Imagine going from frosting cupcakes to overseeing a kitchen that produces beer-braised brisket and fried pickles. Such is the case with executive chef Ciji Wagner of the recently opened Drafting Table restaurant near Logan Circle. That must be a dizzying culinary turnaround. But, thankfully, Wagner is a skilled and well-trained chef -- she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
And as it turns out, Wagner admits, the Pennsylvania native has always been interested in baking and cooking since she was a little girl and had always, always wanted to be a chef. Her primary inspiration to enter the culinary world came from her parents. "My mom was a lunch lady at a high school cafeteria," she said, "and my dad was a sales manager for a company that worked with restaurants. They know what it is like in the kitchen. Also, mom loved to cook meals at home that bring people together and I always wanted to be a part of it."
Unsure of whether to specialize in the pastry or savory side of the kitchen, Wagner sought advice from a chef for whom she worked while in high school. He told her that in the end, those who are trained as pastry chefs end up knowing how to cook better than others who are not.
While working for Red Velvet Cupcakery, the parent company of Drafting Table, Wagner learned that her boss was considering opening a savory restaurant in D.C. Interested in possibly working there, she began bringing in food for management to sample. In the end, they loved what she was doing and offered her the job to open up Drafting Table.
|If you go|
|» Where: 1529 14th St. NW|
|» Info: 202-621-7475; draftingtabledc.com|
|» Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday|
Thrilled with the opportunity, Wagner says she loves the job, while admitting it has been a challenge to make the switch. "But I love being creative and putting together flavors and dishes," she said. "The recipes are mine ... and I have control of the menu." She adds that she has trained one of her chefs to take charge of the desserts, adding that while she may miss all the sweet stuff, as executive chef she has more cooking options.
Wagner has found many of her savory inspiration straight from the sweet side of the kitchen. Take the lemon curd served with the fish and chips entree. "It is something I want and enjoy eating, and I put on a twist to make it interesting," she said. She adds that her best-seller at Drafting Table is the draftsman burger of braised brisket and crispy blue cheese. "It is sweet, savory, really well-balanced," she says. "The next best-seller is the falafel."
Q&A with Ciji Wagner
What is your comfort food?
I would say mac 'n' cheese. It will be on the menu. .... I do a goat cheese mac 'n' cheese with apple sauce on top.
What are your basic essential ingredients?
A good mix of spices. I love adding different spices and herbs to things. They add an extra nice layer of depth without people really knowing they are there. In terms of main courses, I love duck. I get to play around with duck, which is my go-to meat.
Which chef do you most admire in the world?
Elizabeth Faulkner in California. She is very creative with her dishes and I aspire to be like her. She comes up with amazing cuisine.
Where is your favorite restaurant?
I tend to not to repeat restaurants because I like trying all kinds of food. So I can't nail it down. I would have to say the one I enjoyed the most is Proof. The gnocchi was so good.
What's in your fridge right now?
A lot of condiments, hard cider, fruit and cheeses for snacks or meals. Leftover components of lasagna from a friend's dinner.
Recipe: Mediterranean Meatloaf
Yield: 5-6 portions
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
1/2 yellow onion, diced and sweated
2 cloves garlic, diced and sweated
2 stalks fresh oregano, chopped
3 stalks fresh mint, chopped
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1/2 cup kalamata olives, rinsed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes
1/2 cup crumbled feta
3 lemons, zested
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Mix panko and Greek yogurt; let soak for 30 minutes. Combine all ingredients. Lightly press into a 9" by 5" loaf pan. Let rest overnight. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake, covered with foil, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 20 to 25 minutes, until the internal temperature is 155 degrees. Let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and enjoying.