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Photo: Trent Johnson

Hi, Felicia! Wine Director Felicia Colbert Shakes Up Industry Standards

Felicia Colbert is a woman on a mission and she’s not letting anyone stand in her way. She has worked her way through the food service industry for the past 17 years, and her determination is paying off. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Colbert returned home to Maryland where she got a bachelor’s degree in sociology from University of Maryland while helping raise her niece. Six transformative weeks in Spain made her pump the brakes on law school, put her life in storage and say, “I’m going to be a somm.” With help from some “amazing, powerful women in the industry,” Colbert set out to be not just a sommelier, but the sommelier. Now, as wine director at A Rake’s Progress in AdMo’s LINE Hotel – which is holding strong to the title of one of the city’s hottest restaurants – she is shaking up industry standards one Burgundy at a time.

On Tap: Were you always drawn by wine? What was it about the food service industry that attracted you?
Felicia Colbert: I feel like I was always in food. My first job was when I was 14 at Outback Steakhouse as a hostess, and I actually stayed at that job for almost five years because I worked at such a dynamic restaurant that really believed in ownership.

OT: You are a young black woman in a white male-dominated industry. What unique challenges have you faced in your burgeoning career?
FC: It’s no secret to anybody that there’s not a lot of ladies over here in somm land. It’s definitely a challenge. But I think everything is an intersection so it’s hard for me to talk about my life as a lady somm and say I’m not only a woman, but I’m a woman of color. People think I’m either the hostess or maybe the maître d’ or some other job, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m here to sell you wine.” It’s watching people rectify their cognitive dissonance in real time. But like, the reason that a company has decided that I get to be in charge of millions and millions of dollars of someone else’s money and wine is because I’m more qualified than anyone else who works here. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. There is no privilege that I get to sit back on. I’m here because I’m literally more qualified than any other person.

OT: How do these experiences inform the way you run your program and manage staff?
FC: You have to find a way to build productivity into every single thing that you do. I hold myself and people around me to the highest standard, and sometimes it makes them uncomfortable. There is literally nothing that I love more than perfect service. Service is everything. It’s the reason why we do this, because otherwise you would eat at home. It’s about someone being so skilled at their job they can anticipate things you didn’t even know you needed.

OT: What is exciting to you right now about being in DC and having this job?
FC: I think it’s exciting that DC is open to new things right now. Millennials, 30-somethings, have real jobs now. They have money – they want to come out and drink good wine and spend money on wine. On a deeper level, the fact that people are entertaining the idea that women of color can run programs, I think that’s great. I think there are a lot of challenges that still come with that from a consumer basis, but also from an organizational standpoint. You can’t have qualified people and then not have the systems in place to keep them. I do think that change is exciting, but it’s also like, who wants to be the person who has to do all of the emotional work for people who aren’t ready to put in the emotional work for the change that they want to see?

OT: Do you personally enjoy educating people about wine?
FC: Yes and no. How do I nicely tell someone you’re asking for something that you don’t want? Some people are open to it, but the reason that [many people] continue to get wines that they don’t like is because you’re going into a dealership and asking for a Ferrari but you’re describing a Honda, or vice versa. It’s hard to educate people. I try to use words that are descriptors as opposed to buzzwords – people words. I think that a way I try to educate my guests is by saying, “Hey, the next time you’re looking for a wine, you can mention that you really like wines that have X flavor.” Or not. Because you know what? I’m not here to do the emotional work for that either. If you don’t know how to ask for what you want, there’s not enough Burgundy for all of us to drink it, so you can keep on saying, “bone dry.”

OT: The DMV has received some notoriety in recent years for progress in growing and vinting. What about our region particularly excites you from the wine industry perspective?
FC: DC is getting a lot more fun, interesting wine shops. I always tell people first and foremost: retail, that is your place. In DC, there are no restrictions. The wine shop can be the importer, the distributor, the purchaser. Domestique is a great example of that. Weygandt Wines is amazing. Go prepared with at least $50 more than what you plan on spending because you’re going to find some stuff that’s just crazy and amazing.

