Patrick O’Connell reflects on four decades; launches charitable foundation amid anniversary
This Sunday, January 28th, marks a most impressive milestone: the 40th anniversary of the Inn at Little Washington, an extraordinary if not uncommon success story that has even chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell often scratching his head.
“I think what is very exciting is that something that is not supposed to work can still work,” O’Connell tells the Rappahannock News of his four-decade run. “When you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing time just goes by in a flash. A decade passes, and you don’t really stand back, pause and reflect. I felt that this milestone was significant enough that we should engage in a little bit of turning back of the clock — look at the way we were, where we were, and where we’re going.
“And when you do that you realize how very few places in our American culture endure for close to a half a century. And even rarer is one that not only maintains, but continues to evolve and be sort of a leader in the field.
“So we have a lot to celebrate and a lot of people to thank in the process,” says the internationally renowned chef. “Certainly our guests and clients who have supported us over all these years. And the amazing staff, some who have been here 29 years, 25 years, 24 years. So it’s not only a family, it’s a little culture of people who all believed in doing the best you can with what you have [with] an uncompromising attempt at excellence.”
All of which has provided for a unique (read creative) lineup of 40th anniversary celebrations, beginning with this Sunday’s (the actual day of the Inn’s birth) “A Magnificent Dream,” an intimate “family and friends” dinner at the Inn’s Tavern building where George Washington himself once danced.
“We have so many devoted guests who genuinely appreciate our being here — they feel very much a part of it,” O’Connell notes. “So we thought why let the actual birthday go uncelebrated? Let’s have an intimate little friends and family gathering. We sent out an email blast and it sold out in an hour and a half.”
O’Connell says Sunday’s birthday gathering will have “a wonderful spirit about it, the people will have much in common. We have second and third generations of guests coming, people who were part of a family gathering here as children who are now bringing their children back. That’s rare, and very rewarding.”
In addition, he hopes to welcome “a few people who were present on the opening night 40 years ago. But not all of them are around,” he observes with laughter. “I called Diane Bruce who was here, but she’s in Arizona and she can’t come. She was [Rappahannock County’s] clerk of court at the time. I said, ‘Diane, you were there, who else do you think would still be around?’ And she said, ‘They’re all dead!’”
More laughter from the chef, albeit no better confirmation that his 40 years of producing award-winning entrees — garnering five James Beard Awards, five AAA Diamonds, two Michelin stars, and title of the longest tenured Five Star restaurant in America — is indeed a very long time.
So for good reason, over the course of 2018, the Inn will celebrate O’Connell’s 40-year legacy as the “Pope of American Cuisine” with culinary events focused on relationships, philanthropy and historical preservation.
Following Sunday’s family and friends dinner, a bigger celebration on June 16 will be “Bringing History to Life” at George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. No need to recall that America’s founding father, as a young surveyor, laid out the streets of “Little” Washington.
Spread out across Mount Vernon’s sweeping lawn overlooking the Potomac River, the “garden party” of sorts will recreate the experience of being a guest at Washington’s table in the 18th century. Much of the produce served at the dinner will come from the estate’s gardens, which have been cultivated for more than 250 years. In addition, top chefs from around the country will be present and honored as “culinary pioneers.” The fabulous night will include a fireworks display over the Potomac, with French Ambassador Gérard Araud serving as honorary chair.
“To be able to go to George Washington’s house and throw a party is certainly something that you could not easily imagine happening, and yet on this milestone dreams are coming through still,” O’Connell says.
The next event is more of a Rappahannock festival — “Innstock” (channeling Woodstock, if you will). Set for September 2, it will feature a “family reunion” of former employees of the last 40 years who will return to the “mothership” to create an outdoor feast. The culinary food festival will be open to everybody in the county. Virginia’s premiere winemakers will be on hand, with other highlights including a rock concert (band to be announced!), bonfires, and “glamping” in the Inn’s adjacent “Field of Dreams.”
“It is exciting to be able to see the numbers of people who have come through this place in four decades and what they are doing now,” O’Connell says of the late summer festival. “We have about 40 on this list who have their own restaurants across the country and are doing great things and are thrilled to be able to come back. We will ask them to run a food station outdoors, in little tents, and let people and journalists meet them, see what they’re doing, talk about their influences from this place, and I think it will be a fun event for the town. We will even have a ‘tent city’ on the meadow!”
Finally, an entire continent away, “Vaux-le-Vicomte — A Spectacular Soirée.” This major capstone anniversary event on September 30 will celebrate O’Connell’s deep affinity for France.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is a 17th century chateau in the Seine-et-Marne region south of Paris where in 1661 Louis XIV was honored with a party that is thought to be one of the greatest events ever created. The Inn’s talented team will channel the original party with a feast inspired by the actual menu served to the king. Only 150 guests will relive the experience when they dine by candlelight in the dining room of the baroque castle. The evening will conclude with dazzling fireworks.
Observes O’Connell: “The idea of being able to host a party in what is purportedly one of the most magnificent chateaus in the world is rather dreamlike.”
The Inn’s 40th year also marks the launch of a charitable foundation by O’Connell, which will focus on historic preservation, culinary arts and scholarships. The first major gift will benefit ongoing preservation of Mount Vernon, through the work of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
“The foundation is something we’ve been talking about for a very long time and we decided the 40th anniversary was a perfect opportunity to unveil it,” O’Connell explains to this newspaper.
“It allows us to create an event — a charitable event — and the money can go into the foundation, which will then fund culinary scholarships and possibly historic preservation projects and things of this nature that interest me. We’ve done all the groundwork for the creation of the foundation and the events that we’re planning — here in town, at Mt. Vernon and in France — which are all designed to be not-for-profit.
“I always thought it would be wonderful to have a culinary scholarship for a local student here [in Rappahannock] who could attend one of the top culinary schools in America. It’s pretty unlimited in terms of sponsors we have wanting to participate in the 40th anniversary. It’s something that could provide a lot of benefits to a lot of people.”
Ten years ago, as the Inn celebrated 30 years with a gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., O’Connell took to the stage. “I made a few remarks,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘Somehow I still believe the best is yet to come.’ And as soon as I said it I thought, ‘What am I saying? After 30 years there’s more?’
“This last decade has proved there is,” he says, “and this 40th anniversary certainly surpasses one’s wildest expectations of how we might celebrate it, what we might do collectively with our clients, team and sponsors. There’s a great deal of support and excitement, and it’s bringing people together in the nicest way.”