Young Guns in Bastion of Tradition

Chefs for Georgetown’s 1789 Forge a New Approach to Food

Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:42pm

While the Georgetown restaurant 1789 may be approaching its 50th birthday, the staff in the kitchen is still a few years away from turning 30. Both the executive chef and pastry chef who are running the show at this D.C. staple are in their mid-20s, a fact that often surprises diners.

“It’s a veteran restaurant in the D.C. scene,” 24-year-old executive chef Daniel Giusti says. As a result, customers “don’t expect to see a young person here. They expect to see an older person who’s been around the block and done this and that.”

Not so fast, traditionalists. Giusti and pastry chef Travis Olson, who is 26, are the young guns running the old-time restaurant. 1789, housed in a Federal-style house in Georgetown that dates back to the mid-1800s, is a Clyde’s-owned restaurant. The D.C. staple often caters to an older crowd, one that lately has been a little surprised to see such young faces in the kitchen.

“You really do have to prove yourself,” Olson said. “You have no laurels to rest on, so to speak.”

The 20-somethings’ achievement was not without hard work. Both chefs have been a part of the Clyde’s Corp. for some time. Olson has been baking pastries for the company for nearly seven years, while Giusti began working as a prep cook — “Which is bottom of the barrel, like peeling onions,” he said — at the age of 15. Giusti credits their success to their history with the company.

“We’ve both been kind of in a way rewarded with the job because we’ve been around and they took a chance with both of us,” he said, adding, “This restaurant is very high-stakes.”

At 1789, Giusti is responsible for creating the dinner menu, which includes 10 first courses and 10 entrees, while Olson takes care of the bakery and dessert menu. He produces desserts not only for the Georgetown restaurant, but for other Clyde’s establishments as well.

Creating the menu is one of the more fun parts of the job. Both Giusti and Olson say seasonal ingredients have a lot to do with the dishes on the menu.

For instance, Giusti will typically pick a protein (such as fish or chicken) and then he will look into what vegetables are in season and available locally. This becomes especially challenging in the winter months when the ground freezes and all that’s available are roots. The chef is also limited by what is servable at 1789. “Meaning, you know, it needs to go to a certain level of refinement,” he said.

One such dish is the potato salad. Giusti has taken the usual summer picnic dish in an entirely different direction. Keeping the season in mind, he uses watercress, peewee potatoes, crosnes, sunchokes and Périgord truffles to make it.

Giusti and Olson also have to be cognizant of how many times they use a certain ingredient. The key is to make each dish different from the next. “It’s just the nature of things. You don’t want to see the same ingredients over and over again on the menu,” Giusti said. “It becomes quite difficult. Once you change one thing, you might have to change three.”

There is also the issue of how a new dish will complement or detract from the rest of the menu. “The development process is more than just the dish itself and the components that work with it,” Olson said. “The menu as a whole has to have certain things that people would like or what they’re looking for.”

While cooking is the chefs’ passion, both jobs entail much more grunt work. In addition to creating the menu, Giusti must manage the staff, stock the kitchen and monitor food costs. Olson manages the bakery staff and ships desserts out to other restaurants. These chores can be the worst part of the job because they often become overwhelming, Giusti says.

“You wish you could just come in here every day with full force [and say], ‘Let’s cook! Let’s do this!’” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s a business. … I think for me that’s the hardest part. You get caught up in it.”

All of these responsibilities can be time-consuming. The chefs typically arrive at 1789 in the late afternoon and remain in the restaurant until the early-morning hours, leaving little time to see friends and family. While Giusti is single, Olson met his girlfriend while he was baking. The Georgetown student walked by the restaurant’s window and popped in to see what he was working on.

As for Giusti, he said with a laugh, “I’m proud to say that I have no social life at all. I’m here all the time.”

Olson says he has more downtime than Giusti, but his life is still dominated by his work schedule. “When it’s busy, if I need to be here, I know I need to be here and I don’t stay away because of social engagements,” Olson said. “You can’t make plans the way a lot of other people our age do.”

In the end, Giusti said this work ethic is what has made him and Olson successful at such a young age. “It’s not necessarily a talent thing — there are plenty of people out there that are talented at a young age,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sacrifices and not caring about taking other responsibilities on that are completely outside of cooking.”

But ultimately, both chefs say giving up a social life is worth the joy of cooking.

“The sacrifices that you make are certainly worthwhile because I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing,” Olson said.