The first time I went to the Inn at Little Washington, some twenty years ago, I embarked on a bit of a wild goose chase. Not for a goose, mind you, though I'm confident the folks at the Inn would have known what to do with one. No, we were on a search for some good light and a good fence. And we had a basket of eggs. It's actually not that complicated.
It was 1993 and I had recently moved back to D.C. from a stint as the Los Angeles bureau photographer for United Press International. I covered Hollywood, I covered the Gulf War and I saw more USC football games than I care to remember, that incessant fight song being played after each and every down. But after the L.A. riots--and with UPI flirting dangerously and frequently with bankruptcy--it was clear the time had come to pack up and move back east.
For the next ten years USA Today would be my home, as a contract photographer and a photo editor. And one of my early assignments was to photograph a chef I had never heard of at an inn I had never heard of. To say I wasn't a foodie back then would be a bit of an understatement. For two years in Los Angeles, covering the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Angels and, of course, that damn marching band from USC, my diet consisted of hot dogs and Cokes. Not something to be proud of but that's the way the cookie crumbles when you're a full-time sports photographer. Haute cuisine meant we'd substitute a Yoo-Hoo! for the Coke.
So when I asked the reporter just who Patrick O'Connell was, she informed me that he had just won a James Beard award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic. And yes, I'm embarrassed to report, my next question was "What's a James Beard?"
Luckily, I am older and wiser now. Thanks to my wife, Maya, who is Greek and makes a mean lamb, I have a surprising appreciation for good food. Our first date was at a Vietnamese restaurant, Queen Bee, in Clarendon--when Clarendon was pretty much only Vietnamese restaurants--and we've spent 15 years enjoying some of the best food this area has to offer.
(In fact, we used to dine weekly at another Vietnamese place, Four Sisters, where we would frequently see a certain Patrick O'Connell. We figured if he thought it was a good place to eat, it must be a good place to eat.)
But on this day in 1993, I didn't know anything. I just knew I had to make a nice portrait of a chef at an inn. I made the two hour drive to Little Washington and arrived as the sun was starting to set. I told Chef Patrick that I wanted a pastoral kind of portrait. He ducked into the kitchen and immediately produced a wire basket of gorgeous brown eggs. And off we drove, trying to beat the sunset. I was shooting with a Hasselblad back then, a big, square film camera, and wasn't sure what I was looking for, though certain I'd know it when I saw it.
And with little fanfare, I spied an old broken farm fence and out we jumped. I shot two rolls of film, twenty-four frames in a slow, non-digital world that I miss dearly, and that was that. We returned to the Inn and I thanked Patrick for his indulgence. And he said this: "But you really shouldn't leave without having some risotto."
|© 2014 Matt Mendelsohn Photography|