Iron Chef

One sunny weekend during the fall of 2013. The restaurant scene in G-Town was abuzz with tourist activity. I passed Georgetown Piano Bar and then Jinx Tattoo parlor, soothing sounds of reggae music emanated from the brown brick establishment. Bandolero was next and this is where I hoped I would cut my first big deal.

I was taken aback by the “Day of the Dead” atmosphere complete with metal cemetery gates and faux animal skulls hanging eerily on the walls. The interior was dark, the music deafening, the entire ambience spooky and western-chic.

I sat at the bar and ordered suckling pig tacos and grilled corn on the cob. The bartender poured me “El Bandolero”, their house Margarita on tap. He garnished it with lime and it was delectably rimmed with citrus salt. 

After my meal, I waited anxiously, wondering whether I should order another cocktail. 

Luckily, when I turned around, I came face to face with the Top Chef, himself, Mike Isabella. He wore his usual gray short sleeve chef coat, his right arm adorning a brass-knuckled pizza cuter tattoo, and on his left a brand new Mexican Cowboy. He was clean-shaven and wore a big smile. But his voice was gruff and he seemed dismissive.

“Thank you for showing me your website, but we’re not interested in your service. We have our own publicist and graphic designer. Our business is doing just fine.”

“How ’bout hosting an event here, say 20-30 people, select appetizers, social media coverage, you name it?”

“You’re welcome to speak to our manager to arrange an event. But we’re quite busy as it is, and we won’t be comping any meals.”

Shortly, after Isabella went back to the open kitchen, I returned to my pedicab and quietly rode to my next stop. As I steered down L St towards the GWU campus, I passed Bar McFadden’s to my left and 51st State Bar to my right, both great establishments to catch a game after work. But for now, I had seen my share of D.C. eateries. Tomorrow, I would venture into the Commonwealth to engage with other Top Chefs.

Crystal City, VA. has for many years been the home of military contractors and govies. During lunch and happy hour, they perennially congregate on restaurant row or at José Andrés’ Jaleo enjoying traditional as well as cutting-edge flavors.

Adjacent to Jaleo on Crystal Drive was Chef Morou’s Kora, a trattoria-style Italian restaurant that opened a couple of years ago. 

As I approached the street-side glass doors, fondant blue jays chirped from olive trees that billowed over the sidewalk.

When I entered, I was greeted with dangling tree branches. Glowing tree canopies created a sense of intimacy. On the wall behind the kiln-fired pizza oven, decal tree branch silhouettes conferred a feeling of calm and relaxation. 

I sat at the bar and ordered a Dark & Stormy. Then devoured a slice of the chicken pesto pizza.

Minutes later, Chef Morou entered with his crisp, white chef coat.

I sat at the bar and ordered a Dark & Stormy. Then devoured a slice of the chicken pesto pizza.

Minutes later, Chef Morou entered with his crisp, white chef coat.

I immediately recognized him. Slim and handsome with a pencil-thin mustache and goatee. The winner of an Iron Chef America competition in D.C., Chef Morou challenged Bobby Flay in Season 3.

“Love the ambience. It’s so sophisticated and chic.”

“Thank you, I got your email and looked over your site.”

Chef Morou who grew up on the Ivory Coast cooks like he talks “American with an accent.”

“So would love to build a new website for you to go with your contemporary design.”

“Well, I know a thing or two about tech, I studied computer science in college. But lately I’ve been quite busy scouting a location for another restaurant in D.C. and launching my African spice lines.”

“I understand that you’re very busy. That’s why you should hire us to promote your restaurant and feature your dishes.”

“Yes, I have a big event tonight in Farrah Olivia that I have to plan.”

“Super, Bien, et toi.”

Although Morou was still contemplating, his response was more favorable and warm. I returned to my batmobile and rode through restaurant row

The following week, I got a text message from Morou.

“Thanks for visiting. My wife, Heather, says your service is nice but not needed.”

“I know that marketing and social media is considered the low-hanging fruit, but it’s extremely valuable to increase sales.”

“We have a lot of overhead. Our restaurant is gigantic and our ceilings are 24 feet high – you can fit a church in here. Our utility bill alone is sky high.”

“I totally understand Chef, but what if we hosted an event. We would invite 20-30 people, you comp the meals and we in return will feature your cuisine all over social media.”

The next day, I contacted Michael Galang, founder of Thursday Connect to see if he would help promote the event. Each person would pay $20 and we would split the proceeds. 

Morou was born and raised on the Ivory Coast in West Africa and learned how to cook by watching his mother prepare feasts for their large family of 33 children. When he immigrated to America in 1988, he was hired as a dishwasher at Ristorante I Ricchi and was eventually promoted when a co-worker quit an hour before opening. Eventually, Morou was hired as the executive chef for Signature. Lobbyist Abramoff, who owned the restaurant, frequently provided free meals to sway lawmakers. Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and John Doolittle were his favorite guests

But after the scandal hit the news, politicos no longer wanted to be seen at the restaurant, and the restaurant was doomed to join D.C. Eater’s list of Closures.

