At one point in time, Angel Barreto envisioned himself in a profession that many flock to the District for: politics. Today, you’ll find him in a role in another industry entirely but one that’s quickly become enmeshed in the culture of the city, as the executive chef of Korean restaurant Anju in Dupont Circle. Partway through an internship after studying international relations, he realized it wasn’t his calling, but the kitchen was.
“I told my parents I wanted to go to culinary school and they were taken aback but said, ‘If that’s what you really want, then do it,’” Barreto says of the career change. “So, I went to L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland to study French food. I knew French food wasn’t what I actually wanted to do, but I felt it was a great background for cooking, because most great chefs have a classical background.”
After graduating from culinary school, Barreto worked in various restaurants around the city, gaining even more experience by way of cooking a multitude of fares and working his way up in the kitchen. That led him to his current role, executive chef of Anju, which affords him the opportunity to work closely with Korean cuisine and culture, which he has a far-reaching connection to. Both of his parents were in the Army and lived in Korea, with Barreto living there as a young child as well.
“My mom was enamored with Korean food, like I am,” Barreto says. “She loved the culture, she loved the food, and it was something she picked up. So even at my house, I grew up eating Korean food and knowing a little bit about the culture and the traditions of Korean food. So when I transitioned to cooking Asian food, it was very easy, because I already love the flavors of Korean food. The saltiness, the spiciness – those things really appealed to me.”
At Anju, the second restaurant from The Fried Rice Collective by Danny Lee, Scott Drewno and Drew Kim, Barreto is able to marry his French foundational skills with his reverence for Korean cuisine to craft dishes that are truly distinctive. While Barreto notes their sister restaurant Mandu is the place for homestyle Korean cooking, Anju is where he’s able to showcase the things he’s learned across cuisines over the years.
“My background really helped me, because I could look at Korean food and ask things like, ‘How can I take this French technique and apply it to a Korean stock?’ That’s the great thing about Anju: I have more leniency here to be creative and do some slightly different things with Korean cooking. I can bring in more expensive ingredients or better ingredients to kind of make a slightly modern dish, but still link the culture into the food.”
In addition to being Anju’s executive chef, Barreto is also manning the desserts at the restaurant. And while pastry is something he never set out to do, his classical training alongside an innovative mindset lets him play in a space of creativity to once again let unexpected flavors shine alongside traditional Korean influences.
“It’s been fun to figure out how to take an item and turn it into a Korean dessert. For example, we worked with Milk Cult and their team to have a roasted barley and goat cheese ice cream. We’ve done a lot of flavors of ice creams with them, but by far, this is probably my favorite. There’s such rich caramel and nutty overtones. And then you have that cheese hanging in the back. We’re pairing it with pear cider donuts, an Asian pear combo that’s really, really delicious. I can come up with more interesting ideas that have Korean ingredients and change them in a way that elevates a little but keeps its core.”
Barreto had to kick that innovative spirit into overdrive when he and his team, like all in the hospitality world, had to reckon with the devastating effects of Covid-19 on their industry. He describes the initial shutdown as devastating, and their first attempts to find a way to effectively translate their food to a takeout format proved to be an intricate challenge. But they prevailed, finding what was most efficient and allowed them to put out the same quality of product as they had during regular in-house business.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he says. “We never offered to-go at Anju before. From where we’ve started to where we are now is worlds apart. That’s just a testament to the passion and the drive of the people that I work with. I’m a chef, but there are so many other people who are way more important here and do many things that keep the restaurant going. I’m just really blessed to have such a strong team who understands the vision that I have.”
Despite the obvious challenges brought about this year, his vision remains strong – and is clearly seen by those outside of Anju’s team. Barreto was awarded rising culinary star of the year at the 2020 RAMMYs, and though the award represents a notable achievement within the vibrant D.C. dining world, Barreto says the achievement, for him, reaches far beyond just the award itself.
“When I first started out there were not a lot of chefs and people [in the industry] who look like me. It’s important, I think, to be able to put a positive spin on things so people can see that if I can achieve something, they can do it too – especially in a time like this with such crazy social injustices and things in the world. If [that example] is what I can show people – that means more to me than any award could.”
As he looks to the future, Barreto is focused on nurturing his team and fostering their talents both as Anju employees and as they grow in their careers long-term. While this year has seen Barreto innovating in more than just the things he cooks, he takes pride in being able to share his passions with everyone who has eaten at Anju since they opened their doors.
“I am really happy about how we’re introducing people to what Korean food can be, on a different level. I’m really proud of that, and I want to continue to push that as we go forward.”
1805 18th St. NW, DC; 202-845-8935; www.anjurestaurant.com
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