Charlatans and scalawags, curs and rubes. Such are we, my professional brethren, the we who, daily, prepare and serve your food, the we whom the outside world will not have, and whom we, in turn, forsake by refusing to play by anyone else’s rules but our own. And proudly. Bad behavior in the food industry is not just tolerated, it’s encouraged. Behaving poorly at work is a badge of honor, a point of pride, for a highly dysfunctional workforce that will not, or cannot, abide by the strictures of corporate America, the “real” world, where, say, stabbing a subordinate in the meat of his right hand with a meat fork for irredeemably fucking his Hollandaise sauce, for instance, is a terminal (not to mention criminal) offense, and where diddling that hot new waitron in the walk-in would get you forcibly removed from the building by a man, very likely much bigger than yourself, wearing a gun belt and shiny gold badge. But we industry folks wouldn’t have it any other way. We like being bad. We like the self-governance of abiding to our own credo. For that heady buzz produced nightly by that always-changing admixture of adrenaline, bodily fluids, and amorality, is what got many of us hooked on the industry, and it’s what keeps us coming back, night after night, year after year, seeking more, always and anon. Nice people, regular people, they among the so-called well-adjusted, who might, say, regularly practice yoga, or breakfast on Grape Nuts and skim milk, or better, might wake Sunday mornings, clear-headed and bright-eyed, for the pleasures of trumping the New York Times crossword puzzle—goes the prevailing wisdom—need not apply. We here on the Island of Misfit Toys need to know that you, too, are outwardly damaged, or inwardly and irrefutably fucked, by the very fact that you, my friend, are insistent on being one here among us. Only then will you be welcomed. Food nerds can fuck off.
The problem, however, with this post-Darwinian, ego-driven, hyper-testosteroned world of culinary self-selection, is that it necessarily, and almost entirely, excludes all of the nice people of the world, because almost nowhere in the food business is the virtue of non-Machiavellian niceness customarily rewarded with I’m-hugging-you-but-I’m-hitting-you brand of Marco Pierre White-approved hijinks of, say, sinking your bespoke Middleton-made chef’s knife in the grease trap, or, the classic knee-slapper of having your clogs frozen—between lunch and dinner shifts—on a healthy dose of the mixologist’s liquid nitrogen. Such “hilarities” nice people will simply not tolerate, nor abide. They quietly hook their aprons to the wall, and walk out the front door, leaving the rest of us to duke it out in kitchens like the feral Lord of the Flies operatives most of us are so proudly are.
So imagine my surprise when I recently met, and dined with, an all-in culinary professional, and restaurant owner at that, who, on first meeting, I knew with the unwavering certainty that one knows the sky is blue and the mountains are high, that the young culinarian before me was wholly, and irrefutably, nice, decent, and good. And by good, I don’t mean to invoke the semantic relativism of industry-speak, wherein good means someone who is sober most of his waking hours, and has hitherto denied himself the urge to hide dead guttersnipe in the crawlspace of his otherwise innocuous suburban home. No, when I say good, I mean to suggest someone who rises, daily, with hope in his heart, intent on changing the world in which we live, one sip, one bite, at a time.
Meet Nick Vilelle and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Square of jaw, ebullient of eye, with a firm handshake and that unflappable wholesomeness so unmistakably Midwestern, Nick is a veritable poster boy for that Peace-Corps-kind-of-guy (an organization in which Nick served in Africa, naturally), hunky in that Granola Bar kind of way, but outwardly and palpably earnest, as if blissfully unaware of his looks and charm. Nick co-founded Cause, The Philanthropub, with Raj Ratwani, in an attempt to change the way—as their website puts it—the way the world looks at charitable giving. They’ve done this by opening what is recognizably a gastropub, The Philanthropub in this case, where 100% of the restaurant’s profits (the money that remains after expenses are met, yo) are donated to charitable causes (they rotate 3 to 6 causes per quarter). The concept is genius. You walk into The Philanthropub. You sit at the bar. You flirt with the bartender and order a beer. You drink, you order another. Then you order, say, a basket of wings. Some fries. Salt. Ketchup. More beer. And when you are sated and tipsy, you pay your bill, overtip the cute bartender, and saunter home, buoyed by the fact that not are you only feeling good in the way that wings and beer can, but that all of your money not put to cover the cost of your food and drink has gone to someone who really, really needs it. Good has been done. The world is a better place, indeed.
