This June, simoneink will be entering a new chapter as it parts ways, ever so amicably, with the client that started it all: Passion Food Hospitality. Twenty years ago, when the three principals, Gus DiMillo, David Wizenberg, and Chef Jeff Tunks [whom I knew from my previous life at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans], took me to dinner to persuade me to take on their new venture -- a glamorous fine dining establishment in a highly unlikely neighborhood in the nation’s capital [the Red Light District]. I thought they were a little cuckoo for opening in this spot, but the history of the establishment being the first Art Deco office building was intriguing. I never imagined the impact that saying ‘yes’ would have on my life...and change the course and style of dining in DC.
In that first year launching DC Coast restaurant in 1998, I moved to DC from New York City and, in short order, met my husband -- in the pastry kitchen at the restaurant. He came to DC as part of the opening chef team from New Orleans...and, to note, was born and raised in the "Who Dat" Capital. We, of course, spoke the same language, so it was instantaneous.
DC Coast boasted a sleek, soaring interior and a stylish bar that was a perpetual hot spot. Tunks was ahead of his time by bringing such diversity of cultures to the cuisine. It showcased the best of our country's coastal regions: Mid-Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and West Coast/Pacific Rim. DC Coast was praised immediately by Esquire, Bon Appetit, Travel + Leisure, and Gourmet Magazine.
The success of that first restaurant led to many more, all highly anticipated and each one thrilling in its own right. In planning TenPenh, DiMillo, Tunks, and Wizenberg traveled to Asia researching cuisine, décor, and culture. They purchased most of the textiles, tables, chairs, and design elements in Asia. The opening invitation was a fan inscribed with calligraphy. Prior to opening Acadiana, we all headed down to the Bayou, visiting my husband’s beloved “Aunt Boo,” queen of Creole cookin’. The hot, haute Latin concept of Ceiba was another critical and popular hit. Those were giddy, glorious times, as the team brought elevated ethnic cuisine and innovative fine seafood dining to downtown DC.
They won awards. They got great press. For 15 years, we kept their friends in the loop with a newsy newsletter, “Fork It Up.” We also treated them to hilarious ‘Naked Chef’ calendars that made the most of Passion Food’s best assets. When it comes to giving back to the community, on the other hand, they’ve always been dead serious. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the group put the imminent opening of Acadiana on hold, and together we focused on raising funds, in an event 12 days after the hurricane hit New Orleans called "Po Boy Power," and made sure displaced industry colleagues in Louisiana had a place to go. Annually, they lead the Compassion Golf Tournament that provides monies to Children's Inn at the National Institute of Health. They have raised over $600,000.
Though three of those groundbreaking restaurants are now closed [at least in their original incarnations,] their collective impact remains. They were at the forefront of Washington’s emergence as a food town, and the three partners were not just lucky - they’re extremely talented hospitality visionaries.
They followed up those star restaurants with a number of other popular spots, notably more relaxed than the first generation: PassionFish, now in two locations, the casual suburban extension of Tunks’ seafood revolution; District Commons and Penn Commons, re-imagined urban taverns; and the saucy fast food joints, Burger, Tap & Shake. But Passion Food is far more than the sum of its establishments, no matter how stellar. As a brand, it’s raised the bar for food and drink in Washington. And for me and my family, it’s been life-changing.
Here’s to you, Jeff, Gus, and David: thanks for the stories and the memories; the dishes that are still among my favorites, especially the Chinese Style Smoked Lobster; and for introducing me to my husband of 19 years and counting.