It is among the top honors in the culinary world. And now, some 20 years after Patrick O’Connell was crowned its “Outstanding Chef in America,” the prestigious James Beard Foundation announced today that the Rappahannock County-based chef of the Inn at Little Washington is the recipient of its 2019 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
“The news elicited high-fives all around and called for a glass of champagne,” O’Connell told the Rappahannock News this evening of the award presented annually to a chef who has provided a positive and long-lasting impact on the way people eat, cook, and think about food.
“When we opened the Inn in 1978, American cuisine was thought to consist primarily of hamburgers and hot dogs French people made fun of Americans putting catsup on everything and drinking Coca-Cola instead of wine,” the chef replied, when asked what is was that Patrick O’Connell brought to the dining table.
“As an American chef, I played a significant role in changing that perception.In that era no one expected to be able to find fine quality food outside of a major urban center, however the French had a long tradition of making a pilgrimage to the countryside for a meal of exceptional quality.
“I believed that if it could happen there, it might ultimately happen here and it did,” he said. “Now every night we see guests from all over the world and we’re able to offer them glorious local products that they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.”
“Years ago,” O’Connell continued, “fine dining was often overly formal and uptight. Guests felt they needed to be on their best behavior. The Inn led the way in changing that by introducing a bit of whimsy, playfulness and humor into the experience.
“We invited our guests to relax and be themselves, which made their dining experience more fun. Countless thousands of young people have come through our kitchen and dining room in the last four decades and taken what they’ve learned here to other places all around the world.”
Given the Inn’s much-heralded 40th anniversary this past year, we asked the chef what Rappahannock County and its residents can look forward to for the next 10 years?
“The Inn has never been in a stronger position,” he replied. “Our staff now numbers about 145 talented and passionate individuals from all over the world. We’re able to move forward and evolve at a faster pace than ever before.
“This year we’re focusing on many projects, especially our gardens and the restoration of some of our buildings in the town. In June, we plan to open to the public for tea every Sunday in the Tavern across the street. We have also begun a monthly ‘Book and Author Series’ followed by lunch at the Inn, which will take place throughout the year.
“Our mantra around here has always been ‘Onward and Upward.’
“I’m humbled to be joining a group of incredibly distinguished icons who have received this award before me,” he said. “No chef could ever receive such an acknowledgement without the talents of a dedicated team supporting them. I’m immensely grateful to everyone who helped me on the long and colorful journey to this point — especially to our guests for their loyal patronage through the years.
“I am living proof that you can hide out in a mountain village with a population of 133 and still be discovered by your peers. The power of good food should never be underestimated.”
O’Connell, who last year was crowned a 3-star Michelin chef, will be recognized at this year’s James Beard Awards Gala, to be held May 6 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.