Passion Plate

Ahead of Dining Out for Life, Chef Jamie Leeds talks about her culinary joys and growing her epicurean empire of Hank's Oyster Bar and CommonWealth Gastropub

In 2002, metro D.C.’s culinary landscape added a new point of interest: Jamie Leeds. Trained in New York under high-profile restaurateur Danny Meyer, and also in Chicago under Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises — a company nearly synonymous with the business of American restaurants — Leeds brought her own style to Washington by launching 15 ria.

Jamie Leeds
Jamie Leeds
(Photo by Todd Franson)

Success at 15 ria allowed her to follow her dream of opening her very own restaurant in May of 2005 — Hank’s Oyster Bar, at 17th and Q Streets NW. That opening wasn’t without its headaches, however, as Leeds slogged through negotiations with six residents whose demands for her restaurant went beyond the usual requirements of neighborhood associations.

“I’m still very passionate about the project, but it’s just making the process that much harder,” she told Metro Weekly in April 2005, standing in the former Trio’s Pizza space that her limited resources were transforming into a high-end venue. “I need to get this agreement. I need to get this place opened or I’m going to be sleeping on the park bench.”

Less than a month later, Leeds’s efforts came to fruition and Hank’s Oyster Bar was born, the name a tribute to her father, of whom she has very warm memories: “He loved to cook seafood. He loved to steam clams and oysters. We would always hang out by the water.” (Visitors to the Hank’s website have already spotted Leeds’s dad if they hit the “about” tab. In the accompanying photo, he’s the handsome fella holding the fish.)

Leeds didn’t stop with Hank’s. She was just getting started, opening a second Hank’s in Old Town Alexandria in 2007, and her CommonWealth Gastropub — with operating partner Sandy Lewis — in her own Columbia Heights neighborhood in 2008.

But a local restaurant empire isn’t the only thing the 48-year-old has been growing. She’s also a family woman.

“We have dinner probably three or four times a week,” she says of time with her partner, Leslie Detenber, and their “almost 7″ son, Hayden. “But we have dinner in the different restaurants. It’s basically wherever Hayden wants to eat. He loves the fries at Hank’s, but he likes the bangers and mash at CommonWealth. A lot of our time is spent together in the restaurant. He loves it.”

So, obviously, does Leeds. Sitting in CommonWealth on a blustery Friday, the gray weather helps give the restaurant an appropriate English feel. But the weather can’t hold a candle to Leeds’s own dictates, from the custom-designed plates reminiscent of old English china, to the bucolic chalkboard landscapes, complete with wind-power turbines and a wall-written call to “Praise the Lard” — a porky pun she borrowed from the woman-owned Beast restaurant in Portland, Ore.

That last component — woman-owned — is important to Leeds, who just started a four-year commitment to serve as president of the national organization Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. But while family, the restaurants and her various commitments all compete for her time, Leeds carved out a bit of it to speak with Metro Weekly about Dining Out for Life’s beneficiary, Food and Friends, her zest for the restaurant business, and the 9-to-5 bullet she dodged.

METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your relationship with Food and Friends.

JAMIE LEEDS: My relationship started back at 15 ria. Then when I had my own places, I was able to get involved more. I just did a private donor dinner where we were actually at the Food and Friends space. I do all the cooking. It’s like a four- or five-course meal and they invite all their big donors, the people they want to thank. I’m also involved in Chef’s Best. This year, they’ve asked me to chair it, so I’m very excited about that.

It’s a great organization. Their cause is really dear to my heart. I lived in New York from the mid-’80s to the mid-to-late ’90s. I’ve definitely lost a lot of people to AIDS, and one very dear friend of mine, Reggie. So Food and Friends holds a special place in my heart. It’s very important work. I find it really gratifying, and there’s a lot I can do for them. They keep people engaged, and they also have fun with it. [Executive Director] Craig [Shniderman] was our guest bartender one night. They always come to [Hank's D.C.] for the High Heel Race. Craig bows to the occasion and he’ll put on a ton of makeup — he looks fantastic.

Their work has initiated camaraderie within the community and among the volunteers and people dedicated to getting the work done. These kinds of organizations, not only are they helping the people that are sick, they’re helping the people that aren’t sick. There’s that other side that’s so important.

MW: What else are you helping with?

