Trust Her Instincts: An Interview with Ris Lacoste | Food Newsfeed

Trust Her Instincts: An Interview with Ris Lacoste

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Three decades into a career in the food industry, this Washington, D.C., chef is not slowing down.
By Blair Chancey April 2011 Chef Profiles

To say Ris Lacoste trusts her gut is probably an understatement. In a career spanning continents, coasts, and all sorts of culinary tastes, Lacoste has lived by the simple rule of instinct.

It’s certainly served her well. Lacoste is one of the premier chefs leading the restaurant scene of the nation’s capital; first helping open Twenty-One Federal, then as the executive chef of 1789 Restaurant, and later as the owner of her own concept, Ris.

Her innovative regional American fare draws national attention and has earned her numerous awards, including those from Wine Spectator, The Washington Post, and a nomination from the legendary James Beard Foundation. There’s also a stint on Food Network’s popular Iron Chef series and a Julia Child documentary she created for PBS.

With such an illustrious career, it’s hard to image that Lacoste ever wanted to be anything but a chef. But the fireman’s daughter always had the goal of working in, of all places, a medical office. Her pursuit of that career drew her out of her Massachusetts town and into a series of events that made her who she is today.

“I knew I had to go because I was being called forward, pushed forward, something beckoned me,” she says of her decision to abandon her pre-med plans at University of Rochester decades ago. She is sitting in the front café of her Washington, D.C. fine-dining concept, and sunlight is bouncing off of the polished wooden table in front of her as she recalls her past. But she’s not remembering how she got started in the industry. No, we’re discussing the seldom-examined transitions—when a professional moves from one phase of inspiration to the next. In a sense, we’re discussing her exit strategy.

“I get these revelations, and that’s how I know,” she says of her motivation to try new ventures. She describes her professional transitions, which as with most artists are complicatedly intertwined with personal ones, as “difficult.” Whether it was her move from New England to San Francisco or her trek back across the country then across the Atlantic to arrive in Paris in 1976, there were always tears involved.

“In Paris, I had the realization that these transitions were tough because at each place I was creating a world around me and it’s tough to lose everyone,” she says.

While in Paris she experienced somewhat of a divine intervention. A chance meeting landed her a job in an office (her new dream!) at La Varenne École de Cuisine, the famed French culinary school.

“I was typing and editing recipes half a day in exchange for lunch and the opportunity to sit in on cooking demos,” she says. That job expanded into a full-time secretarial position at the school, which came with the compensation of a culinary degree and lodging.

“It was fabulous. I was so happy to have a place to hang my hat,” she says.

So begins the life of Lacoste as many in the industry know it.

After a stint as sous chef for Buddy Bombard’s Great French Balloon Adventure in Burgundy, Lacoste returned stateside in 1982 and commenced her celebrated working relationship with chef Bob Kinkead. From one new culinary adventure to the next, Lacoste says her success is mainly attributed to allowing opportunities to present themselves. While she maintains that her career is not the result of any formal plan, she does trust her instincts when questioning whether it’s time to move on to the next concept, voyage, or city.

“It’s keeping your doors open to the universe,” she says. “It was an unconscious thing in the beginning, but I’ve learned the value of it by now. One word can change your life. A thought can change your life.”

While the universe may have brought Lacoste to Kinkead, it only deserves some of the credit. Lacoste says she actually was introduced to the star chef by a headhunter, but not without some mismatches first.

And there’s that instinct again. Lacoste was originally placed at another restaurant, but trusted herself enough to know that the fit wasn’t right. The second try was Kinkead who would help her become a culinary powerhouse.

“Kinkead taught me that cooking is magic—you either have it or you don’t; and he said, ‘You have it. I’ve never met a palate as good as yours.”

Lacoste says she “attacked” the work offered by Kinkead, which included the openings of 21 Federal in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1985 followed by Twenty-One Federal in Washington, D.C., in 1987.

Never once, however, did Lacoste ever consider opening her own restaurant. Like her earlier career years chasing a medical-secretarial-UN-translator profession (yes, she tried them all), it seems strange that the idea of her own restaurant never occurred to Lacoste. But perhaps the universe wasn’t ready just yet.

It was a wine excursion to Australia the summer of 2001 that changed all that. Lacoste came back having had yet another revelation, this time it was to open her own fine-dining concept that would capture “rustic elegance and sophisticated comfort.” With those five words and instinct to go on, Lacoste set out on the next adventure in her career. She would find a space in an underserved neighborhood, cook her 20 favorite meals (advice she got from Kinkead), and attract a wide range of customers.

