Food tells stories about our lives: recipes handed down through generations with no exact measurements, a dish that was learned while traveling abroad or even a recipe discovered when you had to get creative with what little there was in the pantry – and it turned out delicious. Food tells stories about our families, our cultural heritage, our travels and so much more.
When searching for recipes online, you’d be hard-pressed to find a recipe that isn’t accompanied by a story of some kind. Even for cooks as challenged in the kitchen as I am, my favorite dishes all have their own stories – like the Egyptian macaroni béchamel that my mother refuses to write down exact directions for or the scrambled eggs with corned beef that makes up my father’s entire recipe repertoire (to be eaten straight from the pan with pita bread, no discussion).
The stories that surround the food we make can be touching, funny, nostalgic, painful or, likely in a lot of cases, some combination of all four. So, imagine the stories that professional chefs and those who work in the food industry can tell. Local arts organization and storytelling series Story District is hosting Breaking Bread to do just that: tell their stories. On December 17, celebrity chefs and insiders from the food and hospitality industry in the DC area will gather at Sixth & I downtown to share their stories onstage.
Their stories are as diverse and varied as the foods they cook. Celebrity chef and TV personality Carla Hall will tell a story about her time as a competitor on Top Chef. Washington Post food writer Cathy Barrow will tell the audience about a 60s dinner party scene, à la Mad Men. Chef Ashish Alfred, owner of three Bethesda restaurants (Duck Duck Goose, George’s Chophouse and The Loft at 4935), will tell his harrowing tale about overcoming addiction while choosing to remain in an industry that can be grueling.
Although their careers and experiences might seem intimidating to those who can barely boil water, the stories they’ll tell are about much more than just food.
“Any time I share my story, I hope people take away that if you want a different life, the only thing standing in your way is you,” Alfred told On Tap.
Alfred knew exactly what story he wanted to tell. But for Hall, who can be seen cooking – and acting – on TV and who used to model, narrowing it down to one story was more difficult.
“It’s like therapy when you’re going through [the process], because it’s so much and they are pulling these stories out of you, which is so incredible,” Hall said.
She ultimately decided on a story about her time on Top Chef because it’s a story of a struggle.
“People assume from the outside that success looks one way and I think in telling my story, it will show a different side of myself. People are so used to me being shown [in this] very happy [way], which is true. But this is a story [where] I am actually sharing a struggle.”
Although being in the competitive limelight of a show like Top Chef might seem natural for someone as used to celebrity attention as Hall, she had to get used to judgment – not only from the judges on the show but from the millions who were watching it, too.
“It’s emotionally hard. You feel emotionally exposed [and] vulnerable because you’re making your food and then you’re being judged. You’re being judged publicly by millions of people who can’t actually eat the food.”
When it was time for Barrow to pick a story, she thought she knew exactly what she wanted to tell: how she became a food writer. But she said the story, told on many a book tour, felt stale. Instead, she decided on something a little more glamorous.
“My story is about how the dinner party scene in the 60s and Andy Warhol and my dreams of stardom all came together.”
Barrow’s story will touch on the family history genre of food stories, describing a time when people – including Barrow’s mother – hosted or attended dinner parties every weekend. The 60s was the decade that most informed Barrow’s cooking experience.
“I have been cooking since I was a very young child, and I had really expanded expectations. I wasn’t just going to make chocolate chip cookies. I was going to make a madeleine, you know? The dinner party was what informed all of that for me. There was a whole ritual to it – the fine china, the linen, the crystal – and how shiny everything was. It was very fancy.”
And non-chefs have a lot to learn from those in the industry.
“I think there’s always something to learn from people in the food industry because that’s what we work with,” Barrow said. “There’s a lot more to us. These stories are stories of redemption and expansion and unlikely opportunity, and I think that that resonates in all aspects of life and every kind of work.”
These stories remind us of the fact that chefs are normal people. The food industry can be a difficult place to work on every level, even if you’re not in the spotlight.
“We are real people with real problems who are laying ourselves bare every time we serve a plate and invite you into our restaurants,” Alfred said.
Despite the diversity of their stories, everyone had a similar answer when about what makes DC’s food scene special: the people who work in it.
“There is a great community [in DC] where it doesn’t necessarily feel competitive,” Hall said. “It feels like we’re all in this together.”
Catch Hall, Alfred, Barrow and four other DC food industry vets speak at Sixth & I for Breaking Bread: Stories by Celebrity Chefs and Industry Insiders on Tuesday, December 17. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are $30-$35. Learn more at www.storydistrict.org.
Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org