LEEDS: We do the Share Our Strength event every year. I do an event every year for ovarian cancer. I do the D.C. Central Kitchen event every year. I do the St. Jude’s event every year — that’s a really incredible cause. I do a lot of events. I feel it’s important to give back. I know that sounds kind of cliché, but it’s true.

MW: And now you’re giving more to Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, too.

LEEDS: It’s an incredible organization. It connects women and food — that’s our tagline. The main reason we exist is to offer scholarships and internships in different facets of the food industry. We just came out with our offerings for this year, and it’s over 40 scholarships. It’s for students — we do quite a lot of culinary-school scholarships — but we also offer food experiences, like going to Mexico and cooking at a little inn for a week. Or going to Italy to learn about wine. There’s an amazing array available.

MW: Are professional kitchens boys’ clubs? Is there a need for a women’s organization?

LEEDS: There’s definitely a need. I don’t really like to say that it’s exclusive, because it’s not. But there needs to be something out there to help young women along in the industry. There’s really nothing else out there. The majority of the restaurants are run by men.

We offer a mentorship program. We like to be able to be available — the older members, like myself — to people coming up through the industry or wanting to open a restaurant, wondering, “Should I take this executive chef job?,” “Should I take this line-cook job?,” “How do I take my career to the next level?” I just got an e-mail from a woman living in Baltimore who is a WCR member. She wants to open a little café and she needs advice. I’m like, “Fine, we can meet. I’ll sit down with you for an hour and we’ll go over stuff.” WCR gives women access to people with more experience, which you don’t really have in the industry because the amount of women is so much lower than the amount of men out there.

MW: Have you had any experience with homophobia in the restaurant industry?

LEEDS: No. I’ve never experienced anything like that, and I’ve always been out in my career. I came out when I was in my late teens. I never hid my sexuality in my workplace, ever. I never needed to.

MW: Did you go to school to study cooking?

LEEDS: No, I studied advertising. I was a copywriter before I started cooking. I didn’t go to culinary school. I’m self-taught.

I was born in New York, in Brooklyn. Then we moved to Columbus, Ohio. I spent my childhood in Columbus, but always going back to New York every year, visiting, because a lot of my family was in New York. When I went to college, I went to Ohio State. My third year, I transferred to New York and went to night school at the Fashion Institute of Technology. They had a really good advertising copywriting program there.

I was working during the day as a server in a restaurant. I had been in the restaurant business working the front of the house since I was a kid. I was a hatcheck girl, coat-check girl. I was like 14, 15. I really wasn’t supposed to be working yet, but I got paid in tips. I was waitressing mostly up through high school. And I worked in places like Arby’s, stuff like that.

Then, when I went to New York, I was doing part-time serving and I just got the bug. I saw the New York feel of the restaurants and the kitchens. I love to cook, but I was on this advertising path. I got a job as a junior copywriter at a small firm, but it just wasn’t clicking with me. I just couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. It just didn’t fit my personality. So I was out pounding the pavement looking for work. I got a part-time job cooking at the Popover Café – that was the job that turned it around for me. It was a newly expanded restaurant on the Upper West Side. The chef was a Culinary Institute of America grad, and he taught me everything. He taught me how to sauté. He taught me how to cook fish and meats. I was running the kitchen after a couple of months. I just took to it.

Jamie Leeds
Jamie Leeds
(Photo by Todd Franson)

But Danny Meyer is my mentor. He’s a really important part of my career. He saw something in me. I kind of emulate him — and I don’t know if I could ever reach what he’s accomplished. He’s probably one of the most famous restaurateurs in the country. He owns Union Square Café, where my career was shaped. And he sent me to France, loaned me the money.

MW: What did you do in France?

LEEDS: I started in Alsace. I worked in all two-star Michelin restaurants throughout the countryside. I didn’t work in Paris, purposefully, so I would be able to actually do something. If you go to work in Paris, you’re usually stuck in a corner peeling potatoes. [Laughs.] But if you’re out in the countryside, you’re able to cook. I was at a little family-run auberge in Alsace, and it was unbelievable. I lived on a white-asparagus farm. I rode my bike to work every morning. We picked herbs right before service. The hunter came by with deer on his back. From Alsace, I went down to the Hotel Negresco in Nice for a couple of months.

I loved being in France. It was a great year for me. It really instilled the value of fresh food, of food not coming out of a can. That’s probably the most important lesson that I learned there. It’s a way of life. You tend to your garden. You eat food that comes from your garden. You have to get into the dirt, get your hands dirty.

