November-December 2015 | Featured Article

Meet Aaron Silverman, Owner/Chef at Rose's Luxury

Wootton High School graduate hits it big

"CAN WE WALK THROUGH THE space to see if there’s a place we can put a pretty sizable fish tank?” Aaron Silverman asks. The Montgomery County-raised chef-owner of the hit restaurant Rose’s Luxury on Barracks Row in D.C. is meeting with people at the architecture firm of HapstakDemetriou+ in Georgetown on a sunny mid-May morning. He’s dressed casually, sporting pale gray jeans and matching clogs, his tattooed arms extending from the short sleeves of a white collared shirt. The 33-year-old’s boyish face is slightly unshaved; his black hair is rustled into a spiky array.

Every full-time employee at Rose’s gets health insurance and full benefits. Pictured here: Silverman (left) and sous-chef Benjamin Nola. Photo by Liz Lynch.

Along with HapstakDemetriou+ project manager Bill Young and project architect Chris Conner, Silverman is looking at a three-dimensional computer rendering of his second effort, Pineapple and Pearls, which is scheduled to open early next year in the space adjacent to Rose’s Luxury. The concept features a small coffee shop in front and a reservations-only, prix fixe tasting menu restaurant in the back. “I envision five-star, luxury hotel pampering,” Silverman says.

Many of the overarching design elements for the new concept have been determined, so today’s meeting is supposed to be about smaller stuff. It turns out that a fish tank isn’t exactly a minor detail, so a spirited debate ensues over where it might fit. An area by the front door and a corner of the dining room are both considered, then discarded, because the tank would take up too much space. Ultimately, the idea is tabled and the discussion turns to whether it would be possible to put a gold-colored or shiny brass sink behind the coffee bar. “It’s things like that—that you don’t expect—which are going to make it really nice,” Silverman says.

THREE YEARS AGO, few people would have expected Aaron Silverman to be talking about decorative fish tanks and gold sinks for a hotly anticipated new restaurant. Then again, Silverman’s path to becoming a chef has been somewhat untraditional all along.

It’s not like he grew up in a family of foodies—his father, Don, is a nuclear energy attorney, and his mother, Jackie, stayed home to raise their two sons and later worked as a photographer’s assistant. When Silverman was 8 years old, the family moved from Cabin John to a two-story brick colonial in North Potomac, where his parents still live.

Though they ate out regularly at casual spots and occasionally enjoyed celebratory meals at L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Virginia, and Michel Richard’s now-closed Citronelle in Georgetown, the family mostly eschewed restaurants for Jackie’s home-cooked fare, such as ribs and garlicky sautéed shrimp on rice pilaf. “They were simple meals, nothing fancy,” she says.

Don took several cooking classes at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and enjoyed creating more intricate meals for special occasions, such as clam, oyster and crab bakes in the summer. Though Silverman has fond memories of helping his father make spring rolls and enchiladas, he says neither parent’s cooking affected his ultimate decision to become a chef. In fact, that world didn’t interest him. “I never once thought cooking was going to be something he took up,” says Silverman’s younger brother, Daniel, who lives in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood and does business development for a recruiting firm.

But today, Aaron Silverman is head of one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in the country—a place that’s earned universal praise from critics and foodies, where diners regularly line up hours in advance to wait for a table, and where President Barack Obama enjoyed his birthday dinner in August.

SILVERMAN ATTENDED Thomas S. Wootton High School, which was located a short walk from his house. Late in his freshman year, he became friends with Konstantine Troupos, a talkative classmate who introduced him to lifelong pals Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis. “We were all about coffee, leather jackets, girls and [hair] gel,” Troupos says.

Cacio e pepe is a simple spaghetti dish made with grated Parmesan and pecorino, pepper and butter. Photo by Liz Lynch.

“Aaron became an honorary Greek. He was the quiet guy, and we were the crazy ones.”

When the friends weren’t driving around Rockville and Potomac in search of parties or bingeing on caramel macchiatos at Starbucks, they worked at Geppetto restaurant in Bethesda’s Wildwood Shopping Center. “He didn’t have to have a job because he came from a well-off family, but he wanted one,” Troupos says of Silverman. Working in a restaurant proved to be formative: Grigoropoulos, Xenohristos and Moshovitis would go on to open the local mini-empire of restaurants that includes Cava Mezze, Cava Grill and Sugo Osteria.

After high school, Silverman attended Northeastern University in Boston, where he earned a degree in business administration, with majors in accounting, small business management and political science. As part of the program there, he worked at Deloitte & Touche in 2002 and at Gillette the following year. “I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to enjoy that for the rest of my life,” he says. “So I started wondering: What would I do if I didn’t have to live off money?”

