Dustin Harrison-Atlas has a long, hard summer ahead of him.
The ambitious documentarian has given himself just a few more months to condense nearly two years of filming with headstrong D.C. chefs — including unprecedented access to the evolution of nationally acclaimed dining destination Rose’s Luxury — into a 90-minute feature about the mad genius required to make it in the hospitality game.
Harrison-Atlas aims to capture the Horatio Alger-like rise of Rose’s founder Aaron Silverman and fellow food visionary Frank Linn, the proprietor of Frankly … Pizza! in his forthcoming project, “New Chefs on the Block or This is What Happens when you Open a Restaurant." And much like the budding restaurateurs, Harrison-Atlas is well aware of all the stars that had to align to propel this labor of love promisingly forward.
“I know I’m the only one in the whole country that’s got the best new restaurant in the country on film since day one,” he said of his unique perspective .
Starting From Scratch By all accounts, Linn, who just so happens to be Harrison-Atlas’ brother-in-law, in 2013 planted the seed for the movie treatment when he decided to cement his place in the local dining scene by going all-in on a brick and mortar, family-run eatery.
“For me, there’s no cooler story than hard work paying off,” Harrison-Atlas, who’d previously watched Linn hone his craft via roving food truck, said of his decision to document the next phase of the L’Academie de Cuisine grad's career.
Inspired by Linn’s determination to succeed, Harrison-Atlas said he turned to the Web for assistance in tracking down another willing subject. That search — which comprised punching “new chefs in DC starting their own restaurant” into Google — led Harrison-Atlas to Silverman’s online fundraising campaign .
Harrison-Atlas said he called the then-pop-up programming toque completely out of the blue and Silverman, surprisingly, agreed to meet during one of the nights he was doling out experimental cuisine at the now-defunct Hogo.
“I’m not a foodie. But it’s clear when you are tasting something out of the ordinary,” Harrison-Atlas said of his introduction to Silverman’s cooking.
The interview process eventually ensnared hospitality vet Michel Richard, who was still wrestling with exporting his brand to New York City; nascent restaurateur Emily Sprissler, who agreed to chat following the final service at her short-lived pub, Mayfair & Pine, and Erik Bruner-Yang, the Toki Underground founder who sat down for a single session but then went radio-silent once allegations of domestic abuse bubbled up in the local press.
Trial by Fire Having Harrison-Atlas lurking about was nothing new for Linn.
“It actually never bothered me. He's had that camera in my face for years now,” Linn told CQ Roll Call of the constant shadowing the film demanded.
Being put under the microscope was far less excruciating, Linn said, than dealing with all the external factors — including mind-numbing regulations (“Just don’t underestimate anything,” he counseled.) and flighty staff (“I’m at the mercy of whoever I hire to help me do everything.”) — that routinely plague small businesses.
“You do everything wrong when you open a restaurant the first time,” he said of the steep learning curved involved. “I am excited to show people what it takes … which is a lot of hard work, and that it's not just all about the food.”
Silverman sounds equally unfazed about spending countless hours under near-constant surveillance.
“We were too busy getting the restaurant open, doing dinners, buying furniture, managing construction and then actually operating once we opened to be distracted much by the camera,” he said.
Harrison-Atlas said he found Silverman to be a consummate perfectionist, perpetually striving to go above and beyond.
“This is more than a restaurant. It’s a social experiment. And now the whole world is watching us,” Harrison-Atlas said Silverman shared about the award-winning enterprise.
Rose’s meteoric rise has certainly raised expectations about Silverman’s future. And those shock waves have stretched Harrison-Atlas' commitment as well. “My goal was to film construction through their first year. But I couldn’t stop there … because everything changed after Bon Appetit,” he said of that magazine's critical acclaim showered upon the Barracks Row establishment.
Harrison-Atlas said he was somewhat relieved to learn Silverman plans to open a sibling establishment , as that provides a natural cliffhanger — can Silverman duplicate or possibly expand upon his phenomenal success? — for the film.
Linn, who will celebrate his one-year anniversary as a restaurant owner this July, is dealing with growing pains on his own. Things have been booming since The Washington Post food writer Tim Carman in May urged pizza lovers to seek out Linn’s signature pies. Per Harrison-Atlas, the sudden uptick motivated Linn’s wife, Kate Diamond, to quit her job and sign on to work at the restaurant full-time (another major development).
While he’s itching to explore additional opportunities — perhaps trying his hand at a traditional trattoria (“There’s no good Italian food in this city,” Linn said.), or slipping back behind the wheel of a mobile venue (“I make a damn good fish taco.”) — Linn wants to carefully weigh his options.
“So far I’ve made a lot of great moves, so I don’t want to ruin it in one stupid quick decision,” he shared.
Savoring the Moment Inserting himself into the diningverse was no picnic, Harrison-Atlas swears. But the forced intimacy proved invaluable.
“I was very much a part of the inner circle,” he said, citing his ability to break bread with staff during family meals at Rose’s Luxury as an unforgettable perk. “But for me this is very much like the film, ‘Almost Famous’ in that I had to sort of remain the enemy.”
Remaining purely objective was paramount.
“I had to make sure that I didn’t drink the Rose’s Luxury Kool-Aid,” Harrison-Atlas stressed about the fine line he attempted to walk. “I always had to make sure I was taking steps back and not making this a love story about Aaron.”
Viewers can judge for themselves whether he succeeds in keeping his distance once Harrison-Atlas puts the final product up for public inspection.
The Discovery Communications alumnus mapped out plans to shop the finished flick around to TV (Sundance, the Food Network and Travel Channel were all mentioned as viable partners) and film festivals (the NYC Food Film Festival and AFI DOCS here in D.C. were at the top of his list).
Though he’d be fine with seeing it on the smaller screen too.
“Ultimately, I would love to see it on HBO,” he said.
Putting the project to bed, however, will likely require contributions from arts lovers. Harrison-Atlas anticipates needing around $50,000 to put on all the finishing touches (color correction, commissioning a musical score, etc.). He’s not sure the Kickstarter model would be an ideal fit, but is exploring the possibility of amassing funds via documentary.org ’s networking platform.
He may even wind up mixing everything up into the ultimate power play.
“It would be kind of fun to someday open a restaurant whose primary goal, aside from making people happy, was to raise money for independent films,” Harrison-Atlas quipped.
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