There’s nothing wild about the kitchen at Bethesda’s Wildwood Kitchen during the lunchtime rush. Chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier presides over the quietly energetic operation like a conductor wearing an apron instead of a tuxedo.
As each dish comes to him, he studies it for a moment. He might add a drizzle of harissa oil or wipe a smidge of something off the plate’s edge. Sometimes he just gives a satisfied nod. Once he’s sure that every element is right, he sends the food out to the waiting diner.
“I’m a mistake finder,” he admits later, after he has stepped away from the kitchen. “I’m trained to look for problems.”
If you think you’re a picky diner, you should see a restaurant through chefs’ eyes. They’re always looking for imperfections from every possible angle. And they go out a lot to see what the competition is doing and to catch up with their industry friends.
“I study everything from the moment that I walk in,” says Wiedmaier, who dines out three times a week in between working in his six restaurants. “Are the windows clean? Are the lights working? Did somebody welcome me? Were they smiling?”
That initial impression is key, as well, for chef Joe Goetze of MoCo’s Founding Farmers in Potomac. “It’s all about the first 30 seconds for me,” he says. “I want a restaurant to stimulate my brain and be creative about it.”
Once they sit down, chefs survey their surroundings again. “I don’t like flowers on the table,” says Bryan Voltaggio, chef-owner of Range in Friendship Heights. “If their scent is too strong, it can overcome the aroma of the food.”
The first taste at a restaurant is often the bread, so it’s an important factor, too. “The breadbasket gives me a very good indication of how prepared the chef is,” says Cesare Lanfranconi, executive chef of Lia’s in Chevy Chase. “If there are two or three different types—and it’s warm and crusty—it shows an attention to the details.”
These days, though, a lot of restaurants have axed the breadbasket. “They’re trying to save a few dimes,” says Wade Hoo Fatt, corporate chef for Quench in Rockville, which still offers a complimentary breadbasket. “Those dimes sometimes add up to an unsuccessful meal because they’re trying to save too much and something gets lost along the way.”
To test the skill level of a colleague, chefs invariably scan the menu. “I’ll find the most difficult dish that’s hardest to execute,” Wiedmaier says. “If there’s a bone marrow flan, I’m always going to order it. A good flan has to be smooth, silky and full of flavor. It can’t be rubbery. And that’s difficult to do.”
Voltaggio prefers to assess the basics. “Sauces, vinaigrettes and reductions span cuisines,” he says. “They take a lot of time if they’re done really well.”
When the food arrives, chefs evaluate it before they take a bite. “Sloppy plates kill me,” Goetze says. “It’s like serving me a glass of wine with lipstick on it.”
Temperature is equally important. “Soup has got to be hot,” Fatt says. “There is no soup that’s meant to be served warm.”
So what happens when the tables are turned and a chef knows there’s a visiting chef eating at his or her restaurant? “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Damian Salvatore, chef-owner of Persimmon in Bethesda. “On one hand, it’s a compliment. However, you do stress a little bit, because you want to be perfect for them.”
For Diana Davila-Boldin, former executive chef of Jackie’s in Silver Spring, visits from other chefs are a chance to roll out the red carpet. “I immediately tell the staff that we have a VIP,” she says. “We like to send them out an extra course, and I make it a point to go talk to the table.”
No matter who is sitting at the table, though, Wiedmaier thinks the most important test is how quickly a restaurant reacts to a problem. “They have to be on it,” he says. “In my restaurants, I’ll go out to the table to find out what’s wrong, send over some wine, and then get the dish right. I need to make [customers] happy.”
In the end—whether you’re wearing a toque or a baseball cap—the greatest test, of course, is whether you want to return to the restaurant.
Robert Wiedmaier, Joe Goetze (photo by Leah Frankl), Bryan Voltaggio, Diana Davila-Boldin (photo by Angie Norwood Browne), Michael Harr (photo by Food Wine & Co.), Domenico Cornacchia (photo by Kaveh Sardari)
Check it out
What single element of the dining experience makes or breaks a meal? Here’s what area chefs had to say:
"Sloppy plates kill me. It’s like serving me a glass of wine with lipstick on it."
Joe Goetze, chef of MoCo’s Founding Farmers in Potomac
"Soup has got to be hot. There is no soup that’s meant to be served warm."
Wade Hoo Fatt, corporate chef for Quench in Rockville
"Sauces, vinaigrettes and reductions span cuisines. They take a lot of time if they’re done really well."
Bryan Voltaggio, chef-owner of Range in Friendship Heights
"There’s nothing worse than having a waitstaff that doesn’t know the menu items and can’t answer questions."
Michael Harr, executive chef of Food Wine & Co. in Bethesda
"If meat is cooked wrong, I’ll send it back. Nobody wants to eat and pay for something that’s not how they wanted it."
Diana Davila-Boldin, former executive chef of Jackie’s in Silver Spring
"The breadbasket gives me a very good indication of how prepared the chef is. If there are two or three different types—and it’s warm and crusty—it shows an attention to the details."
Cesare Lanfranconi, executive chef of Lia’s in Chevy Chase
"Don’t present the check before asking if I’m in the mood for anything else, because you’re giving me the sense that you want me to leave."
Domenico Cornacchia, chef-owner of Assaggi Mozzarella Bar in Bethesda
Nevin Martell lives in Washington, D.C., and frequently writes about food and culture.