If you are looking to dine at one of the hottest restaurants in all of DC, then look no further. We have found a spot that is far from pretentious, beyond delicious and is as comforting as our Italian grandmother’s cooking. We sat down with owner/head chef of The Red Hen, Mike Friedman, to learn more about his cozy Italian restaurant and what it takes to run the establishment that all of DC can’t stop talking about.
Where did the name The Red Hen come from and why did you decide to go with Italian?
We went with Italian because it’s my favorite thing to eat. I grew up in New Jersey in a Jewish household within an Italian community, so it became comfort food to me. Everywhere I went and traveled to throughout my life, I always sought out Italian restaurants because they were the most comforting to me. When you open a restaurant, the smartest thing you can do as a chef is cook things that you love to eat because that passion comes through on the food. So the natural choice for me was to cook Italian.
The name The Red Hen means absolutely nothing and I think that’s the beauty of it. There are three business partners behind this restaurant, all from various walks of life. One from the DC area, one from Chicago and myself from New Jersey, so we didn’t want to pick an obscure Italian word that didn’t really mean anything. We wanted it sound good off the tongue and we wanted it to evoke a rustic feel and when The Red Hen came up it seemed like a great fit for us.
Where do you seek your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from a couple different avenues. I think that memory plays a huge role into the food that I cook, things that I grew up with and things that inspired me as a kid. I pull from the great flavor profiles that I loved while traveling as a kid and then traveling as an adult as well. We are under this umbrella as Italian but I kind of like to stretch the boundries a little bit by exploring flavors within the Roman Influence -like Moroccan and Greek. Also, where I have traveled in the past and where I previously cooked plays a huge role in what I create at The Red Hen. There are influences of french, greek/lebeinese from my time at Zaytinya, and then modern American influences from my time at Proof, it all kind of plays in. I also get inspiration from tv, reading a great article, seeing something another great chef is doing, talking to my brother, wife or business partners. My inspiration really comes from every facet of my life.
You are a talented chef but if you had to choose another profession to delve into what would it be?
It sounds weird and I am not trying to feed into what you do but surprisingly, I love fashion and would maybe want to give that industry a try. Maybe it would be on the event or marketing side of it but I find that field very interesting. Not only from my travels to France and Italy but also New York, they are the greatest cities on earth and to me there is an excitement around them. So I think I would do something around that realm. They asked me to be a model but I said no, I am going to go to culinary school instead. Chef has jokes too!
If I am dining at The Red Hen for the first time, what do I have to order?
You have to order a bunch of stuff. You have to start with a glass of Borgoluce Prosecco because we are one of the only restaurants in the country to carry it. It’s a beautiful bubbly produced in the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. I would then order a Negroni, because we hands down make the best Negroni in the country. Next up, I would order the whipped ricotta crostini with balsamic brown butter and truffle honey, its a killer dish to start. We do a great buratta, which is like a creamy mozzarella that comes from a small creamery in New Jersey and we serve that with an asparagus salad that is really beautiful. I would also get the Mezze Rigatoni with Fennel Sausage Ragu & Pecorino Romano, if its your first time here. Because you can’t not get it, its our best seller. It’s made with a rich tomato ragu with lots of fennel sausage and pecorino romano and its really, really tasty. Its a very simple dish and I think that is why we sell so much of it because it hits a cord with most people in terms of that nostalgic- Italian memory. If you are still hungry, I would go for the Wood-Grilled Chicken ‘Fra Diavolo’, which is a spicy marinated baby chicken that is served over a bed of grilled kale, currants and preserved lemons. To round out the meal I would drink a little bit of Amaro, which is an Italian bitter, to help cut through all of the food you have been eating all night. Then I would end the night with the maple custard with hazelnut crumble.
Is there a dish that you wish is on the menu but isn’t?
You know, I wish we could do something with beautiful fresh Italian or even American prosciutto. We don’t have a slicer nor we don’t have room for a slicer and the only way to do fresh prosciutto is sliced. I would do a prosciutto with melon dish in the summer and prosciutto with gnocchi fritto in the winter but right now there is literally no room in the restaurant for it. We are that small.
What was it like working with José Andres?
It was great working with Jose, truly a wonderful experience. I came into the company not long after I graduated culinary school, so I was so ready to learn. I was very very hungry and worked long hours for multiple restaurants. I had the opportunity to stage at Mini Bar, where I was able to spend a few unpaid days there learning, which was a huge honor. It was a great company for me to be apart of at the time and was able to really bounce around Penn Quarter, which is where most of his restaurants were located and still are. I was able to work with so many different influences from Mexican, modernist out of Spain, classic Spanish tapas, and Greek, Turkish-Lebanese at Zaytinya. It was really a lot of fun. I got to do a lot of off-site projects with him and was able to travel to Napa Valley to do The World of Flavors Conference, I would do food styling for The Today Show, I worked on his TV show, we did Salma Hayek’s wedding in Venice, the list goes on. He gets all of those really good gigs. I was with the company when they were opening SLS in LA, so there was massive expansion going on and that is around the time I took the opportunity to go off on my own and travel. But I have nothing but great memories and great words to say about working with Jose. He is an amazing person and is whose personality is literally larger than life.
What’s hot right now in the industry and what culinary trends do you see coming in the future?
Woodburing apperatices, whether it is a wood burning oven or wood burning grills. I think that the smokey flavor that comes from the naturally burning wood is extremely hot right now. Tons of restaurants are trying to get permits right now to burn solid fuel- wood or coal. I think that is something that has really taken off around the country, not only in DC. As far as a hot culinary trend, I really see French food making a major comeback. Not only from a bistro standpoint but I think we will see a lot of modern French using great French techniques and French simplicity. I think everyone was sick of French food and so people went to Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and South East Asia but I think French is something that is really comforting and that I think will make a comeback very soon.
What kind of sustainable techniques do you try to incorporate into your restaurant?
We try to source really well, I order from local farms for most of my seasonal produce. All my meat comes from local purveyors or sustainable purveyors. You know, there is this battle between local and delicious and I will always pick delicious but I think in the movement of “organic” doesn’t really mean much. Farmers pay quite a bit to get that organic label, so I just try to source from really good farmers and really good companies that work on my behalf to get me the best products. I have built up a list of 13-16 purveyors that I can tap at any time for meat, poultry, fish, cheese and produce. All of the important stuff that helps the restaurant run smoothly and luckily we are small enough that we are able to keep what we need in house and we keep it really fresh which is awesome.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself opening another restaurant or do you see yourself expanding?
We are opening a new restaurant at the end of this year or early next year. It is going to be a Roman inspired restaurant with simple fried bits, cured meats, and a large pizza component. It’s not going to be like wood burning pizza, I am trying to meld this idea of old school jersey pies with individual and modern interpretations on toppings. You won’t see classic neapolitan, margherita or marinaras on the menu, what you see will be very seasonal. What I do with pasta here, I am going to do with pizza there. It’s just me learning a new dough, we do a lot of pasta here and over there we will make a lot of pizza dough. For me, bread is life. I love bread, I love dough. To me it is not only fun to make but there is a great finess to it and Im really excited to see that come to fruition. I am really excited about it, it’s going to be called All Purpose Pizzeria and will be located on 9th and N in DC.
To make a reservation at The Red Hen, call (202) 525-3021
1822 First Street NW DC, 20001