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Greg McCarty: Kitchen master

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Entertainment,Food and Drink,Alexandra Greeley

After several intense years working in numerous high-profile kitchens, young and energetic executive chef Greg McCarty now directs the food scene at the recently opened nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter. Although this restaurant is new, it joins its sister eateries in the Knightsbridge Corporation's D.C. restaurant group, which includes 701 Restaurant, Rasika and the Oval Room. So this Newfoundland native will receive much scrutiny of his work. And likely many accolades as well.

But McCarty surely knows the culinary terrain, and it all began when as a youngster of 4, he planted his own vegetable garden. "Luckily it was good soil," he said of his first crop, red radishes. He also merited the good fortune to grow up in a family where both sets of parents and grandparents cooked all the time. His grandmother in Arkansas, where he spent summers, even baked fresh biscuits every morning. "She also made awesome fried chicken and million dollar pie," he said. In winters in Newfoundland, he enjoyed his mother's codfish, lasagna and meat pies.

His a-ha! moment came in college, where he often cooked dinner parties for various people. At one point a friend told him not to waste time in college but to go to culinary school instead. "I'd never thought of that as a career path," he said. "I was really a good cook by then, and had a natural affinity for it. Though maybe not perfect techniques." He decided to attend the George Brown Chef School in Toronto.

Culinary school certainly shows a person's dedication to the industry, said McCarty, but working in professional kitchens polishes skills. "We did have a good meat butchery program, but you only have a certain amount of time. You have one day to learn to trim fish," he said, adding that a person needs to cook a piece of red snapper 1,000 times before he learns how to cook it just right.

If you go
nopa Kitchen + Bar
» Where: 800 F St. NW
» Info: 202-347-4667; nopadc.com
» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

After graduation, McCarty had the extreme good fortune to land a job with renowned Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his New York City restaurant, Jean-Georges. "At Jean-Georges, I was a sponge," said McCarty. "He said, 'If customers do not like it, you won't make much money.' He was a great inspiration. I wondered if I could learn to butcher fish, and I learned very quickly that I really was not on the same level as the others."

Describing his six years working for Vongerichten as the best time of his life, McCarty recounts how he was surrounded by great chefs and had access to the best ingredients in the world. From New York, McCarty worked at Vongerichten's Bahamas restaurant, Dune. Upon returning to the U.S., he was hired as executive sous chef to open Nobu 57, where he grew to appreciate Asian ingredients and, in particular, developed a passion for using miso paste. "It is so healthy," he said. "It adds so much depth of flavor."

Then he ran his own food-truck business in Connecticut and was honored by various groups for his skills and culinary knowledge. McCarty now finds himself in Washington, where he indulges the local food community with his excellent cooking -- perhaps by his adding a few dollops of miso paste here and there.

Q&A

What is your comfort food?

Anything my mother makes. She makes the best coq au vin and the best lasagna in the world. And her meat pies and fried chicken are like my grandma's.

What's in your fridge?

Twenty-seven different mustard types, bananas, grape soda, seltzer and many different types of chocolate treats.

Which is your favorite restaurant in town?

Mintwood Place and Little Serow. And all Knightsbridge restaurants.

What is your favorite ingredient?

Moro miso. It's a red barley miso with soybeans. There is a dish at Nobu 57 with it, which Martha Stewart put on her show.

What has been a great influence on your cooking?

Setting the direction of a new menu and listening to customers' reactions. ... I am in a new market, so I need to understand what people want.

Recipe

Blue Cheese Fondue, Fresh Fruits, Nuts and Vegetables

Blue Cheese Fondue

Serves 3 to 4 as an appetizer

1 pound blue cheese

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup white wine

about 1/3 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

? teaspoon ground mustard

Toss the cheese with the cornstarch, making sure each piece is coated evenly. In a medium-size pan, combine the white wine, water, lemon juice and mustard. Bring to a simmer.

Add the cheese and cornstarch mixture while whisking over medium heat. Whisk until the cheese melts and the sauce comes to a boil, then remove from heat and serve. The sauce will not fully thicken unless it boils.

Serve with an assortment of fruit, nuts and vegetables, such as:

Grapes, red and white

Pineapple, diced large

Asian pear, diced large

Apples, diced large

Walnuts, toasted lightly

Carrots, sliced and blanched in water

Grilled scallions

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