Harper McClure: Big on regional ingredients

Entertainment,Alexandra Greeley

In a town awash in hamburgers, the chef de cuisine at the Federalist restaurant in the Madison hotel, manages to up the ante. His Federalist Burger, a whopping 8 ounces of Martin's Angus Beef, gets a flavor boost with red onion confit and a slice of melting camembert cheese.

But foodies in the know won't limit themselves to just the burger; they will figure out how to structure meal after meal here, where a New York native oversees the kitchen. As with other chefs, Harper McClure began his culinary career humbly, as a driver for a pizza shop. But after some exposure to the kitchen, his life changed. "I saw cooks and the energy in the kitchen," he said, "I thought, 'rock stars,' 'fun.' Before I discovered food, it was a lifestyle, the restaurant life."

After a brief stint in college, McClure returned to the restaurant life and really learned how to cook, even becoming the lead in the kitchen. With that inspiration, McClure attended the Culinary Institute of America, where, he says, he really learned to understand food.

If you go
The Federalist
Where: 1177 15th St. NW
Info: 202-587-2629
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. every day, brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday

What clinched his dedication to his career was an externship at the five-star Wheatleigh Hotel in Massachusetts, where the kitchen did only seven-to-10-course menus. "These started with truffles, foie gras," he explained. "These were really formative years: I enjoyed making great food and learned I could do it."

But the best and most instructive was yet to come: McClure moved to D.C., and as fate would have it, he worked at Vidalia restaurant. "That's where I grew from cook to chef," he said.

McClure credits his vegetarian mom for his culinary work today, which relies heavily on farm-fresh goods. "She went through food phases," he said, "but she always ate organic foods, and even established a [community-supported agriculture network] in their hometown, "She was that first wave of natural-food foodies," he said. "She even grew our own vegetables: kohlrabi, kale, Swiss chard. At school, I ate peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches. The other kids ate Snack Packs."

With such an ingredient-rich background, it's no surprise McClure describes his style as "ingredient-driven American cuisine." What you taste, he says, are what the ingredients themselves taste like. "My cooking hearkens back to the nouvelle cuisine of the 1960s," he said -- simple, straightforward and filled with natural flavors.


What is your comfort food?

Pizza. I eat a lot of it. At home I bring it from Angelico in Petworth. I also go to 2 Amys or Pizza Paradiso, with 55 different beers.

What is your luckiest moment?

Besides getting this job? I've been a pretty lucky guy. It's been serendipitous. My first job was in a pizza shop. That was eye-opening.

What's in your fridge?

That's an embarrassing question. It is almost empty. Though, I have lots of condiments, beer and wine.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

Makoto; it has the best sushi meal I've had in my life. Then Equinox; they are like an extended family. Then CityZen and Toki Underground.

What is your favorite ingredient?

Chives. My cooks know to finish dishes with chives. Then shallots and thyme.


Rockfish with Carolina Gold Rice

Serves 1

1 (5-ounce) rockfish fillet

4 ounces cooked Carolina Gold Rice (recipe follows)

1 tablespoon micro mirepoix (combination of finely chopped celery, onion and carrot)

1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to finish dish

3 tablespoons jumbo lump crab meat, picked clean

2 teaspoons minced chives

3 tablespoons Caper-Parsley Butter (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons chicken stock

1 tablespoon canola oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat mirepoix and 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan. Add the rice and chicken stock and heat through; top with the Caper-Parsley butter; adjust seasoning, finish with crabmeat and chives; set aside. Season rockfish with salt and pepper, add the canola oil to a saute pan over medium-high heat, and when smoking-hot, sear the fillet until skin is crispy; flip the fillet, reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to cook through. Remove from heat and serve on the rice.

Carolina Gold Rice

1 1/2 quarts vegetable stock

1 onion, minced

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 pound Carolina Gold rice

Bring vegetable stock to a simmer, set aside In a small saucepan, sweat the onion in canola oil until translucent; add rice and sweat together for 3 minutes; add the vegetable stock in thirds to the rice, stirring often until cooked through. Reserve leftover rice for another use.

Caper-Parsley Butter

8 ounces pound butter, diced, plus 1 tablespoon

1 shallot, chopped

1 cup white wine

2 tablespoons diced capers

1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves

Freshly squeezed lemon juice

Kosher salt

2 sprigs thyme

In a small saucepan, sweat shallots and thyme in 1 tablespoons butter until translucent; add the white wine and reduce until almost dry. Whisk the 8 ounces butter into mixture a few pieces at a time until fully melted. Finish the sauce with capers, parsley, lemon juice and salt to taste. Add the thyme.

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