According to her, it goes back to her grandmother, who lived with and cooked for Pierrelus and her family in the days when Washington was a much smaller, more intimate town. The family lived in Georgetown, in a small house behind the now-closed Columbia Hospital for Women.
"My grandmother was old school," says Pierrelus. "She baked pies and bread in a potbelly stove. We had chickens in the backyard, and every Sunday we had big Sunday dinners, and everyone came to our house."
Tasked with helping her grandmother with kitchen duties, even cleaning chitterlings and collard green when she was only 5 or 6 years old, Pierrelus got an early start in her culinary training. She took her first restaurant job when she was only 15, making sandwiches at Gino's for several years before moving on to work at Jenkin's Hill and the now-defunct Yolanda's on Capitol Hill. Then she moved on to cook at the French restaurant Quigley's because she wanted to learn a whole range of cooking styles. "I wanted to know not only American, but German, French, and Italian," she says. "People [after tasting my food] used to think I was from Italy. I made my own pastas."
|IF YOU GO|
|Whitlow's on Wilson|
|» Where: 2854 Wilson Blvd., Arlington|
|» Info: 703-276-9693|
|» Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Mon. through Fri.; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sat. and Sun.|
She finally landed her present job at Whitlow's about 15 years ago, where she has comfortably ruled a kitchen that produces food marked with her very personal interpretation of old-fashioned American cooking. As she describes it, her cooking is just basic American food.
"It's collard greens, ribs, mac 'n' cheese, crab cakes," she says. "My crab cakes are the best in Arlington. I have people who come from the Outer Banks just to eat them. I also have a secret recipe for barbecued ham roast, which I usually serve once a month." Other public favorites are the shrimp and grits and daily roast turkey and corned beef, all done from scratch. "Nothing is processed," she says. "It's all fresh."
For this self-taught cook, perhaps the most cherished feature of her work at Whitlow's is its family atmosphere. "It a big, happy family here," she says, mentioning too that most of her relatives have, at one point, worked at Whitlow's or in other local restaurant businesses. Indeed, her son cooks part-time in the kitchen, and mother and son often have cook-offs.
So after working long hours in this cheerful setting, does Pierrelus run home to cook? Not at all, she says. "I have the cleanest kitchen in the block," she says. "But if I do cook at home, it is simple, like roast chicken and a salad."
What is your comfort food?
Shrimp cooked with butter, white wine, and garlic. Just something simple, like a salad with all the fresh vegetables. When I get here, I go crazy.
What are your essential ingredients?
Burgers, steaks, chicken. Old Bay Seasoning; fresh herbs such as sage, basil, oregano, and thyme; fresh garlic; fresh fruit.
What has been your luckiest moment?
Landing this job at Whitlow's on Wilson. And maybe I will have my own little place ... Diane's Diner, for breakfast and lunch.
What is your favorite cuisine?
African-American with collards, mac 'n' cheese, chitterlings. And Italian because I like the sauces, and I like fritto misto.
What's in your fridge?
Orange juice, shredded cheese, chicken, eggs, milk, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
Serves 8 to 10
About 2 tablespoons butter, melted
Generous ? pound Oreo cookies, finely crushed
3 pounds cream cheese
About 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1? cups eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
? pound Oreo cookies, chopped into thirds by hand
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 10-inch round cheesecake pan with parchment paper; do not use a spring form pan.
Stir the butter and cookie crumbs together. Pour mixture evenly throughout the pan. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, beat the cream cheese on medium-low speed with a paddle attachment until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Slowly add the sugar while beating and scraping down the sides. Reduce the speed to low, and add the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix just enough to combine all the ingredients. If necessary, strain to remove lumps.
Remove bowl from mixer. Stir in the Oreo chunks using a large spoon. Pour batter evenly into pan. Place the cake pan in a roasting pan, fill roasting pan half full with water.
Bake for 1? hours. Let cool at room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.