OT: You have your exam to be a master sommelier this fall. What’s the next challenge? What’s on the vine for future Felicia?
FC: I have a dream jar. I am always thinking about what’s next. I am a planner. What’s next for me is I need to be in a place where what I have to give and offer is fully recognized and I don’t have to fight to do my job, and I think that’s only working for myself. I just dream up this utopian restaurant because you know what? Someone is going to come along and be like, “Hey Felicia.” They will. I believe that – truly. I bring value to our program by making sure that we get the wine that other people can’t get by building relationships because that’s what it is always: your people. Your people are what matter. My people have gotten me here. My people will continue to get me here.

Check out Colbert’s carefully curated wine menu at A Rake’s Progress, and learn more about the AdMo spot at www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues.

A Rake’s Progress at LINE Hotel: 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; 202-588-0525; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues

Photo: Cassidy DuHon

Fancy Radish’s Duo Uses Vegan Powers for Inclusivity

Restaurateurs, co-chefs, and husband-and-wife team Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby speak with such purity about their passion for veganism, you’d be surprised to know neither grew up in a plant-focused household.

Instead, Landau, 51, feasted “ravenously” on a steady diet of cold-cut sandwiches; his family menu of  “Jewish deli fare” included roast beef specials, Reubens, Italian hoagies and meatball sandwiches. Jacoby, 39, isn’t as specific, but mentions spaghetti and taco nights – and pancakes drenched in syrup.

Now, both are James Beard-nominated chefs specializing in modern takes on plant-based dishes like rutabaga fondue, Chioggia beet toast, sunchoke “ramen” and a variety of pastries. Don’t quote me on the specifics, though, as their selections evolve with the seasons at their three restaurants: Philadelphia-based Vedge and V Street, and H Street’s Fancy Radish.

“I had to invent a cuisine that would give you all the satisfaction of meat without any animal flesh,” Landau says of his style. “I learned really early on that food was really about flavor, it wasn’t about flesh. It was what cooks did to the meat; it wasn’t the meat itself that tasted good.”

Born and based in Philadelphia, the two make their way to the District frequently to work at their newest spot, which opened doors in March 2018. With Landau and Jacoby, the city netted two of the most celebrated vegan chefs in the country, each bringing their own stories to the kitchen.

Planting The Seeds

“Flashback to Sesame Street,” Landau begins. “Mrs. Wilson’s garden was one of the segments where this little girl named Jenny visited her mom’s friend Mrs. Wilson who had this garden in the country. They showed Jenny picking tomatoes off the vine and carrots out of the ground, and peeling the husks off corn, and I thought, ‘God, that’s beautiful; you walk that produce into your kitchen and you eat it.’ I said to my dad, ‘They didn’t show where the steak was coming from,’ so he said it came from cows and I imagined a cow laying a steak like a chicken would lay an egg.”

Upon learning how meat is actually produced, he quickly shifted to vegetarianism without a second thought and began cooking for himself as a teen. Because of the somewhat negative stigma his new diet carried, he found the road to becoming a chef a little bumpy, but was ultimately undeterred. Because culinary schools seemed to focus on carnivorous appetites, he found inspiration in old cookbooks and the processes of chefs like Julia Child.

“Back then, it wasn’t that easy to go vegetarian,” he says. “There were a few [meat substitutes] around, but it was all very grainy, herby and seedy. [But] I loved to cook, so I knew I could put myself on this path and go in a cook and come out a chef.”

Landau opened his first restaurant Horizons in 1994. In the years following, he served Philadelphia a variety of proteins, starches and vegetables. One of his customers was Jacoby, who’d eat at Horizons as often as possible when she visited home from college.

