D.C.’s Clandestine Dining Destination | Meal Ticket
One man’s recipe for a nontraditional cooking career
Note to public relations gurus in Washington: There is more to life than putting words in people’s mouths.
Just ask Tom Madrecki.
The UPS communications manager has garnered a cult following via his clandestine Chez Le Commis.com soirees, hush-hush dining experiences that have attracted the likes of D.C.’s hottest chefs, award-winning restaurant critics and a number of high-ranking government officials.
Not bad for a self-taught toque (albeit one with incredible ambition).
A Taste for Adventure
Madrecki wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he said he’s always appreciated the edible show of affection that is a home-cooked meal.
He shelled peas at his mother’s elbow and pestered his parents for a Little Tikes kitchen set, an indulgence his father flatly opposed (too girly, his dad insisted).
By the time he reached middle school, the allure of gourmet living had him firmly under its spell.
“I really started to pay attention that there’s this world outside of just normal restaurants. It’s not all Pizza Huts and Hardee’s,” he said of the revelation that gave hold to newfound obsessions (French Laundry, the now-defunct elBulli).
That passion would move to the back burner once high school got under way. That’s when Madrecki discovered a talent for bowling (he was all-American good) that helped him roll right through to the University of Virginia. While there, Madrecki pinched his pennies (graduating with less than $10,000 in debt), dabbled in media (as managing editor of the school paper) and made some terrific friends.
Once the four-year party ended, Madrecki looked inward and realized something was missing. So he dove back into thinking about cooking.
And even though he’d logged exactly zero hours in a professional kitchen, Madrecki challenged himself to give it a go.
“People within kitchens think that people outside kitchens are different. That they can’t handle it. Or that they aren’t up to it,” he said of the “macho” mystique that often surrounds commercial cooking.
Bucking the system, at least initially, proved quite challenging. “I’m not that prototypical kid that dropped out of high school and became a chef. I’m a smart, college-educated kid with no tattoos,” Madrecki said of his somewhat-skewed trajectory.
Intent on honing his inherent skills, Madrecki queried “the normal places that you would try and go work”— which in his case meant asking CityZen and Komi to take a chance on a total unknown. Michael Costa, head chef at Zaytinya and a fellow UVA Cavalier, was the first to throw him a lifeline.
Madrecki spent his first four months working the prep station at the buzzy Mediterranean restaurant. “It taught me how to be fast and it taught me how to work very diligently,” he said of the crash course in culinary arts that eventually turned into stints behind the oven, grill, flattop and saute stations.
Madrecki left there wiser, but also hungrier. “I thought I actually had a lot more to learn, but I wanted to go and see other things,” he said of his decision to decamp for Europe.
While he was overseas, the jaw-dropping experiences kept coming. First was a two-month stint at world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Rene Redzepi is, to me, one of the most intellectual chefs,” Madrecki said of the invaluable instruction he received there. Next was a layover in France, which included grape picking in the Loire (one of the “quirky” wine regions he champions) and the fortitude culled from proving himself worthy of working the line at Le Chateaubriand.
Chef Inaki Aizpitarte “gave me the confidence to cook from the heart, to be myself in the kitchen,” Madrecki said.
By the time he returned stateside in late 2011, Madrecki knew what he wanted to do. And not even an offer to cover the Hawaiian dining scene for Star Chefs could dissuade him.
“Writing about food … [or] working in a restaurant full time as a chef de partie wasn’t really what I wanted. I wanted to cook because I love to cook,” Madrecki said.
The test dinners were, naturally, invite-only.
But instead of targeting the low-hanging fruit — hyperbole-prone bloggers, name-dropping “foodies” — Madrecki sought out tastemakers from all walks of life.
“People that are plugged in to D.C. … and like nice things in life,” was how he described a guerrilla marketing campaign that’s culminated in a monthslong waiting list and increasingly loyal following.
