| Tracy O’Grady and Brian Wolken (below) tied the knot at, then opened the doors of, Willow early this September. |
| CLASSIC: Willow’s 150-seat dining room echoes the Vienna Workshop style. Chef O’Grady’s food offers new interpretations on French and Northern Italian cooking. |
| SPEAK NOW OR... : Chef Bob Kinkead gave O’Grady away at the wedding. |
We knew from the 2001 Bocuse d’Or competition that chef Tracy O’Grady could perform well under pressure. Her top-10 finish at that prestigious international culinary competition, held biennially in Lyon, France, proved that she could produce world-class food under the most intensely competitive conditions.Her work there was scrutinized by the legendary Paul Bocuse and his judging team of French master chefs and deemed worthy. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
But that performance was just a warm-up for the one O’Grady put on this past Sept. 2. That’s the day she stepped into a new role: chef/owner of Willow restaurant in Arlington, VA.
Perform under pressure? RH readers already know how stressful a restaurant opening can be. But this one takes the cake. O’Grady also got married as part of the day’s proceedings. If you can imagine feeding 475 guests on the day of your marriage, and doing so on the very first day of your restaurant’s service, you can grasp the scale of what O’Grady pulled off at Willow.
It helped that her new husband understood. He’s Brian Wolken, Willow’s director of operations and, prior to that, chef at sophisticated Washington DC restaurant Butterfield 9. This pair makes a formidable team, both at the restaurant and in life.
But still, they were trying to pull off a lot here. At least there were plenty of other culinarians on hand to help keep things calm. The guest list included O’Grady’s former boss, prominent DC chef Bob Kinkead—he walked her down the aisle—and Kate Jansen, Willow’s executive pastry chef and partner.
How intense was it? A total of 125 family and friends made up Willow’s first seating that night. They got to see the nuptial ceremony, eat a sampling of appetizers and desserts and sip champagne while the newly married couple cut slices from a four-tiered cake.
But then it was time to vacate the tables. Willow still had to take care of 350 invited guests who were being introduced to the fledgling restaurant’s fare. O’Grady, still wearing her wedding dress, spent the rest of her wedding day cooking. There was no honey moon. O’Grady and Wolken were back at work the next day, when the first round of paying customers would arrive.
“Many people said we were crazy for doing this,” O’Grady told the New York Times, which devoted a big write-up to the event.
But no one was saying she was crazy to open her own place. The self-taught 37-yearold chef had worked at Le Pavillion and Roberto Donna’s Galileo in Washington before catching on at Kinkead’s in 1993. She was sous-chef there when the tackled the Bocuse d’Or qualification process, which saw her out-cook 120 other chefs to earn the right to represent the U.S. at the finals in France. O’Grady later became executive chef at Kinkead’s.
Now she’s taking the big leap to chef/owner. It’s O’Grady’s first crack at putting out the kind of food she really loves. Which turns out to be what she and her partners are dubbing “Modern Continental Cuisine,” i.e., new interpretations of French and Northern Italian dishes. You won’t find many Asian and Latin influences at Willow.
The food has a European feel instead. That means appetizers like Willow Clams Casino ($10); Potato Gnocchi Gratin with Fennel, Shrimp and Basil ($9); and Fried Fontina and Prosciutto Fritters with Smoked Paprika Tomato Fondue ($8). Another popular starter: grilled flatbreads like the signature Blue Fire, featuring Caramelized Onions, Buttermilk Bleu Cheese, Parmesan and Fresh Thyme ($16).
Entree standouts include Mustard Crusted Rack of Pork “Milanese” with Smoked Ham Hock Jus, Caramelized Onions and Spinach Tart ($23); and Whole Baked Sea Bass with Gigante Beans, Olives and Lemon with a RosÈ Wine and Rosemary Sauce ($23). All familiar items recast with a modern touch.
Desserts come from Jansen, who cofounded the Firehook Bakeries in 1992. Not familiar with the Firehook? W magazine ranks it one of the Top 5 bakeries in the world. Jansen’s first dessert list included fallflavored items such as Warm Apple Nutmeg Custard Tart with Caramel Sauce ($7) and Pumpkin Praline Mousse Cake with Cranberry Jam ($7). She makes the breads, too.
In addition to all the culinary firepower on the ownership team, Willow’s location is good, too. Arlington, home to the Pentagon, sits directly across the Potomac from DC. As of last Jan. 2, it had a population of 198,267 and was home to 195,205 jobs. That’s right, the unemployment rate is 1.4 percent.
With an economic base like this one, almost anyone could make a go of a restaurant here. Since O’Grady, Wolken and Jansen made it through their first night, we figure they can’t miss with Willow now.