From fast food chain, to restaurant, to club, Brian Barszcz has done it all.
From his first job at Burger King, to the mess halls of the Norfolk, Va. Naval Base, to upscale Washington, D.C. establishments such as Obelisk and Gabriel at The Radisson, 33-year-old Brian Barszcz—appointed in May as the new Executive Chef at Washington’s The George Town Club—already has experience at a wide variety of dining venues in what is still a very young career.
Now, he’s drawing on what he’s learned as he turns his budding talent loose at this exclusive private dining club. The George Town Club opened in 1966, but as one tours the three adjoining Wisconsin Avenue townhouses that make up its property, the impression is of a centuries-old existence. Baccarat crystal sconces, pegged oak floors, and gorgeous paneling from estates all over Europe make the interior very special.
Since its inception, The George Town Club has been a focal point for the Washington power structure, as a place where diplomats, leaders of business and government, and other prominent Washingtonians shape the course of the world over drinks and dinner. As part of this issue’s focus on city clubs, we took a trip to the nation’s capital to sit down with Brian—a young talent who is justifiably proud of how he has worked his way to where he is today, and has an obvious passion about his food—and discuss his plans for the club’s future.
Q Chef, what will be your biggest challenge in transitioning from a restaurant like Obelisk to The George Town Club?
A Jerry, the biggest challenge for me here at the club—and definitely the one that’s been on my mind the most in the past few months since arriving here—is coming to know my audience. When you’re cooking at any particular restaurant in Washington, D.C., chances are that you know very few and at the most some of the guests dining with you that evening. Your intentions are focused on exceeding the guests’ expectations, in the hope that they’ll soon return for another great meal.
But here at The George Town Club, where members come in regularly to check out what’s new on the menu, or to host an intimate party, it puts a whole new perspective on the phrase “repeat customer.” And deservedly so—our members expect consistent quality, exciting menu items, and service that ranks with the top D.C. dining establishments. My challenge over time will be to introduce fun and eclectic menu items, while at the same time maintaining a level of comfort as we provide old favorites such as Dover sole and whole Maine lobster.
Q You’ve talked about making “farm visits” to get a lot of the ingredients that you use in your cooking and dishes. What specific types of farm-fresh items do you serve at the club?
A If I could, I’d love to get everything we use at the club from the local farms in our area. But, like most restaurants, we try to plan our menus according to what these farms have from month to month. And of course, we want to buy seasonal produce when it is freshest and at its peak.
Right now, heirloom tomatoes are a must-have for me; they’re a very popular item at the farms and in the markets. In my opinion, summer is nothing without sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, and the endless varieties of melons.
In the fall, our menu will focus on various members of the squash family, such as blue hubbard, buttercup, calabaza and that old faithful, butternut. Pears, apples, and greens will also make an appearance. Anyone else ready for pumpkin flan?
Q As you look toward fall, imagine that you are hosting an October beer dinner. Can you give us your dream, four- or five-course prix fixe menu for a fall seating at your club?
A The month of October and beer go hand-in-hand, obviously…and it really is my favorite month of the year, so this menu comes to me easily:
• Roasted sweet potato and bartlett pear soup with chipotle pecans and chives
• Grilled chorizo-stuffed squid, romesco sauce and parsley oil
• Stuffed quail with blood sausage, raisins, walnuts, corn pudding and maple gastrique
• Brined pork chop, pickled pearl onions, brussel sprouts, and apple-porter glaze
• Almond pound cake, fall fruit compote and fresh cream
Q Sounds great…especially the squid. And with the Chesapeake being such a seafood-rich region, can you give us examples of how you might use fresh crabmeat, oysters, wild rockfish or other readily available local seafood specialties?
A We are indeed fortunate to live in a region where such seafood is widely available, and we’d be crazy not to showcase the vast array of seafood specialties that can be found almost in our backyards. Blue crabs, oysters, rockfish, and croaker are all very common sights on local menus.
Here at the club, crabcakes and oysters will always be found on the menu in some fashion. And speaking of crabcakes, I think ours are some of the best in the city. The key to a great crabcake is superior quality lump crab, no filler (don’t even think about adding sandwich bread), and a minimum of flavors that enhance the flavor of the crab, not mask it.
Q Brian, you experienced the “Nuevo Latino” craze of the late Nineties, and also have an extensive background in Northern Italian cuisine. How are you planning to showcase your talents in these areas, without alarming some of your membership?
A I plan on doing it much like flying a kite—once the kite is in the air, you let out a little bit of string at a time, so the wind has a chance to carry it that much higher. In the same way, I believe in introducing new flavors and ingredients a little at a time, always taking care to listen to feedback and questions before I go forward with entirely new ideas.
This is another big difference in what I’m now dealing with…club members are a captive audience, and while they’re still a group that welcomes new and exciting foods, they’re not ready to give up tradition entirely, either. I think I’m coming to understand that. I also understand that it takes time to build a relationship and trust, even if it’s between club members and a chef. I think there’s plenty of time to share the foods and flavors that I love, including the ones that are still very close to me, if I do it one dish at a time.
Q After you explained your e-mail address to me ([email protected]), I realized what a wine fanatic you were. Can you touch on how you come up with some of your favorite food-and-wine pairings?
A Well, first I’d like to say that I have to attribute most of my wine knowledge to the chef I worked with at Gabriel, Greggory Hill. He was the one who taught me the basics and introduced me to the world of wine. And it was there, after many wine dinners and late-night tastings, that I learned which wines (and sherries) complement which foods, from the very basic and obvious to flavors and smells I had never really thought about before.
After that, I kind of became obsessed with wine, and the whole subject became a huge hobby for me. I mean, it had been there all along, right beside the food…but all of a sudden my interest in wine almost matched my passion for food.
After educating myself a little more about wine, I began to realize that pairing the various varieties with food is pretty much more or less a matter of common sense. When you’re given a certain wine, its style, acidity, and tannin can be matched fairly easily with either a food that contains some of the same characteristics, or one that is in stark contrast.
The bottom line for me when pairing food and wine is to always use good judgment. It might sound like a good idea, but that’s not always the case. And you must always remember that everybody’s taste buds are different, so the key is to taste, taste, taste—and then to still get a second opinion.
Q OK, Chef, and as a final question…whether we like to admit it or not, we all have flat-out weird culinary traditions at our clubs. So can you explain The George Town Club’s “lamb fry” dinner?
A Politicians have always comprised an important segment of the club membership, given that we’re located in the heart of Washington. Decades ago an annual tradition was established by a senator who was a close friend of former President Reagan and had ties to the Basque region in France. Now, every year a large, black-tie, gentlemen-only “lamb fry” dinner is held with a highly unusual menu for The George Town Club: large slabs of beef (nothing else allowed on the plate); bowls of Peas Louise (usually peas simply prepared with onion and bacon); bowls of french fries with bottles of ketchup and steak sauce within grasp; and, of course, bowls of “lamb fries” (lamb testicles flown in from the West Coast and served in a tomato sauce). Dessert consists of extra-large stemmed strawberries with bowls of honey-nut sauce. The menu has never changed, the crowd is always boisterous and appreciative, and the evening always ends with cigars and cordials.
So what do you think, Jerry…maybe someone should tip-off the execs at the “Iron Chef” show about the one “secret ingredient” they may want to consider for a future competition?