Johanna Hellrigl grew up in restaurants. The child of Italian immigrants, she spent days and nights alongside her mother, who took the helm of the family’s New York City restaurant after her father passed away. As adulthood rolled around, Hellrigl decided to study international affairs and work in democracy building during her post-grad years. But her childhood was always with her, and she was eventually drawn back to the culinary world.
By the time she returned, her background of travel and international work paired with her formative years and family’s knowledge gave her a wide set of skills with which to run her kitchens and cook.
“I feel very fortunate that I could mix the balance of what is in my blood with my project management skills,” she says. “I was able to take the good things I learned in the corporate and nonprofit world and transfer them into the kitchen.”
Those skills have served Hellrigl well, especially in recent times. She joined the team of Mercy Me last year, billed as a “sorta South American” spot from Daniela Moreira and Andrew Dana of Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Company, with cocktails from Micah Wilder of Chaplin’s and Zeppelin and pastries by Plume’s Camila Arango. This five-person dream team of some of the most innovative minds in D.C.’s food and beverage world forged on to open the spot, located inside the West End’s Yours Truly Hotel, despite the sweeping uncertainty of Covid-19.
Mercy Me’s bustling energy matches that of the creative menu, and despite safety precautions and social distancing measures in place, it remains a lively escape. Walk through the lobby of Yours Truly to see students and remote employees who have set up shop, eating a guava vigilante and sipping on coffee while they work, or jovial brunchers outside on the patio eating hen and pancakes and sipping on a frozen Kick Ass Colada. Outside on the corner, you can walk up through a cafe to grab a Call Your Mother bagel alongside coffees, pastries and more for those on the go. Or in some cases, maybe you’re compelled to do all three in one day.
“I think the intention was always to have you stay as long as you want,” she says. “This space can translate in so many different ways. The daytime cafe feels really funky, fresh and clean. You can get work done there. But at night, the space transforms significantly in terms of feeling. It doesn’t feel like D.C. It feels like a nice little escape. With the back patio for brunch, it’s a safe oasis despite us being in Covid. There’s been so many cool parts of how much this space can evolve and how many things you can do in here.”
While Hellrigl very much sees the collaboration as a group effort between her and the rest of the multitalented team, joining the group to open the restaurant marks an important moment for her on a personal level, too. As executive chef of Mercy Me and Yours Truly, she’s embarking on a new, relatively uncharted challenge in her career.
“I feel very proud to be here. I don’t think there’s many female chefs who run hotels, so I was really excited for the opportunity. It’s been awesome, despite the circumstances. We had every intention of opening as we did in March, and then [Covid] happened. So, you roll with the punches and you evolve – it only makes you stronger.”
Hellrigl did just that by stirring the sourdough craze that swept the States as lockdown first began. What began as a project to encourage people to try their hand at baking it while also supporting restaurants – Hellrigl asked for donations to local spots in exchange for starters she had – took on a life of its own. While she’s no longer sending starters to new homes, you’ll see what she calls an ode to Covid times sitting on Mercy Me’s brunch menu: her sourdough pancakes, featuring banana, salted dulce de leche maple syrup and toasted hazelnuts.
“I gave away over 800 sourdough starters and I still have people write to me about the sourdough and the things they’re making. I really cherish that time and that we were able to come together to do something for restaurants.”
As Hellrigl looks to the future of her personal journey as a chef and as part of Mercy Me, she has another adventure to look forward to: becoming a parent. While she counts herself lucky to be experiencing motherhood in a supportive and encouraging environment, she knows that’s not the case for many women in the restaurant world. She hopes, through leading by example and using her voice to create a dialogue around being pregnant or a parent in the food and beverage world, to see this change.
“Yes, I am working long hours. Yes, I am doing the things you wouldn’t imagine a pregnant woman doing. But just get uncomfortable for a second and realize this is actually the most normal thing a woman does.”
She adds of her experience, “There are so many women I’ve seen who are badasses [in other industries] getting so much done. I just wish that it was more supportive in ours, whether it’s health insurance or maternity leave and everything else that goes with that. Raising a child and running a restaurant have some similarities for sure, and we should be able to have room to do both and not have to apologize for it.”
Hellrigl’s convictions surely set the tone for positive change in the industry at a time when the restaurant world itself has been flipped on its head due to uncontrollable circumstances. It’s that same conviction that keeps Mercy Me safely bustling through this challenging year, and will surely usher the spot into whatever comes next.
1143 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; 202-828-7762; www.mercymedc.com
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