Chef Mykie Moll Cooks with Love at Crazy Aunt Helen’s
July 9, 2021 @ 10:00am
Chef Mykie Moll can’t stop dancing — not during our interview, not while he’s giving a tour of new Capitol Hill restaurant Crazy Aunt Helen’s and especially not in the kitchen, where he’s prepping a few dishes soon to be on the menu. The shoulder shakes and bopping transforms into pure ballet: a graceful slide down the long line from flame to flame, an agile turn of the wrist to flip what’s searing in the pan and a graceful duet with Brenda Gamez, who will be the early shift sous chef.
The pair previously worked together at Doi Moi and Mintwood Place. Today, as they prepare in the restaurant, slated to open this month, their rhythm is natural and elegant as they interweave their way through the large, stainless steel space. That’s the thing about Chef Mykie: He’s disarmingly low-key in conversation — charming and boyish, with an infectious laugh — but he’s all professional verve in his natural habitat.
Growing up in Northern Virginia between McLean and Alexandria, Mykie’s single mother would work long hours. As latchkey kids, Moll and his brother started cooking meals for themselves when they were still in elementary school, and he was onto grilling by the age of 12. Yet a career in the kitchen wasn’t necessarily a given vocation. Moll, who excelled in math, began a degree in industrial and systems engineering at Lehigh University. But he couldn’t picture himself sitting behind a computer screen all day. Rethinking a career path, he recalled how much he enjoyed cooking when he was younger.
“It’s very hard to get a job in the kitchen if you don’t have any experience,” he says. “But how do you get experience if someone doesn’t give you that chance?”
Moll started working at Red Robin, a franchise known for casual dining and juicy burgers, in Lehigh Valley.
“I got lucky at Red Robin. They let me work in their kitchen, and I fell in love. I was like, ‘This is it.’ Within the first two months, I learned every station.”
After that, he transferred to a steakhouse in Pennsylvania. Within six months, he was promoted to all the duties of a sous chef. But lacking the title and only offered a 50-cent raise, he soon left to attend L’Academie de Cuisine and study French culinary arts. That’s where he met Chef Johanna Hellrigl, most recently of “sorta South American” spot Mercy Me inside Yours Truly DC Hotel. She was a judge for an intramural competition and noticed Moll’s skills, later helping him make connections and land his first positions in D.C.
During the last six years, Moll has been working his way up at Shaw Bijou, Mintwood Place, Doi Moi and, most recently, Carlie Steiner’s Pom Pom, which closed during the pandemic after an auspicious opening just several months earlier.
“I really wanted to offer this opportunity to a female chef first because they are still often looked over, and I owe my whole career to women who offered me opportunities,” Shane Mayson states.
Mayson, formerly of Jamie Leeds Restaurant Group, has opened six restaurants in the District. But Crazy Aunt Helen’s is his first venture as owner.
“My friend Jo-Jo [Valenzuela] sent me Mykie’s name. I checked him out and everyone had really great things to say about him. I spoke with Mykie, and he said, ‘I know you are looking for a female chef, but I am transitioning. I am a man, and if that takes me out of the running, I am okay with that.’”
During their long conversation, Mayson was impressed by Moll’s passion, talent, drive and authenticity.
“That phone call, that was it,” Mayson says. “I knew he was the one, and that was even before I tasted his food.”
Just as Moll’s childhood experiences were formative in his culinary career, during our conversation, he shared another childhood memory. In preschool, Moll informed his teacher that his real name was Michael, leading to a call home to his mother. Over the years, Moll says his mother has been supportive and loving, educating herself along the way, first when he came out — Moll is a fixture of D.C.’s LGBTQ+ scene and says that A League of Her Own (ALOHO) has been like a second home — and more recently as he began transitioning during the pandemic. Despite societal pressures during his early childhood and taunts of being a tomboy, Moll’s first name reflects who he was when he was a child and who he proudly is today.
And today, we are in Crazy Aunt Helen’s, where Mayson greets us and offers a tour alongside Moll. Born in South Carolina, Mayson wanted Southern cooking on the menu but to extend the restaurant’s offerings to American comfort food, recognizing that the bouillabaisse of American ethnicities, regionalities and identities adds flavor to our favorite dishes.
