Zeroing in on John Melfi's Italian heritage explains why this young chef de cuisine makes such a natural fit for the kitchen of the fashionable Blue Duck Tavern. He understands ingredients and how to pair them for outstanding results. After all, he says, this Syracuse, N.Y., native grew up cooking in his Italian grandmother's kitchen.
"My Italian grandmother ... made everything from scratch, especially pasta," he said. I started by making breakfast, and she oversaw what I was doing."
Melfi admits to never even having another job in his life apart from cooking. "In the summer, my jobs included working at a farmers market, of bussing tables and washing dishes. I was always saying, 'I want to be a cook.' "
Fortunately, his restaurant experience got its impetus when a small, family-owned diner hired him and eventually moved him up to line cook. While still in high school, he decided to enter a program to double-check if cooking was the career he really wanted. It was. Melfi, after graduating at the top of his class, chose to attend the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, which eventually merged with Le Cordon Bleu. He graduated first in his class, heading then for an externship in Naples, Fla., with French chefs.
|If you go|
|Blue Duck Tavern|
|Where: 1201 24th St. NW|
|Hours: Breakfast 6:30 to 10:15 a.m. daily, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5:30 to 10:15 p.m. daily, brunch: 11 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday|
"I loved the restaurant scene and learning the basics," he said. "Especially from old-school French chefs Alain Petitbon and Pierre Dousson." His next career move included several restaurant jobs in Charleston, S.C., where he gained management experience working under Frank Lee of Maverick Southern Kitchens. "He was kind of a pioneer chef in Charleston in traditional Southern cuisine with local produce," Melfi said. "I worked there for five and a half years and got my first sous chef job there."
Melfi then became executive chef for the Seabrook Island Resort at the age of 25. "It had several outlets, such as fine dining and a pub," he said. "I learned a lot, but it was not something I wanted to do that young."
His next career step, 5 1/2 years ago, took him to Vidalia in D.C., and shortly thereafter he became the restaurant's executive sous chef. "There I learned a lot about how to run a successful fine-dining restaurant and I was working with James Beard Award winners. It was cool. Chef Jeff Buben is a master."
With top-notch training, Melfi was a natural hire for Blue Duck Tavern, first for its former executive chef, Brian McBride, and now his current boss, Sebastien Archambault. "I just grabbed the kitchen work by the horns, and I am so glad I was picked, so happy and honored," he said. "It was hard work because I was by myself for several months after Brian left." With the new team in place, Melfi is free to highlight traditional cooking methods by using modern technology and the best local ingredients possible.
What is your comfort food?
My grandma's pasta, my mom's chicken soup, my grandfather's house-made sausage. It was Italian sausage that he made with a little grinder at kitchen table. I was the cranker.
What has been the greatest influence on your cooking?
Southern cooking, because it was a time in my career when I could absorb as a cook and convert ideas as a sous chef and put my ideas onto the menu. You are in the form of an artist. I learned about farm-to-table, so I didn't turn to New Zealand for lamb.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
I don't go out to fancy places. We are really into tacos, like at Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville. We also like Osteria in Philadelphia and Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
What's in your fridge?
Hot Pockets, juices, apples, fruit and eggs, for days off.
Where is your favorite place in the world?
I would say Italy, and we just went there for the first time. Both my grandparents are off the boat from Italy. ... Because of my heritage and its history, and how many things they refined and we still use today in our cuisine.
Creamy Stone-Ground Grits
3 pints water
1 pint heavy cream
1 pint Anson Mills grits
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup whole milk
4 ounces Gouda cheese
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced chives
Bring the water and cream to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the grits, and whisk until smooth. Reduce the heat to low, and cook, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with salt, pepper and cayenne. Garnish with the chives before serving.