Few restaurateurs ever enjoy a hot streak like the one Washington, DC's Gus DiMillo finds himself on right now. Along with his Passion Food partners Jeff Tunks and David Wizenberg, the Lockport, NY, native has cranked out four hit restaurants in a row: "coastal cuisine" spot DC Coast in 1998; the Southeast Asian-inspired TenPenh in 2000; the Latin-tinged Ceiba in 2003; and, last fall, Acadiana, a Louisiana fish house. A service and marketing whiz, DiMillo was honored as Industry Ambassador of the Year in 2003 by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
You must really like food from Iceland.
I do. I've served on Iceland's sustainability committee for the past six or seven years.
What's that all about?
The idea is to promote Icelandic products that are organic and sustainable.
How did an Italian guy from DC land that gig?
We met some people on the board a few years ago when they came to our DC Coast restaurant.
Not many people in the U.S. had heard about this stuff. We began to work through chefs and restaurants to turn them on to it.
Is this a job for you?
No, but I get to travel to Iceland at least a couple times a year.
What do you do when you're there?
We work closely with the farmers and fishermen. For example, I'll observe the lamb roundup, make sure there's no overgrazing.
Looks like you bring some products back to the U.S. to sample.
Absolutely. Cooking is very therapeutic for me. It's a huge event—you crack open a bottle of wine and get to work.
What are some favorites?
One is fresh Icelandic lamb chops, in season. They're always excellent.
Let's see. I'll do a Red Snapper Vera Cruz with this fish. It's the same recipe we use at Ceiba.
What's the story on this coffee?
It's fair-trade from Nicaragua.
Did you go there to source it?
I've been a few times. Fair trade matters because more money goes to the coffee pickers. It breaks the poverty cycle.
Looks like you've made it to Chile, too. This olive oil is a new one to us.
The Olave? It's Chilean organic first cold press olive oil.
You've seen a lot of the world.
We take a big research trip whenever we do a restaurant. You run across great things; some wind up in your fridge.
At least this tomato sauce is homemade.
Oh, I'm a loyal Italian when it comes to home cooking.
What are some favorites?
Pasta, risotto. I love my starch.
Those starch calories don't stick to you. What's your secret?
I don't own a car, for one thing. From my house, I can walk to all four of our restaurants in just 10 minutes.
Do you visit all four every day?
My end of the partnership is service issues. I hit at least two at lunch, usually stopping by all four of them at dinner.
Still work the floor?
I'll pull a shift when a manager is sick or has a day off. But I like to get around to all of them, not be tied to just one.
When's your next trip?
Next week, back over to Iceland. It's an event where U.S. and European chefs compete by preparing Icelandic products.
Hey, bring us back some samples.
Iceland Spring Water