat their animals, how they raise their vegetables, understanding what practices they use. We have a fishmonger who will wait on the dock, waiting for a satellite call from the fishermen out at sea about what they’ve caught, so we get some of the most incredible fish literally three and a half hours off the dock. And I think that is the foundation of what we do: great relationships with all of the people in this community that make it what it is.”
It’s this notion that a local ecosystem is the heart of great food that led to the discovery of one of The Dabney’s signature dishes: sugar toads. This seemingly unknown small puffer fish with a sweet flavor was largely ignored by consumers and fishermen alike until The Dabney made a name for it. Langhorne takes pride in creating demand and popularity for little-known – but abundant – local ingredients like these: “We try to take anything where a farmer or fisherman says, ‘This is really abundant here, but nobody wants it,’ and see if we can turn it into something. Then, hopefully, like what’s been happening with sugar toads, if we make it popular, people will come in and see it, and other chefs will ask, ‘Can we get some?’ And that’s how you create a fishery for something.”
(Above) Jeremiah Langhorne cooking at the Franks’ Backyard Chef Series.
(Below) The Dabney’s signature “sugar toads.” Photo credit: Meredith Jenks.
Langhorne notes that for both consumers and purveyors there’s a reset that has to take place.
“I think we have such a broken food system – in the way that we eat, buy, and source things. It’s so completely out of whack for me… I get into arguments with people who are buying salmon at Whole Foods; there are so many things just outside our backyard.”
Perhaps this sentiment is a relic from Langhorne’s earlier years spent staging in Copenhagen. “I think people often miss the point with Noma; it was never about the ingredients that are in Scandinavia, as much as it is [Rene’s] philosophy and his mentality.” He goes on to say, “The most important thing I took away from [Noma] was not so much that Scandinavia has really cool ingredients, but that everywhere has really cool ingredients. If you focus on your own home and your own region, you can discover some really exciting things that you previously didn’t know existed.”
Chef Langhorne’s asparagus with Maryland crab meat, smoked peanuts, wild mint, and oxalis. Photo Credit: Meredith Jenks.
And then there’s Langhorne’s cooking style, which could arguably be boiled down to simply ‘not overthinking things,’ He combines the most delicious local and seasonal ingredients with a precise set of standards, time-honored cooking techniques, and pairings that are outright delicious. “We focus on ingredients – that’s our number one priority at all times,” states Langhorne. This focus, combined with Chef’s expansive fine dining pedigree, has paid off: in its first year, The Dabney earned a coveted Michelin star and eager revelers fill its 52-seat dining room on a nightly basis.
But lest we assume his story has been filled with serendipity, Langhorne’s precise cooking standards, devotion to sustainable ingredients, and pseudo-Samurai code for his kitchen staff, would lead one to think otherwise. “Recently, when we won the Michelin star, people asked ‘What did you do [to win]? What did you focus on?’ And it’s funny, because there wasn’t one single lineup or meeting to say this is what we’re going to do to win this. We just do what we do every single day and I think we have a strong platform of beliefs and things that we focus on that allow us to move forward.”
Chef Jeremiah Langorne (front center) pictured at Resy & Frankies Spuntino Present Franks’ Backyard Chef Series.
Focus, it turns out, plays a big part in The Dabney’s success: “We have easily one of the most dedicated kitchen staffs I’ve ever worked with in my life, it’s really a joy to see,” Langhorne says. But “focus” doesn’t mean rigidity. “We kind of joke about being the anti-kitchen kitchen: we have a book club on Thursdays at 11am, where everyone brings in their favorite cookbook and we talk about what inspires us.”
So how does the relatively young Michelin-star chef, who once took to educating himself with Ping Island Strike keep his cooking fresh, so to speak, and continue to chart the path forward?
“[Being the leader] is a completely different place to be. Instead of saying, ‘I want to be like him,’ you have to look at yourself and say, ‘Well, what do I want? What do I buy into? What do I train people to be like?’ It’s a huge struggle, so that’s what turned me onto the vintage cookbooks.”
Langhorne is affectionately referring to the Colonial cookbooks he frequently considers for inspiration. “I find a lot of inspiration, not just in old cookbooks, but cookbooks in general of all different kinds. And it’s funny because when I was a younger cook, I used to turn to the flashy books that were glossy and big and all about technique. Now it’s much simpler, I turn to books like Fiddle (which I absolutely love). That and trying to get back out in nature as much as possible. If I can get out on a farm or go foraging or I can get out with one of our oystermen or go crab fishing, that’s a huge jolt and a really good source of inspiration… it serves the same function as getting up each morning and checking [Chef Brock’s] blog to see what he posted (laughs).”