Will Artley brings to his job a valuable work ethic: He treats everyone -- staff and patrons -- like family. That's the road to restaurant success, he believes, and one he has followed for his entire career, first as executive chef at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group's Evening Star Cafe and, now, in his new executive chef position at Falls Church's Pizzeria Orso. "I have always been a strong believer that it is not just the chef," he says. "Behind the chef you need a great kitchen staff, and a great neighborhood. Then there is no reason you can't be a great restaurant."
Another characteristic defines this New Mexico native: his passion for fresh ingredients. So great is this passion that Artley now turns his spare time to gardening in his 3,000-square-foot plot. "Right now, I am preparing for summer," he says. "This year I am a little behind ... Last year, I grew 250 tomato plants, so I didn't buy any tomatoes. I also grew rosemary, two different types of thyme, chives, 15 basil plants, English peas, beets and greens. My cooks got to work in the garden and to appreciate how much work it was."
Covered with a picturesque array of tattoos, Artley grew up in a household where solid home-cooking was daily fare. "My mom cooked every day," he says, and Artley admits that he became her devoted student. By the time, he was 10, he could make from-scratch mole, a basic seasoning paste for various Mexican dishes. He also benefitted from being part of a travelling military family, affording him the chance to sample foods from many different countries.
|If you go|
|» Where: 400 S. Maple Ave. Falls Church|
|» Info: 703-226-3460|
|» Hours: Closed Monday; Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 3 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday to Sunday|
Whether it was his mother's example or his budding appreciation for international flavors, or a combination of many different factors, Artley chose to make a career of cooking -- actually, he says cooking chose him. As a teen he worked in various local restaurants, learning the business from the sink up. And even before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America, Artley had staged in some of Manhattan's most prestigious restaurants, including the Danube and Jean Georges.
And, yes, the tattoos, unmistakably colorful and filled with several personal messages: an Aztec god, a Polynesian symbol from Hawaii, a bear claw and some Chinese characters. "I have a full left arm," he says. "I have two small spots on my right arm that are not covered nor is the back of my neck. I have one big tattoo on the back of my left leg of my father's family crest. It gives me stability. And on my left arm, a tribute to my mom, who taught me how to cook."
Artley is now facing a new challenge: taking a basic pizza restaurant menu and shaping it into a bistro one, starring small plates of Italian-American favorites -- but with a twist. "We are making our own sausages," he says, "and offering bowls of mussels and clams, all dishes seasoned to work with the pizzas. There will be no salmon entree for $24."
What is your comfort food?
My mom's cooking. It is like everything she cooks puts me in a whole new world. It is unbelievable, it is so well put together. It's good hearty Mexican food, which makes me think of my ancestors, my grandmother. It is all done from scratch -- you use your hands.
What is your cooking philosophy?
I have a number of philosophies. For one, OHIO, which means, "only handle it once." Then throughout the years, I have had chef/teachers who have said, "Don't manipulate the ingredients too much." If you source the asparagus, use it then and there, with a little salt and olive oil. Let the food stand for itself. Also, think less about yourself and more about the food. When it comes down to it, it is all about the food and great ingredients.
How do you get your inspiration?
I get a lot from the reading and from the seasons. I am super-excited when ramps are available, for example. I think, "How do I make them better than last year." Also cooks inspire me. We go out to dinner a lot, so ideas are flowing through my head when I taste their food. That motivates me to push the edge.
What's in your fridge right now?
I have a lot of healthy food, such as broccoli, carrots, celery, Naked juices, wine, oranges and apples, my own house-cured meat and a variety of cheeses. I also have tortillas and dog treats.
Which is your favorite cookbook?
It has to be Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking." ... It breaks down the scientific aspect of cooking.
Makes about 1 quart
5 ripe Roma tomatoes, diced and with seeds
1/2 Vidalia onion, small dice
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon vinegar
3 tablespoons torn basil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
Combine all ingredients in a small cookpot,and cook for 3 hours over low heat.