“I had gone there for a couple of years,” Jacoby says. “It was my favorite restaurant. I called it the health food restaurant.”

In 2001, Jacoby applied to work for Landau as a server and immediately volunteered for prep shifts as well.

“There were more and more opportunities at the restaurant, and I loved cooking so much,” Jacoby says. “I loved the restaurant and I believed in it. You have to learn how to adapt to your recipes. That’s what I enjoy about cooking: it was always something slightly different.”

The Acclaim of Vedge

One day, after an otherwise uneventful delivery from a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Landau had an epiphany. Though his passion for Horizons hadn’t waned, he began to imagine more complex dishes – ones involving hours of prep time meant for a fine-dining experience.  

“This guy brought us a box of vegetables that changed my life,” he says. “It was Mrs. Wilson’s garden all over again. Horizons was a vegan restaurant. We didn’t advertise that it was vegan, but people knew. [But] we wanted to be a vegetable restaurant. You’ve got your steakhouse [and] seafood house, and we wanted to be a vegetable house. One of the limitations we felt was there were a lot of people in Philadelphia that wouldn’t set foot in a vegan restaurant no matter how good it was, but they would go into a vegetable restaurant.”

Vedge was born in 2011, providing an enhanced, vegetable-forward experience intended to convey the inventive side of vegan cooking. Here, Jacoby and Landau found a true calling as they began to concoct sophisticated, flavorful dishes and fell in love with the process of cooking all over again. The restaurant garnered each of them success, including James Beard nominations.

“It was a time when people were more comfortable with small plates and shared plates,” Jacoby says. “People were being a little more adventurous and open-minded. If you were going out and knew you were going to share plates, maybe you’d be like, ‘I’ll try that,’ because you weren’t committing to one thing.”

Their menus were so celebrated and in-demand, the two decided to open a more casual location. V Street fused their vegetable sensibilities with their affinity for global street fare. In a city where they were initially hesitant to advertise their vegan-forwardness, Landau and Jacoby now had two thriving, vegetable-based restaurants.

“The food went from very simple things to these complicated, gourmet dishes that were very labor-intensive and prep-heavy,” Landau says. “I couldn’t go back on the process. They say excellence is not a final product, it’s an act you continually do. I wanted the restaurant to evolve into something very vegetable-focused, and it was insane. There were people you’d never expect to set foot in there, from ages 18 to 81.”

A Place For All

With the triumphs in Philadelphia, both figured the time was right for expansion. When looking for a new location, DC felt like the right fit.

“We were always talking about new projects,” Jacoby says. “What it really boiled down to is that we’re both very comfortable in DC. We always knew there was a little bit of a lack of full-service vegan restaurants down here, and it’s not too far from home.”

That being said, the goal for Landau and Jacoby has never been providing food exclusively for vegans or vegetarians. Instead, the dynamic duo is intent on making others fall in love with their flavorful vegetables despite any misconceptions they may have.

“We’re very careful not to get preachy,” Jacoby says. “We’ve always yielded to the mainstream because we’ve always wanted to be an inclusive restaurant. Everybody can come here and sit down and not have to worry about anything. We try to do a really good job at accommodating everyone.”

Neither are preachy, but they are passionate – and it’s infectious. Both have more knowledge on the subject of veganism and vegetarianism than you’d ever need to be convinced of its positive effects, but they’re not here to tell you. They’re here to feed you.

“It’s pretty idiotic to think that vegans are skinny California models starving themselves on a diet of bean sprouts for their next photoshoot,” Landau says. “I had to fight like crazy when we first started. If you told me back then where we are right now, I don’t know if I would have believed it would have come this far. I was just a guy who loved to cook.”

For more information on Fancy Radish, visit www.fancyradishdc.com. Follow the restaurant on Instagram @fancyradishdc and on Twitter and Facebook @fancyradish.

Fancy Radish: 600 H St. NE, DC; 202-675-8341; www.fancyradish.com