In his spare time, Silverman began watching cooking shows and experimenting with recipes, such as trout almondine, in the small kitchen at his Boston apartment. “It was rewarding,” Silverman says. “There’s the process of building something and then having a finished product you could show off. And who doesn’t like good food?”

Silverman decided he would finish his degree, but pursue a career as a chef. Through a mutual friend, Silverman’s parents arranged an introduction for their son to Jonathan Krinn, who was then heading up the kitchen of the fine dining restaurant 2941 in Falls Church, Virginia. “I spent two hours talking him through the realities of being a chef—the great things and the not so great things,” says Krinn, who is now the chef-owner of Clarity in Vienna, Virginia.

At the end of their discussion, Krinn suggested that Silverman come to work at 2941 over his winter break—an experience that he loved. With two years remaining at Northeastern, Silverman cut his last externship and doubled up in credits to finish his program a year early in 2004.

As he was making this transition, he kept in mind a piece of advice Krinn had given him during his first days in the kitchen at 2941. “Just work and stay focused,” Krinn told him. “Don’t even consider opening a restaurant for 10 years.”

Silverman took this counsel to heart: Almost exactly 10 years after that conversation, Silverman opened Rose’s Luxury.

THE SERVERS AT Rose’s Luxury are sitting at tables in the back of the restaurant, eating a complimentary communal meal of pasta and salad prepared by the kitchen staff before their evening shift. “There’s no reason anyone should walk out of this building unhappy,” Silverman says in a pre-opening pep talk to his staff. “We have the tools. Whatever we have to do, they should walk out happy. Your only job here is to make people happy, so we will give you whatever you need to do that.”

It’s not just the food that has made Rose’s Luxury a sensation; it’s the whole philosophy. Every night, the staff consciously sets out to create unexpected moments of joy. Though comping dishes or drinks for VIP guests is an industry norm, servers at Rose’s are allowed to give one free dish to every table they wait on.

Guests who examine their checks after a meal might find dishes described as “three sides of winning” or “two sides of awesome.” When a diner tells a server about a dietary restriction, the kitchen crew makes clever annotations on the customer’s menu to indicate what could be modified. “There’s lots of smiley faces,” says chef de cuisine B.J. Lieberman.

Every full-time employee gets health insurance and full benefits. When Bon Appétit named Rose’s the best new restaurant in the country, Silverman took the whole staff out to D.C.’s Old Ebbitt Grill until the wee hours of the morning for seafood towers and congratulatory toasts, then gave them the next day off. In June 2014, he closed the restaurant for an evening so everyone could attend a Hall & Oates concert at Wolf Trap.

“It feels like family,” says Hannah Haas, who works at the host stand. “They take such good care of us, and they’re so committed to making sure we’re happy and we’re being treated well. It feels like we’re doing something different than running a restaurant.”

A year ago, Maria Chicas, a dishwasher who had been with the team since the restaurant opened, had her wallet and cellphone stolen. Several staffers kicked in money to help replace what had been taken, and Silverman covered the balance.

Strings of white lights hang over diners at Rose’s Luxury.  Photo by Liz Lynch.

After the communal staff dinner, Silverman and the other senior chefs gather to taste and critique every dish that will be on the menu that evening. Once service begins, there are usually 10 cooks working to ensure that guests at the 76-seat restaurant are fed quickly and efficiently. On a typical night, they’ll serve 250 diners.

Sampling the food, Silverman says “awesome” constantly, echoing the neon sign that glows on the wall in the dining area. Though he’s happy to dole out compliments, the perfectionist tendencies that diners have come to expect from Silverman shine through. “That’s stale chewy, not chewy chewy,” he says about the toasted coconut flakes on one dessert, sending the cook back to the kitchen to make a new batch.

L'ACADEMIE DE CUISINE founder and director Francois Dionot sees hundreds of students every year and says he doesn’t remember all of them. But he hasn’t forgotten Silverman. “He was very driven,” Dionot says. “He was excellent in his practical skills and theory skills, had good hand-eye coordination and retained everything we threw at him.”

After graduating from college, Silverman returned home and enrolled in a yearlong program at L’Academie de Cuisine. When classes were finished for the day, he would battle rush hour traffic en route to 2941, where he worked nights as a line cook. He would get home around 2 a.m., then get up for school four hours later.

He did his externship to complete his culinary degree at 2941 and stayed on after that. “It was hard and intense,” remembers Scott Muns, a fellow line cook who began working at the restaurant in April 2005 and became a friend of Silverman’s. “You got yelled at and screamed at. Things were thrown and broken.”

