Food at First Sight

Celebrity chef Patrick O’Connell wins 2019 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.

Chef Patrick O’Connell

Photos courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington

Standing by his grandmother’s side in her kitchen—a sanctuary of comfort and inspiration—5-year-old Patrick O’Connell didn’t know those cherished moments would mold his life. Now the chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington, O’Connell, 73, has made a name for himself by reimagining those simple childhood flavors he remembers and elevating them so they rest side by side with the greatest cuisines of the world and hold their own. 

A five-time James Beard Award winner, three-star Michelin chef, and bestselling author, O’Connell won the coveted 2019 James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement earlier this year. “The people who had been honored before with this award were icons in our industry and people I looked up to greatly,” he says. “To be joining that rarified group was extremely gratifying.” 

O’Connell’s accomplishments reflect the lessons he learned in the family kitchen. “My grandmother was always capable of making something out of nothing. Before I realized she was a talented cook, I thought she was a magician—that she had magical powers,” he says. She was resourceful, often using a small piece of liver to build a meal that would serve a family of 12. She used local bounty—apples, rhubarb, strawberries—coupled with her imagination to “turn out a beautiful pie,” O’Connell says. Her self-sufficiency was something he regarded “as the best part of life.”

O’Connell soaked in all he could from both his grandmother and mother, who, like other women in the 1950s, relied on convenience foods. Some of those foods—think Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks—turned up on O’Connell’s menu in later years as recreated, artistic versions of the boyhood memory. “I liked fish sticks, but I thought I could make them better,” he says, noting he creates sole fingers using filets of sole, lightly breading them and frying them to a golden crisp.

Lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream.

Early in his career O’Connell wanted to investigate things he remembered from childhood and give them a more “fascinating presentation,” he says, “creating an element of familiarity with a surprise twist, working with what we had at our fingertips and celebrating our region.”

O’Connell began honing his skills when, at 15 years old, he asked for a job at a neighborhood restaurant. “My parents were not amused,” he says, noting they didn’t consider a job in the food industry to be a proper job. It wasn’t until he was accepting the lifetime award that he felt his mother “would finally sort of appreciate it, that it all made sense,” he says.

O’Connell went to college to study theater but found working in a restaurant to be more exhilarating. His passion became clear when he took a year off from college to travel to Europe to clear his head. “When I got to France everything changed and shifted, especially when I saw culinary art and how a chef was regarded in that country. They were rock stars, nobility, revered. Food was regarded as a high art form,” he says. “It was an obsession.”

Armed with a new focus, O’Connell opened a small catering company in Rappahannock County with a partner, Reinhardt Lynch. Their clients begged them to open a restaurant so they found “an affordable garage in Washington, the county seat, that we were able to rent half of for $200 a month,” O’Connell says, noting the 1895 building had, at some point, served as a gas station with a dance hall above. 

Their travels to the great restaurants and country inns in Europe inspired the concept for their luxurious inn, which opened in 1978. O’Connell took sole control of the business in 2007. A success from the start, the inn became a member of the Paris-based hotel association Relais & Chateaux, and in 1989 was the first inn ever to receive the Mobil Travel Guide’s five-star award.

Today the inn’s campus consists of 18 structures. “They are living, breathing historical monuments, and guests can stay in some of these buildings,” O’Connell says, noting changes and developments to the property are always ongoing. He is currently meeting with architects to design a glass conservatory inspired by George Washington’s orangery at Mt. Vernon.

Interior dining room of the Inn at Little Washington.

O’Connell is “way beyond a chef. He’s a visionary. He loves the creativity,” says the inn’s general manager, Robert Fasce, who started working at the inn in 1990 as the executive sous chef. “Everyone in the industry, from chefs to hoteliers around the world, connect with him and his devotion to this inn. He’s regarded highly because he is so sincere, generous, and true to himself.”

When it comes to food, O’Connell loves it all. He finds wonder in small things like “finding that first soft shell crab of the season or that last glorious peach that celebrates the moment,” he says. “Every day something different comes into your orbit that reminds you of the month and day of the year in this perfect moment. To me that is the joy.”

His style of cooking is deceptively simple, appearing as though there was little done, when in reality a great deal of time has gone into its creation and presentation. “Things are intended to look like they casually drifted onto the plate, that they are not overly tortured,” he says. “As inspiration for our young cooks, we use still life paintings to show them how an artist looks at food in an essential way.” 

One of the touchstone moments in his career occurred last year when he was awarded his third Michelin star. “Everyone fully understood how much it meant to me,” he says. “It illustrated this full circle we had traversed. It also was an enormous accomplishment for American cuisine and for Virginia, having it acknowledged that Virginia had a restaurant on par with the greatest restaurants of the world.”

His ultimate hope is that visitors to the inn experience a life-changing moment, something they “previously felt could only take place in Europe or France,” O’Connell says. “It’s like going to a wonderful friend’s house in the country who happens to have 150 staff.” 

O’Connell honors his grandmother by using her recipe for baked beans in his first cookbook. “For some of our regular guests, that has been their favorite recipe to make,” he says. “I think that would please her more than anything. Her recipe is not only alive but being enjoyed by thousands of people.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2019 issue.

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