PANS IN SERVICE
D.C. chef Opie Crooks puts cast iron to work in a restaurant kitchen.
Inside the small, scrambling kitchen of No Goodbyes, chef Opie Crooks moves swiftly from station to station, checking his ingredients and readying his team for Wednesday night dinner service at this seasonally and regionally inspired restaurant, located inside The Line Hotel of the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to walk and talk,” says Crooks, 36, passing prep cooks who slice bacon lardons and fill up jars of pimento cheese, poking his head inside the walk-in cooler to assess the shelves of fresh seafood, much of which has been hauled in from the nearby Chesapeake Bay.
No Goodbyes is the first solo restaurant for this up-and-coming young chef, but Crooks is no stranger to the rush and reward of commercial kitchens, having been a part of them his entire adult life, and then some.
Born and raised outside of Nashville, Tennessee, he worked his way from dishwasher and busser as a teenager to Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, Georgia, to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, which eventually brought him to Baltimore.
“I loved the environment and the energy of restaurants,” says Crooks. “And the rest is history.”
In Baltimore, his star would rise alongside that of lauded local chef Spike Gjerde, first as chef de cuisine at Woodberry Kitchen, considered “the perfect Mid-Atlantic restaurant” by The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, and eventually, in D.C., as executive chef at A Rake’s Progress at The Line. On any given night, you could find Crooks on the line there, often over a live fire and cast iron, filled with fresh-caught fish, local vegetables, and mindfully raised meat.
Now at the helm of his own restaurant, having opened No Goodbyes last August after COVID closed the doors at Rake’s, Crooks is in his element.
On this Wednesday night on Champlain Street, dinner service is underway, with Crooks calling out to his sous chef and batter hissing as it hits a cast-iron pan on its way into the kitchen’s roaring wood-fired hearth, baking some of the dozens of buckwheat cornbreads ordered at the restaurant each night.
From restaurant to restaurant, cast iron has been a key ingredient for Crooks’ cooking, used for all forms of protein, produce, and dessert, with some 200 pieces of such cookware in various shapes and sizes throughout the kitchen, including dozens stacked above the range and even more teetering on rolling racks between each station. Thousands of meals have been made in each.
“It’s my preferred method of cooking—the heat retention, the heat distribution, and just the overall durability,” says Crooks. “If you have an aluminum pan, it can warp, it gets visibly dirty. Cast iron looks and works better the more you use it.”
And use it he does—in the fire, on the French tops, over gas burners, in ovens, on induction, and as serving vessels, where they’re cut into with forks and knives.
“We use it everywhere,” says Crooks. “My advice to home cooks is don’t be so precious with it. Use it all the time. Use it for everything. It’s a tool, and it’s meant to be used that way. Which is how we use it.”
Though we don’t recommend it at home, Crooks scorches his cast irons between each use by throwing them in the 900-degree fire. “And it’s not our proudest moment, but sometimes they’ve ended up in the dishwasher, too,” he says, noting other wear and tear, like broken handles from a few dropped pans. “But they survive.”
One of Crooks’s favorite ways to use cast iron is just as rugged as restaurant service, but not in a kitchen at all, in fact usually miles away from one.
“When I’m camping, I always make pancakes,” he says. “I’ll put the flour and eggs in one container, then the wet ingredients in another. I crack the eggs inside, shake it all up, and pour it directly into the pan, which I put right on the fire, right in the coals. When I’m camping, we cook everything that way.”
About Chef Opie Crooks
Born and raised outside of Nashville, Tennessee, Opie Crooks worked his way from dishwasher and busser to Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta. After graduation, he started working with legendary Chef Roy Yamaguchi at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, where he spent nearly a decade and became a chef-partner. In 2013, he joined forces with Spike Gjerde as chef of Shoo-Fly in Baltimore, then as chef de cuisine of Woodberry Kitchen. Cooking technically precise and hyper-local comfort food, he helped earn Gjerde a James Beard Award for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” in 2015. Admired by his peers for his creativity, energy, and leadership, Crooks was named “Best Chef” by Baltimore’s City Paper in 2015. With Gjerde, Crooks opened A Rake’s Progress at The Line Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2017 and was recognized as a StarChefs Rising Star Chef in 2018. When Rake’s closed in 2020, Crooks worked at The Dabney in D.C., before returning to The Line as executive chef, opening No Goodbyes in 2021.
Learn more about No Goodbyes.
Photos by Roan Edwards.