MW: That gets to the commitment you have to local and sustainable. Why is that important? Is it about the environment? About quality?

LEEDS: It’s all of that. I started shopping at the farmers’ markets in New York with Danny Meyer in the mid ’80s when I started at Union Square. It’s always been part of the way I cook.

The ducks, for example — I had the most amazing duck of my life in France. It’s because what they’re eating is coming from that area. It’s all local. I think that’s what we strive to recreate here in the states. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. That experience really instilled the sense of flavor. It’s really about the flavor, ultimately. That’s how it got started for me, getting food from the farmers: the flavor.

Then, as I got older and more responsible, and became a mother — that really made a big difference — and a business owner, I realized I have to support these farmers or they’re not going to be here. It’s a package of having the products with the best flavor, but also supporting the person that supplies you with those products. That’s a responsibility that I take on as I’ve grown the business. Sometimes, some of my guys want to serve skate or monkfish, because it’s amazing flavor, it’s delicious. But it’s not sustainable. You’ve got to take some responsibility in what you’re serving and what you’re purchasing.

MW: CommonWealth has a British theme. Do you have some British roots?

LEEDS: No. My last name is Leeds and that’s about it. And that’s only because my father changed his name from Levine. [Laughs.] I still want to get to Leeds in England. I’ve been to London and I love the style of the “gastropubs.”
There are a lot of chefs who do their food the way they do it: No matter where they’re going to be, they’re going to do that food. That’s not the way I approach things. I have a very wide repertoire of foods that I’m good at cooking and that I like to cook. So I’ll do a concept that fits the neighborhood. The location, the space, really dictate what I’m going to do there. We wanted to make sure we did something that was neighborly, friendly and inexpensive. We wanted to do a lot of beers, and the gastropub concept lent itself to that as well. I also wanted to get away from the seafood a little bit and do a more meat-centric menu. You’d never know the nice Jewish girl has all this pork coming out of her kitchens. [Laughs.] I could do a whole menu out of pork and I’d be happy. I’ve done deep-fried bacon here as an appetizer — coated in a beer batter. It’s amazing. People love it.

MW: When you were trying to open Hank’s D.C., you had a difficult time with a handful of neighbors blocking your liquor license despite what seemed like otherwise overwhelming support from the neighborhood. Did you have any similar trouble opening Hank’s Old Town or CommonWealth?

LEEDS: Nothing. They were a breeze. It’s interesting that we’re talking about this now, as I have to engage with them again because I’m expanding Hank’s. We’re just starting to engage in talks with them.

MW: Hank’s D.C. seems so beloved in the neighborhood. It always looks busy.

LEEDS: Exactly, which is why an expansion would be great. Everybody’s been so positive in wanting it, in pushing me to do it. But, you know, if I come across any more resistance, it’s going to be an issue. We have to amend that [D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration] “voluntary [neighborhood] agreement,” and they have to agree for me to expand. It’s kind of like I’m back in the same position. If we get any resistance, it’ll just leave a very bad taste in my mouth. If it doesn’t enable me to expand, maybe I’ll have to move Hank’s altogether.

MW: When you were opening Hank’s, you said you hoped it would be a starting point for something bigger. Are you there yet, or is there more to come?

LEEDS: I love the business of running restaurants. I absolutely love it. But I don’t have any present plans. I don’t have a roadmap, like, “In two years I’m going to have this, in two more years I’ll have that.” I’m more organic about the process. It’s more about opportunities that arise. If there’s a good real-estate opportunity for me and it makes sense, then I’ll take advantage of it. Real estate is really what dictates the success of a restaurant.

With CommonWealth, the owners of the building approached me originally because they wanted to do a Hank’s. I wasn’t ready to do another Hank’s in the District — I still don’t know if I want to. But I saw an incredible opportunity to have an incredible space in a great up-and-coming location. And I know the neighborhood — it’s my neighborhood — and I really wanted to do something here to get away from all the fast-food joints that were opening. I wanted to be able to provide good food for a good value.

I do see myself opening more restaurants. I have two or three different concepts I want to do. And, no, I’m not going to tell you what they are!

Dining Out for Life for 2010 begins next Thursday, March 11. Click here for “A Complete Guide to Dining Out for Life,” a full list of participating restaurants in Washington and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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