On a typical night, Rose’s 10 cooks serve about 250 diners. Photo by Liz Lynch.

The two would often go out for drinks after work, and Silverman would talk about opening his own restaurant one day. “He didn’t want to rush it,” Muns says.

After nearly a year and a half at 2941, Krinn could tell that Silverman was ready to move on. On a Thursday evening early in 2006, Krinn called his friend Josh DeChellis, then chef of the critically acclaimed Jovia (now closed) in New York City and said, “I’ve got a live one for you. If you really kick his ass, he’ll do really good.” Then he called Silverman into his office and asked him if he could be up in Manhattan in time for Saturday night service.

The next four years were crucial. After Jovia, Silverman took gigs at a series of high-profile restaurants in New York: Marco Canora’s now-closed Italian eatery Insieme, the Portuguese-accented Aldea under chef George Mendes, and David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Silverman’s high school friend Jason LaFond visited frequently during that period, crashing at Silverman’s crowded apartment in Tribeca that Troupos describes as “the real Real World.” On one trip, Silverman invited LaFond to a potluck dinner he hosted, where he served a startlingly innovative dish: spaghetti with strawberry sauce. The unlikely entrée would become one of Rose’s Luxury’s most well-known dishes.

In the fall of 2010, Silverman packed his bags and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to take a position working the line at McCrady’s, the groundbreaking Southern restaurant of James Beard Award-winner Sean Brock. When Silverman wasn’t in the kitchen, he started thinking about what his own restaurant might look like.

He eventually picked up a copy of Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind blockbuster New York City establishments such as Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. “The whole book boils down to: What business are you in?” Silverman says. “Making people happy and giving them an experience. It was a huge eye-opener and started the process of how I think now.”  

ON A BALMY EVENING in June 2012, the rooftop of Cava Mezze on Capitol Hill was set up for what looked like a private dinner party, with strings of little white lights hanging above several small tables pushed together to create a communal dinner table. Grigoropoulos, Xenohristos and Moshovitis had kindly offered the space to Silverman for his first pop-up dinner.

Silverman had created a makeshift kitchen with a single induction burner and a small deep fryer on a couple of folding tables. Troupos and two other friends were on hand to help him set up, assemble dishes and serve.

After moving from Charleston back to Washington, D.C., in August 2011, Silverman was finally beginning preparations for opening his own restaurant. That summer evening, he was hoping to impress about a dozen potential investors, including his parents and the Cava Mezze trio.

A diner whips out his cellphone to take photos of a dish. Photo by Liz Lynch.

The nine-course menu that night included strawberry pasta, a frothy and rich popcorn soup, and roasted cauliflower with golden raisin purée and Greek yogurt. “Everyone left the dinner saying, ‘Wow,’ ” says Grigoropoulos. “We knew he’d be the biggest hit in D.C.”

With help from Troupos and others, Silverman did a series of pop-up events over the course of 2012 and into 2013 around D.C., including one dinner at Miss Pixie’s, a vintage furniture and home goods store on 14th Street. There was no kitchen at the shop, and they ended up blowing all the circuits. Troupos spent three hours doing dishes at the end of the night in a tiny bathroom sink.

Though Silverman knew how to cook, he had never worked with the real estate agents, architects, contractors and various permitting offices that would turn his vision into a reality. “I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I was figuring it out as I went along.”

In between hosting dinners for potential investors, Silverman slogged all over D.C. hunting for a location. He looked at the spaces in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood that eventually became home to the restaurant Table and the pub A&D. Ultimately, he surveyed and discarded nearly 40 options.

After months of searching, he walked past a vacant two-story town house on Barracks Row, a couple of blocks from his rental apartment. Silverman had fallen hard for that part of town. “It’s the most neighborhood-y part of D.C.,” he says. “It reminded me a lot of Boston and Charleston.”

The space was in bad shape and would need a lot of work. But there was an open-air courtyard between it and a small building at the rear of the property. “It was cute and cozy, but still big,” says Silverman, who signed the lease for the property in September 2012.

Meanwhile, Silverman’s dad, Don, took the lead on gathering investors, including lots of family friends from Bethesda and the surrounding suburbs. The Silvermans kicked in some of their own savings, as well. Don looked over contracts, secured permits, researched architects and contractors, and helped build out and decorate the space. “My dad gave everything but blood,” says Daniel Silverman, Aaron’s younger brother. “Sweat and tears for sure.”