I first met Nick Vilelle and discovered his marvelous Philanthropub upon being invited to a six-course dinner benefiting Common Good City Farm. That same rock we’ve all been living under hitherto preventing us from discovering The Philanthropub, has likely also kept news of the advent of Common Good Farm from reaching us as well. Located in D.C.’s long-troubled LeDroit Park neighborhood, Common Good Farm provides its community with fresh, affordable produce, while offering area residents hands-on experience in food cultivation, production, and sustainability. Kids go there and learn how to grow stuff. How to garden. How to eat. The stuff all kids need to know. As the progeny of a long line of Missouri farmers, I can tell you there is no calling in this world so noble as that of teasing life out of the cold, hard ground.
To be able to support Common Good Farm and The Philanthropub was almost, for me (a bleeding heart made deeply cynical by widespread charitable ineptitude at attaining effectual outreach, insofar as changing the world through small-scale philanthropy is often akin to pissing up a rope, as we say in Mizzou), too much to bear. I was like a kid at Christmas, giddy, caught up in the moment, laughing too loudly at the jokes I heard, shaking hands just a bit too excitedly, a bit too long. But who could blame me; realizing there were charities out there—in my own city, no less—whose outreach really and truly helped the people just outside the restaurant doors made me happy (and hopeful) in ways I too rarely am.
At the helm in Philanthropub’s kitchen that night was Chef Adam Stein, an accomplished culinarian by any measure, whose work I fondly remembered from a previous kitchen encounter, and who would guide us, the attendees, through a six-course tasting menu of locally-sourced, seasonally-available ingredients. We sat two to a table the length of the Philanthropub dining room, with most of us paired with a dining companion whom we had never before met. Call it blind dating for a charitable cause. My companion was named Stephen, a young man whom I in no way resembled, and with whose antecedents and approaches to life I shared virtually nothing in common but a passion for gastronomy and fondness for tippling until tipsy (or just beyond), and the laughing conviviality that comes from the happy congress of those tangential pursuits. What follows below are images and descriptions of Chef Stein’s handy work, and the alcohol pairing attending each dish. Expurgated, however, is the impossible-to-reconstruct, bite-by-bite chronicle of the night’s six courses. I drank too much, and had way, way too much fun laughing with Stephen to make the kind of field notes that might later bolster this food writer’s often-ruinous memory of the meal. But I did that on purpose—the not taking notes thing. To study the fare too closely would have been heterodox to the spirit of the meal, a violation of the compact between chef and diner, and a proverbial wet blanket to dampen the collective mirth of the room. I didn’t have to take notes, because everything, and I mean everything I ate was delicious, if not downright remarkable (I do recall, clearly, the snakehead on my plate being a culinary epiphany for me). Stephen and I ate and drank and laughed in a way patrons in restaurants rarely do, for what was before us, course after course after course, was somehow less a culinary enterprise, and more a celebration of community, of what is possible when people come together deeply intent on bettering the world in ways that are fun and new. People who know me (three years of boxing long ago have marked my nose and my soul) will likely marvel at the quotient of hippie-love-shit-laden-syntax in that sentence, but my experience at Cause’s The Philanthropub was a revelation to me, and managed to soundly defeat my own long-held opinions regarding the limp, no-pride-in-your-pants impotency of philanthropy in Washington, D.C.
No, my night at the Philanthropub showed me that truly good people yet exist the food industry, people like Nick Vilelle and Raj Ratwani, geniuses both, and who, in my estimation, have completely revolutionized American philanthropy by making the act of giving a proletarian-driven, street-level enterprise, which harnesses the power of American consumerism in ways never before imagined or executed (re: that Cause runs on free-enterprise, entrepreneurial models), and seemingly impervious to “giving fatigue,” because, hey, who ever really tires of drinking beer and eating chicken wings in a hip, new gastropub? Only fascists and Barry Manilow fans, both of which are likely eating and drinking elsewhere.
Go to Philanthropub. That’s not a suggestion, yo, that’s an order. I’ll see you there. And the first round is on me.
Your link for Common Good City Farm: http://commongoodcityfarm.org
Your link for Cause: http://www.causedc.org