Ashish Alfred, chef and owner of the Alfred Restaurant Group, is THE rising star on the Washington, DC-Baltimore, MD-food scene, earning acclaim and rave reviews at his three restaurants: Duck Duck Goose Bethesda, George’s Chophouse in Bethesda, and Duck Duck Goose Baltimore. He was classically trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and honed his skills in some of Manhattan’s best kitchens. Chef Al, as he’s often called, recently showcased his culinary talents at an exclusive, sold out James Beard Foundation dinner. We sat down with Chef Al to discuss his passion for his craft, his dream food tour, and why he shouldn’t be judged for his love of whisks.
Q: What made you decide cooking was your career path?
A: “I like the rigidity of it, I like the militaristic nature of it, and I like the physicality of it. I like how there is not a lot of gray area — there’s a right way to do things and many wrong ways to do things. There is a right way to break down a fish and there is a right way to blanch a vegetable. I think the other part of cooking that I really appreciate is the instant gratification you get. I don’t think there are a lot of jobs where you do a good job and people tell you right away. We get the satisfaction of seeing clean plates come back, and conversely, if you’ve done a bad job, then you see unclean plates come back. So I like the instant gratification.”
Q: Why is plating technique so important?
A: “I think plating is very important and people, for simple reasons, eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths or even their nose. From a business standpoint, if you stand back and watch, people in your dining room will pay attention to dishes that come out plated beautifully. That increases your sales. It’s easy to pile things high in the center of the plate, and that has its place, but even that can be done exquisitely. You can do that while balancing color or texture. You can also do that by using the right flatware. The way food looks coming out of the kitchen is as important as the way that it tastes.”
Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in cooking?
A: “It is a lot of hours, for not a lot of money, with not a lot of glory. So it’s got to turn you on. You’ve got to be able to look out at a dining room and see people sitting at their table, smiles on their faces, taking a bite of their food and do a little happy dance. You’ve got to get off on the fact that it’s 8:30 at night there are 15 tickets in the window, and you’ve got seven salmons down at four different temperatures. If you enjoy creating something that you know you can stand behind and you enjoy looking out at people enjoying your product then yes, it’s for you.”
Q: What advice would you give to a home cook?
A: “Keep it simple. Do things you know how to do. Do things you can prep in advance. If you’re having a huge dinner party, don’t try to prepare raspberry souffle for a dozen people, do something that you’re comfortable with. Mise en Place’ which is French for “put in place” is basically, do everything you can in advance so that you can to set yourself up for success.”
Q: If you were to go on a food tour anywhere in the world, where would you go?
A: “I would go to France. My roots are in French cooking. I think from the Basque region, to Paris, to the south of France in Nice, you can really taste some of the best produce, meat and seafood in the world, prepared by some of the most passionate people in the world.”
Q: What type of music do you listen to in the kitchen?
A: “Spanish music. Either Reggaeton, or Bachata, or Latin trap because that’s what my guys listen to and coming up in kitchens, that’s all I’ve ever listened to.”
Q: What is your management style?
A: “I like to teach by doing. I’m not a point and shoot kind of person where I’m saying ‘hey do this do that and the other’. I like to lead from the front rather than the back so when I’m managing front of house I will fill waters and bus tables. My management style is to set my people up for success and see what I can do to make today as easy on you as possible. I’m here for you, what do you need from me, how can I help you?”
Q: What would be your last meal or “death row meal”?
A: “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I imagine it would probably be the easiest to eat with a spork.”
Q: What is your favorite kitchen tool or gadget?
A: “Nothing turns me on like a good whisk. It’s the satisfaction of watching something come together in a whisk. You start with egg yolks and little oil and you have a mayonnaise, you start with a little heavy cream and some sugar and with a whisk you have whipped cream. I just like a good whisk, don’t judge me.”