One of the final pieces of the puzzle was the restaurant’s name, which was inspired by Silverman’s paternal grandmother, Rose, a socialite, poet, cook and entrepreneur who ran a baking business out of her Pittsburgh home. Silverman says he added the word luxury to evoke a sense of pampering.

FINALLY, AFTER MORE than two years back in D.C., Silverman opened Rose’s Luxury on Oct. 2, 2013. The renovated two-story space had been transformed into a charmer of a restaurant, decorated with antique bric-a-brac, vintage furniture, tables handmade by Silverman’s uncle, and strings of white lights hanging over the high-ceilinged dining room in back, where the courtyard once had been. The menu was equally eclectic, taking inspiration from the American South, the Far East and Italy. You could order fried chicken brined in pickle juice, cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) spaghetti, and a mélange of lychee, red onions, jalapeños and pan-fried sausage that servers recommended you swirl together into a dirty mess to eat.

Though expectations for the enterprise were high, so were Silverman’s insecurities. “We were going into the winter, and everybody said, ‘You don’t open a restaurant in the winter,’ ” says Jackie Silverman, his mother.

But buzz built quickly. Since Silverman had decided they wouldn’t take reservations, people began lining up outside each night that fall, though getting a table wasn’t usually a problem.

Then, on Dec. 18, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema gave the restaurant a rave review, calling it “the best news to come out of Capitol Hill in ages.” The lines got longer.

More high praise poured forth from Washingtonian, and Garden & Gun, which, in December 2013, named Rose’s Luxury one of the five most exciting new restaurants in the South. In February 2014, the restaurant became a semifinalist for the James Beard Award in the Best New Restaurant category—a rarity for a chef who had never headed up a kitchen before, let alone one who was also a first-time restaurateur. The lines grew longer still.

Then, in August 2014, Bon Appétit crowned Rose’s Luxury the best new restaurant in America. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Don Silverman. “It was an affirmation of everything Aaron had worked for.”

The cover of the magazine featured one of the restaurant’s servers holding a bowl of lemongrass seafood stew bursting with prawns and littleneck clams. Inside, writer Andrew Knowlton declared the restaurant “a game-changer” and “a culinary revolution.”

That’s when the lines went down-the-block berserk.

IT'S A MONDAY—perhaps the quietest night of the week at Rose’s—but the line to get a table begins forming outside at 2:45 p.m. The restaurant still takes no reservations, except for its rooftop garden table, which seats one party of eight to 10 every evening. Diners can reserve it online three weeks in advance, but when it becomes available, it is always snapped up within seconds—literally.

Rose’s Luxury doesn’t take reservations, so diners regularly line up outside hours in advance to try to score a table in the 76-seat restaurant. Photo by Liz Lynch.

Today, John Bayer is first in line. His parents are in town from California to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Right behind Bayer is Mike McNamara, who works at the restaurant as a bartender. Even Don and Jackie Silverman regularly stand in line for a table.

The Obamas are the only people who haven’t had to wait in line. First lady Michelle Obama dined at the restaurant this past February, and then brought the president there for his birthday on Aug. 4. “That was a crazy stressful night, but it was so cool,” says Lieberman, the chef de cuisine. “It’s just like every other night, but there’s this one party that’s taking up half your attention, and there’s four big dudes in the kitchen watching everything that you’re doing.”

In the last few minutes before the doors are opened, Jackie, who’s here most days of the week, lights candles on the tables and makes minor adjustments to the flower arrangements she put out earlier. Chefs slip on fresh white shirts. The “Awesome” sign is turned on as classic rock songs such as the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” echo through the space.

The last seating at Silverman’s restaurant is 10 p.m. Photo by Liz Lynch.

At 5:30 on the dot, the doors open. There are about 75 people in line at this point, most of them damp after a passing shower. As they begin to flood inside, the three staffers at the host stand funnel them off to servers, who walk the customers to their tables.

After half an hour, parties of three or more are being told they’ll probably sit down to eat between 9 and 10 p.m., with the last official seating at 10 p.m. “But it’s my 30th anniversary,” one gentleman says in frustration. By 6:15, the whole line has been processed. At this point, parties of three or more are told that the restaurant is booked for the evening.

As all this action unfolds out front, Silverman stands at the center of the counter in the open kitchen, calling out orders and finishing plates. He’s focused, in the zone. Every once in a while he’ll look into the dining room to survey the scene, and then turn back to his work. You can tell he’s enjoying himself. He’ll smile at a cook’s comment or give a high-five to a passing server.

By 7 p.m., even parties of two are told they can’t be accommodated that evening—Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is one of the many who is politely turned away. n

Nevin Martell is a D.C.-based food and travel writer. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @nevinmartell.