On the morning of the event, there were only 10 RSVPs and a few more that indicated interest. But we had room at our table for 20, and we needed butts in every seat.

It was then, that I gave my good friend Jackie a call. 

“Hey Hon, we need a big favor. How quickly can you contact your friends to come to an Italian dinner at 7?”

“I’ll go through our listserv with BookaLokal (marketplace for group dining experiences) and see what I can arrange.”

“You helped me tremendously with the Chinese feast at Ming’s, if you could pull a monkey out of the hat, I would be indebted to you for life.”

Two hours prior to the event, Michael and I waited anxiously hoping for a decent turnout. We paced up and down the restaurant along the purple walls, passing the colorful Andy Warhol-like portrait of his three-year-old daughter, Farrah.

We nibbled on calamari and sipped on Heavy Sea Lager. Little by little people started to trickle in. By dinner time, over 25 guests had shown up. We had met and exceeded all expectations.

We were able to photograph all the dishes and were able to garner all the content necessary to feature them on RUNINOut.

Unfortunately, Suzannah couldn’t make it. She birthed the idea of visiting celebrity Chefs but she was now working on her own startup idea. I didn’t expect to keep someone that talented for very long.

And Jackie, who came through in the clutch, did not have to pay a dime. All her food and beverages were comped by me. She had become my go-to miracle worker, and someone I would rely on whenever I got in a jam.  There would be many more jams and like a 9th inning relief pitcher, we hoped to escape them all.

“What a smashing event. What’s next on your plate?” Michael asked.

“Haven’t given it much thought. It’s football season, so perhaps a Florida Gators watch party?”

“Yeah, sports is nice, but you can’t always rely on me to help out,” Jackie commented.

“I could use ten of you, frankly.”

“Then you should interact with the D.C. food bloggers. Chef Morou and other restauranteurs like him needs lots of coverage and publicity.”

After dinner, there wasn’t much nightlife activity on Crystal Drive, so Jackie and I and a few others crossed Route 1 to 23rd St where there is a small, bustling enclave with a bundle of hookah shops and international eateries

Right in the center stands Freddie’s Beach Bar, Northern Virginia’s longest-running gay bar.  The beach-themed, purple-lavish bar is adorned with rainbow flags and pink flamingos.  Freddie Lutz, who grew up down the hill, has owned the business for over 12 years. He is an affable man, a respected community leader, and has been working in the industry for over 35 years.

He opened Café Italia 20 years ago and then decided to open up a Gay bar up the road.

Before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” many gay service members were in the closet. All it took was someone to even think you were gay to report you.  That’s why Freddie’s served as a safe refuge because it was advertised as a “straight-friendly” bar.  This gave everyone protection – they won’t have to worry about being seen because straight people went there too.

When we walked in, we knew right away we were going to have fun.  The bar was filled with patrons knocking back pints of Devil’s Backbone. A Ballard from Doris Day was belting in the background.

We found Freddie himself going table to table, mingling with customers like he was a council member.

“Freddie’s is the most diverse bar that I know of. It bridges the gap between the straight and gay communities – that’s one of the most magical things about us,” he said.

After chatting with Freddie and ordering our cocktails, I came upon two of my friends who had actually been my tenants for eight years.

Dywayne and Ty were enjoying the music, ambience, and cuisine.  

“We just came from dinner at Kora across the street. You guys need to come to one of our events,” I suggested. “How’s Wade Road?”

“Everything in the apartment is fine. Will pencil that in on our calendar. By the way, you can come by Home Depot sometime and pick up your rent,” Ty said. “Unless you just want me to mail it to you.”

“Home Depot is fine. I gotta buy some supplies anyway. Can I find you at the Customer Service Desk?”

“Absolutely. You know which days I’m off. I can’t hide from you.”

“Freddie’s is such a great place to get together. We need one of these in every city,” Dywayne said.

“Couldn’t agree with you more. It’s such a great atmosphere.”

Despite Freddie’s popularity, gay bars today are dwindling since many bars have accepted the LGBTQ culture and have adopted drag shows to their regular performances.  Freddie’s has been a huge building block for the community and fortunately will be here to stay.

“Next time, you have a craving for pasta, visit Café Italia down the road. They’ve been a fixture here since 1976.”

“Will do. And thanks for bridging the gap in our community.”

“Thanks for coming over,” Freddie said. “See you at Freddie’s Follies on Saturdays.”

Back then, Freddie’s and the D.C. sports bar Nellie’s were one of the few venues that featured drag brunch. Now it’s so popular that mainstream venues are serving up drag with their eggs benedict like it was just a cover band.