“Most of the State Department is on my list,” Madrecki said, noting that he’s fed a host of Hillary Rodham Clinton staffers (but not “42” or the recently retired secretary of State). “I’m working on the World Bank,” a Madrecki aide quipped about the next inside-out recruiting effort.
There were no political types to ogle during any of our visits. But those we did encounter were certainly an interesting bunch.
There were thrill seekers: “I just Googled underground dinners,” one supper club virgin said of the path that led him to Madrecki’s humble abode.
Zeitgeist-riding restaurant raiders: “They had me at bacon-marmalade,” one couple gushed about their crush on cheflebrity Bryan Voltaggio’s latest gastro-playground, Range.
And even would-be government watchdogs: “What a twerp,” one guest said of a particularly publicity-hungry House member from California.
The common denominator: a penchant for thought-provoking food.
Madrecki fancies himself a minimalist — “It’s not about technology or gimmicks. It’s about cooking real food,” he said — but definitely operates in that realm where the alimentary becomes elemental.
He plays with everything from texture to temperature, conjuring salmon seared on a single side (crackling skin gives way to velvety flesh) as well as cucumber-spiked slush ignited by pickled Serrano peppers (yowza!).
Tequila-drenched scallops were bold and beautiful. A light dusting of maple sugar injects sweetness into the mix without stealing the spotlight from the pulse-quickening seafood.
A mouth-watering rib-eye arrives enrobed in garlic butter, a less-is-more masterpiece Madrecki maintains is exactly what he’d most like to devour after a grueling day at work.
A blistered potato embellished with butter, maple syrup and sea salt is an insta-favorite. “Yeah, we’ll be having this for breakfast tomorrow,” one guest proclaimed while greedily dispatching the salty-sweet spud. Madrecki even manages to convert a few skeptics with his alterna-grilling tactics.
“When I think barbecue, I do not think octopus,” a dinner companion opined upon being presented with deeply charred cephalopod. In the end, the marriage of smoke-infused seafood and tangy-sweet sauce (pomegranate molasses-black olive puree worked like gangbusters) proved irresistible; our cautious friend polished off his portion before several others huddled around the same table.
Nobody needs any additional coaxing when it comes to the coveted popcorn ice cream.
“Oh my god, nobody touches this,” a first-time guest half jokingly warned dinner mates, his spoon darting from mouth to bowl in search of another dopamine-releasing hit of cheddar-topped dairy.
The signature sweet — inspired by the caramel- and cheese-covered snacks peddled by Garrett Popcorn in Chicago — is fashioned from microwave popcorn steeped in milk, with generous amounts of honey, egg yolks and heavy cream rounding out the decadent equation. The frozen treat is finished with tongue-teasing powdered cheese and a dulcet reduction of maple syrup, brown sugar and water.
“It can’t come off the menu,” Madrecki said of the now-evergreen closer.
His bimonthly meals — the $50 “suggested donation” (he’s not an official restaurant, after all) nets you a multicourse meal with corresponding wine pairings — have become such a hit, Madrecki is now selling out several weeks in advance.
“At this point, it really is first-come, first-serve,” he said of the email chain that pings subscribers about upcoming dates. Instead of scrambling to fill seats, as he did early on, Madrecki must now routinely turn curiosity seekers away, an inconvenient truth he readily acknowledges yet is loath to remedy.
“People that come are interesting. You don’t have to be the director of something,” he said of an admissions process designed to constantly mix things up by bringing together all kinds of different people.
And Madrecki appears inclined to keep at it as long as patrons are willing to keep filing into his modified living room for another wild epicurean ride.
Or until his landlord finally figures out what’s really going on.
His nocturnal activities were nearly exposed after Madrecki popped up on the apartment manager’s radar by transforming the communal grill into an ersatz smoker (stoked with grape vines, no less) for an eight-hour-plus pig roast.
So, is he the least bit worried the powers-that-be might shut down this soul-satisfying side gig?
“I host dinner parties. Don’t you do that, too, from time to time?” Madrecki posited.