“Southern fare is something I grew up on,” Moll says. “I grew up in Virginia, but we would go down to South Carolina sometimes. I’m also Jewish so I am going to make house-made corned beef [with] very thick slices [that are] super tender for the Reuben sandwich, with house-made Thousand Island dressing. My grandmother’s brisket is going to be on there. She’s literally been telling all of her friends that her brisket is on the menu.”
“I want to welcome people into our home,” Mayson adds, spreading his arms wide in a friendly gesture while standing amidst the stacked chairs, boxes and unhung paintings all waiting to be unpacked to deck this eclectic space.
The dark wood of the bar is the only remnant of the restaurant’s recent past as Irish pub Finn McCool’s.
“Everyone’s welcome,” Moll agrees. “It’s a place for everyone, and everyone’s going to be treated with love, respect, dignity and kindness. We aren’t going to tolerate anything less than that.”
Decorated by Miss Pixie Windsor of Miss Pixie’s on 14th Street herself, Crazy Aunt Helen’s décor is whimsical with bright green and purple accents throughout, cherry blossom wallpaper in the same bright colors, and white Windsor chairs. Soon, there will be vintage prints, mirrors and works by local artists gracing the walls, making the two stories feel homey and hospitable. Adding to the playful vibe are mismatched vintage plates and kitschy coffee mugs.
The upstairs will feature the Peacock Room — a “place to show off your feathers,” Mayson promises — with an upright piano already in place on a small stage and plans for performances by local cabaret singers, improv troupes and standup comedians. The vintage peacock décor wasn’t yet up on the walls, but will be soon.
Mykie describes his approach to cooking as “fresh, fun and flavorful,” and today he serves up all three with aplomb. The steak seitan with vegan au jus was flavorful, juicy and yes, meaty. Served with seared maitake mushrooms and crispy potatoes with a garlicky, creamy toum, the entrée may make even the most ardent carnivore drool. The mac and cheese with shredded sharp cheddar and Gruyère was a gooey delight, and the microgreens and pickled onions sprinkled on top offered a crunch and a burst of acidic tang. The buttermilk pancake was pillowy — thick, airy, dreamy — with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar, maple syrup and fresh brown sugar whipped cream.
“There’s going to be something for everyone and we want the restaurant to be a safe space for everyone — and that includes the food,” Moll says. “We want everyone to be able to find something delicious. There will be some really fun vegan options. Earlier today, we were fermenting the non-dairy yogurt. It’s taking those extra steps to put the love into all the food.”
The local love extends to as many of the food and drink vendors as possible. Thor Cheston of Right Proper created the draft beer program with local breweries on draft, and Valenzuela designed the signature cocktail program featuring local spirits: Filibuster bourbons and whiskeys, Cotton & Reed and Thrasher’s rums, Green Hat Gin, and Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye. Much of the produce will come from Little Wild Things Farm in Northeast D.C. and Miller Farm in Maryland, and meats will come from Roseda Farms in Maryland, among other providers.
For the vegetarians, there will be a savory gatherer’s pie with black lentils replacing minced meat and vegan crab cakes made from shredded lion’s mane mushrooms, amongst other goodies. There will be Southern cooking galore, but Moll is looking for delicious and healthy substitutes whenever possible, hoping to feed the soul while caring for the body. This care extends to his staff.
“The restaurant industry can be very horrible,” Moll concedes when sharing some negative experiences of his past. “It can be very racist, sexist [and] homophobic, and [it’s important] to create a safe space for people — like I have taken [it] upon myself to learn Spanish.”
He also knows the hours are long, the work is physically demanding and kitchen staff can burn out quickly, so Moll promises to pay attention when someone seems off, give a prep cook a half-day on their daughter’s birthday or send them home early if they are dealing with a migraine.
Moll believes that emotions — whether positive or negative — pass from cooks into the dishes, so happy cooks who are treated with respect and love create better meals.
“You should only be cooking with love. You put more attention into it when you put your love into it. That’s why I am always dancing in the kitchen, because that’s how I share the love, y’all.”
Crazy Aunt Helen’s will open in July, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on Wednesday through Monday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Different themed nights will be offered upstairs.
Crazy Aunt Helen’s: 713 8th St. SE, DC; 202-750-8140; crazyaunthelens.com // @crazyaunthelens
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