FORGING A FOODWAY
D.C. chef Jeremiah Langhorne is on a quest to define Mid-Atlantic cuisine.
The week before reopening what he calls version “2.0” of The Dabney, in Washington, D.C., Jeremiah Langhorne sits cool as a cucumber in track pants and sneakers in its intimate, chic dining room while people bustle about him—his cooks testing the new menu; his wife, Jenny, discussing the yet-to-be-delivered light fixtures.
It’s a moment that would make many a man sweat, sitting here, with a seemingly endless to-do list, with the press eagerly awaiting what this 37-year-old rising-star chef, formerly of McCrady’s, Noma, and The French Laundry, does next with his already Michelin-starred Mid-Atlantic restaurant.
Not Jeremiah Langhorne, though, who, on this Thursday morning in early September, leans back on the new banquette seating, casually sips a single shot of espresso, and tells his story in full detail. Listening, it’s clear: he was destined for this moment.
Back in the 1980s, Langhorne was born not far from here, just outside of the nation’s capital, with his earliest years spent in the suburbs of Virginia. Most of his childhood would take place farther south, along the Shenandoah Mountains, where he played in the woods and visited his grandfather, who cooked the family Sunday breakfast, made his own country hams, and always kept a cast iron on the stove. But this kitchen is not where the chef’s affinity for cooking began.
A self-proclaimed “punk kid” with aspirations of becoming a professional skateboarder, Langhorne “had no real dreams of cooking,” he says. That is until, after a high school gig at McDonald’s, he got his first unofficial restaurant job as a delivery boy for a pizza joint in the local strip mall.
“That is where I discovered cooking,” says Langhorne. “At the end of one shift, I saw the guys in the kitchen, throwing stuff together, creating new pasta specials. I’d never thought about the creativity. I’d only ever seen people using recipes or making those they’d already made 100 times before. But it just hit me. Skateboarding was all about style and skill and individuality. It was an art, and suddenly I saw that in food.”
Through the help of a pie-slinging co-worker, he landed a job at OXO in Charlottesville, a fine-dining restaurant rooted in European classics, where he first cut his teeth in a professional kitchen and learned about cut-throat chefs like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey—before they were on television.
“The culinary landscape has changed so much—this would have been the very end of the ’90s, early 2000s, and the celebrity chef thing had not come to be yet,” says Langhorne. “The Food Network was relatively new then, maybe Emeril was around, but it was mostly just a blue-collar working-class job. There was no Instagram, no Twitter. The Michelin Guide was still not in America. It wasn’t something to be looked up to. It just wasn’t cool.”
Before long, though, Langhorne became starstruck on his own, thanks to the early blog of a young Southern chef named Sean Brock, who took over the modern-gastronomy McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2006.
“Every day, I’d come into my office, with my coffee, like a little ceremony, and hope for a new post,” says Langhorne. “I’d study all of it, the techniques, the ideas, try to get the ingredients and teach myself, which became really inspirational for me, being in what was then small-town Virginia.”
Perhaps it was fate. Perhaps it was his own persistence. But within a few years, a fortunate connection would ultimately lead Langhorne to this very location. During a winter gig in Colorado, he learned that the chef who he was being hired to replace was headed to his dream job. Jeremiah called him immediately and landed an on-the-spot stage—aka unpaid internship—at McCrady’s.
At the same time, he was staging at even more renowned dining room—Thomas Keller’s three Michelin-star The French Laundry in California—but in the South, in the kitchen of his idol, Langhorne set his sights on a full-time gig with Brock. He started to visit every few weeks, taking each free shift he could get his hands on, and all the while growing increasingly enamored by the fellow Virginian’s hyperlocal approach and ambitious imagination.
“Everybody had this sense of wonderment—Sean was coming in from the farm with all of these things he grew and then using some wild modern technique and meanwhile there’d be Metallica blasting on the radio and it just felt like me,” says Langhorne, who was eventually hired as a line cook at McCrady’s. “Everyone there had this desire to grow and learn as a team.”
In fact, about a year into his tenure, Brock even offered Jeremiah an opportunity to stage under chef Rene Redzepi at the revered Noma in Copenhagen, which ranked number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2021.
“I was saving to buy my wife an engagement ring and instead used the money to go to Scandinavia,” says Langhorne, calling Jenny “the most supportive person in his life” as she busily types away on a computer across the dining room, finalizing details before reopening day. “I just wanted to get inside [Rene’s] head, I wanted to see how he thought and worked, and when I got back, I had so much excitement and energy and so many techniques that I wanted to try,” including newfound foraging skills that would send him on treks through the Carolina woods and along the Atlantic beaches for wild ingredients.