There are many people who dream of opening a restaurant. Among chefs that dream is even stronger. But the difference between Lacoste and other dreamers is that she’s also a do-er. Maybe it’s a result of her one-of-seven-children upbringing. She only half-jokingly says she got into the restaurant business for attention, after all. But it’s also a result of her internal drive.

“Once the wheels start turning for me, then a decision is made,” she says then pauses. “The decision is made,” she repeats slowly.

The passion, the universe, her upbringing … whatever you attribute Lacoste’s success to, you should probably add to it a wonderful culinary know-how.

The menu at Ris is bold. But not in the way you’re thinking. It’s in your face because it’s all your favorites, and everybody knows only the members of their family can cook their favorite meals.

For example, Ris’ headlining menu item is the meatloaf. Yes, the meatloaf. It’s served with mashed potatoes and kale. Dishes like these are always risky for chefs to offer. That’s not because they’re hard to make, but because everyone knows exactly what a bite of meatloaf should taste like. That’s not the case for duck confit.

“People are really responding to the freshness,” she says. “It’s not light necessarily—it’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and kale. But it is layers of flavor. We got into drizzles and dots, and now we’re really seeing people loving comfort food from local sources.”

In addition to meatloaf, other American all stars are on the menu. There’s chicken pot pie, buttered cabbage, french fries, a cheeseburger, skirt steak, salmon, and greens.

When she talks about the menu, it’s not the plated items she’s most passionate about. Instead it’s the ingredients, many of which she gets at nearby farmers’ markets, much to the chagrin of her crew.

“I personally love going to the farmers’ market because it’s like church to me. It’s every Sunday,” she says. Lacoste does not go to the markets with specific strategies in mind. She has her favorite farmers, visits them, then lets the surroundings inspire her.

Lacoste On …

Celebrity chefs: “It’s not a prerequisite to being successful, but being a celebrity does feed to human nature. People love celebrities.”

Finding her restaurant space: “I walked into the space and the windows were all blackened, and I fell in love with it. I imagined the sun coming in and that’s what I got.”

Today’s culinary scene: “There’s a lot of charcuterie out there. But we’re seeing a return to lightness and openness with lots of freshness on the plate.”

What to read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Surprisingly, the woman who admits to letting the universe and her passion lead her, hopes to develop a more direct, concrete plan going forward. “If I was good, I’d have the farmers growing food for me and have seeds, but I’m not that organized. I haven’t developed that kind of relationship with the farmers,” she says, adding that it’s a personal goal to change that.

Lacoste is a firm believer in the theory that her customers can taste the love in her food. When she personally knows where the kale was grown, who took care of the crop, and where she buys it from, it comes through in the food, she says. That was another revelation from her trip to Australia.

“I would be drinking these wines and would have been in the vineyard and met the owner earlier in the day,” she says. That’s a connection. The customers can feel that love in our food when we know whom we’re working with. It’s heart and soul. It’s a comfort.”

The comfort Ris dishes up for its customers is reinforced by the concept’s décor and dining experience. Lacoste worked hard to develop distinct areas throughout the restaurant that become increasingly formal as customers move deeper into the space. First, it is the café, which is adjacent to the bar and is a tablecloth-free dining area, then there’s the lounge, the living room, and finally the dining room.

One whole side of the restaurant is glass windows allowing for lots of sunlight and that cozy warm diner feel on cold evenings. There are no walls separating the different dining experiences, and everyone gets the same menu.

“I get a guy who comes in with a black hoodie all the time, and he could easily be sitting next to someone in a tuxedo, and they’re both enjoying the meatloaf. I love that,” she says.

While some have criticized how eclectic the concept is, Lacoste says she’s confident in its success because it’s authentic. “The best part of owning something is that you get to create the culture. Good and bad it all comes from the top,” she says. “Here it’s a culture of warmth and acceptance, which I learned in California.”

Although she says she’s not ready to open another restaurant just yet, she doesn’t dismiss the idea outright. For a woman whose gut instinct has served her well for the past 40 years, it’s not a far fetch idea to think that the wheels could begin to turn again at some point and that Lacoste’s inspiration and passion will take her in a new direction.

“It’s wonderful to keep your doors open at all times to what life has to offer,” she says. “Sure, bad things happen too, but overall it’s been rewarding.”

Blair Chancey is editorial director of Food News Media. Contact her at Blair@foodnewsmedia.com.