Cathal Armstrong’s first kitchen job was extremely inauspicious. While studying computer programming at a university in Dublin, he washed dishes at a local pizzeria on the side. But when a cook fell ill, Armstrong stepped into the kitchen to help. He never left. At the age of 19, emboldened by his time at the pie shop, Armstrong tried his hand at opening his own fine-dining French restaurant, The Baytree, outside Dublin. “I did everything that you should not do in the restaurant business,” he says of the learning experience. “After 10 months we decided we’d lost enough money and left the project.” He moved to Washington, DC, in 1990, and worked in pubs and then high-end restaurants throughout the city. In 2004, he broke off to open his own project, Restaurant Eve, in Alexandria, Virginia. Eve was an immediate success and Armstrong, along with his wife, Meshelle, quickly expanded their holdings to include a fish and chips shop, Eamonn’s, and a speakeasy, PX, in 2006, the same year he was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. In 2007 the Armstrongs took over operations of an Alexandria institution, The Majestic, and followed that up with the gastropub Virtue in 2011, and the food retail palace Society Fair in 2012. A second location of Eamonn’s opened in August 2012, in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
Armstrong took a breather with Food & Wine to discuss caviar, mustard and heirloom cattle.
What recipe are you most famous for?
Probably the pork belly we serve at Restaurant Eve. It was inspired by what my mother called “boiling bacon”—it was basically pure pork belly that was boiled rather than pan-fried. We brine the belly for seven days and then we braise it until it’s tender and then crisp it up in a pan. The accompaniments change fairly often, but the pork belly is a staple on the menu.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
Sweetbreads are certainly one of my most favorite things to cook. It used to be that they were only available from the butcher one day a week, when the animals were slaughtered. Since you couldn’t get them every day, they were often preserved, but I learned to work with them raw. I lightly dust them with flour and pan-fry them almost like fried chicken. When you prepare sweetbreads that way, they have a very elegant flavor, with a crispy exterior and a pillowy, creamy interior that is luscious and rich.
There’s another dish that has been on the menu since we opened, which I call OOO—that refers to onions, oysters and osetra. It’s a puff pastry with creamed cipollini onions, a poached oyster and osetra caviar. It is an open homage to one of the best dishes I have ever tasted in my life, Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry. But it also speaks to the type of food that I like: It has the richness of the cream, the brine of the oyster and the saltiness of the caviar. There’s a lot of contrast of flavors and textures in there, which to me is very exciting.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, has to be very high on the list. I think that book is indispensable, not necessarily for the recipes, but for the techniques and the way it communicates the importance of rules and discipline in food. Another inspiring one is Le Repertoire de la Cuisine, which is from the early 20th century, but it’s still very relevant today—it helps you understand the natural affinities in food.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to make a good sauce. The art of sauce-making separates good food from great food. It even separates great food from extraordinary food.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Dijon mustard, no doubt about it. In addition to the fact that it improves any sauce you can think of, it is also an important liaison in in a good vinaigrette. We use it to make a really awesome steak sauce that we call liquid gold: a splash of chicken stock, a little butter and chives, and Dijon mustard.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
If I had my way, it would be the Randall Lineback. It’s a species of cattle that we buy at the restaurant, an ancient breed that was brought to America about 400 years ago. The meat is very lean. The gentleman we buy from has recovered the herd to 350 head.
What is your current food obsession?
I enjoy eating sausage all the time, from things like saucisson and liver sausage to breakfast sausage, kielbasa and bratwurst. I love the texture, flavor and versatility of sausage. You take a pork shoulder and depending on what ingredients you add to it you can make interesting things that are so, so different from each other.
What is your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
Probably C. I love ethnic food in general, and I when I was a youngster I learned how to make garam masala. It’s an Indian spice that’s kind of like curry, but better. What helps me remember the ingredients is that everything that goes into it starts with a C: cumin, coriander, cardamom, chiles…
Why he won Because he cares so much about ingredients that he spends his days off working at his favorite farm.
Born Dublin, Ireland; 1969.
Experience New Heights, Gabriel, Vidalia and Bistro Bis, all in Washington, DC.
Why he became a chef "I was in college in Dublin studying computer programming—BASIC and COBOL, which were archaic computer languages even when I was in school. Some friends opened up a restaurant, Da Vincenzo. I started washing dishes, then I became a waiter, then one of the guys in the kitchen was sick and I filled in."
Biggest inspiration David Lankford, owner of Davon Crest farm in Trappe, Maryland. "He's so excited about farming. When I'm down, David is like my Santa Claus."
Favorite thing about Old Town Alexandria "The people here have adventurous palates. Once we bought 10 pounds of sardines and sold them as a special; in 20 minutes they were gone. I couldn't give them away in downtown DC."