At McCrady’s, he quickly rose to sous chef, then chef de cuisine, gaining his own reputation as a locavore wunderkind.
“After six years, I felt like I had a voice and something to say,” says Langhorne of his eventual departure in 2013. At the time, he and McCrady’s sommelier Alex Zink had decided to strike out on their own and head north—not back to Virginia, but farther still, into Washington, D.C.
“People were laughing, like, ‘Why? You should go to New York or San Francisco!’,” recalls Langhorne. “Nobody cared about this city as far as food was concerned. And my thought was, ‘You just answered the question.’”
Taking a page from Brock and Redzepi with his own deep dive into his regional foodway, The Dabney opened in 2015 to instant success. Rave reviews flooded in (including a 10-part Washington Post series), reservations were nearly impossible, and within less than a year, they scored their first Michelin star.
“What Sean did was kind of amazing,” says Langhorne. “He comes from Virginia, too, and he was celebrating it. Whereas my whole life, I was embarrassed of it. He, and other chefs, made their culture and their history interesting and cool and modern again, in a way that would guarantee that it would last. And in a lot of ways, we want to do the same thing.”
Not easy to define, Langhorne sees the Mid-Atlantic’s culinary legacy as one almost forgotten over the centuries following the Civil War—perhaps less preserved than the traditions of more rural and impoverished communities in part due to its proximity to the nation’s capital, and the wealth that flowed from it.
Not only did this reduce a need for the resourceful that fosters creativity, he posits, but it also provided greater access to modern markets, whose, be it canned food or newfangled kitchen gadgets, often made things easier and cheaper, but not necessarily better. At the same time, the region had ravaged their oyster populations, along with those of terrapin, and shad, and canvasback duck, leaving a lasting impact on its native abundance.
Now, all these years later, Langhorne wants to preserve what’s left.
“The Dabney was meant to be a showcase for this region—a place to tell people about this place, about its history—but it’s not supposed to be a time capsule,” stresses Langhorne. “I’ve never wanted to look at an old cookbook and recreate a 200-year-old recipe. That would be terrible by today’s standards. And you better believe that if a farmer in 1810 got great seeds from somewhere else, he’s going to grow them. But I want to keep what was lost going and to fill it back up again for modern taste. To me, it’s about being a steward, and maybe in 100 years, Mid-Atlantic cuisine will be a household name.”
But what is modern Mid-Atlantic cuisine, exactly? It is not Southern, per se, as so many critics have hoped to describe it. Instead, it is the wide-ranging terroir of the verdant Chesapeake Bay watershed—it is the mountains and the woods and the fields and the rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.
“When asked what it would be like,” says Langhorne, “my best response has always been: I’ll show you.”
One recent menu included dishes like Appalachian apple stack cake updated with the decadent touch of foie gras, a Shenandoah-raised Autumn Olive pork loin with seared scallop and watermelon molasses, and the main event—an aged heritage duck cooked over the open-hearth embers with a grape glaze, fig barbecue sauce, and mustard greens, served in the Estee. On any given night, some 30 cornbreads will also be cooked in cast-iron in the thousand-degree central oven, with the chef referring to the cookware medium as “something as essential to me as salt,” learning how to use them in a professional kitchen from Brock.
For Langhorne, a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic and its restaurant closures was the time to slow down and dream again. And the result, as showcased in The Dabney “2.0,” which reopened in mid-September, is the coming-of-age moment for his culinary career—a chance to unfurl all of the whims and wisdom and vision gleaned over the last two decades.
There will be pomp and circumstance. There will be fresh paint. There will be beautiful new menus, handprinted in Baltimore and arriving to the table layered like a love letter to this particular place. Other tiny details will be trickled throughout, too, from the cocktail napkins to the server aprons to the walnut-wood trays, and he’s fine with being the only one who notices them.
“Maybe I won’t be blasting the White Stripes on the radio anymore, but we still want that energy around the table, because that’s how we think we should eat,” says Langhorne. “We’re very much long-term thinkers. We’re not looking to grab short gains in the next year. We want to make sure that we’re timeless. So that in 10 years from now, we’re still here, we’re still a great restaurant.”
And there might be nothing more punk rock—and likely—than that.
Photographs courtesy of The Dabney.
Read Jeremiah’s biscuits & country ham gravy in Family Receipts.