She’s the woman behind the oysters at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont and Old Town Alexandria—she even closed her gastropub Commonwealth earlier this year to focus on what she calls her love, Hank’s. Now Chef Jamie Leeds is serving her famous seafood at tomorrow night’s Signature Chef’s Auction, which benefits the March of Dimes (get tickets here before they sell out). I got a few minutes of her time recently, and she told me about what’s she’s preparing for the event. Plus, she Bitched at me about brunch in D.C. and how her son, Hayden, is a budding restauranteur.
What are you planning for tomorrow’s Signature Chefs’ Auction?
We’ll be serving scallops, probably with a parsnip puree. But, I always change things at the last minute. I’ve done it every year, and it’s a great event. I’m happy to give back. Everybody’s there for a good cause. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a good group of people. Everyone is happy to give, and they feel good about it.
What is brunch to you?
It’s food that people like to eat after they’ve been out drinking all night. Just kidding; but that’s always part of it. For brunch I like to offer a variety of home-style, really delicious, fresh food. That’s our style and philosophy for dinner as well. We like to incorporate seafood.
For brunch, the crab cakes eggs benedict is a big seller—one of our most popular dishes. I just changed up the French toast to make it more homey and rustic with thick sourdough bread and Grand Marnier egg batter. Also, I serve it with berries and bananas and maple syrup from Virginia. Always really good ingredients.
What do you think of the D.C. brunch scene?
I think the D.C. brunch scene could be better. I think there could be more options for brunch. I love Cashion’s and independent, smaller-style restaurants. I know the quality of the food at Cashion’s. It’s going to be attended to, not mass-produced. They have good quality ingredients that have rustic flavors. There’s a difference; I can’t quite articulate it.
What’s your favorite brunch dish?
My personal favorite to eat is bagels and lox—smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese and onion and tomato. I eat that every Sunday morning at the restaurant. That’s why I have it on the menu, so I can have it.
I really love making French toast. I love the different flavors of the batter you can create; I love the bubbly butter around the bread. I’d like to make cream-cheese-stuffed French toast, or French toast with ham and Gruyère. I haven’t found the best French toast in D.C. yet.
I also love making pancakes. I make them with my son; he loves to make pancakes. My son Hayden is eight years old. He plays with the batter; he can pretty much can do it by himself at this point. We always make them with blueberries—his favorite.
So is Hayden a budding chef?
He likes to cook. I think he’s more a front-of-the-house guy, though. He’s got the personality, the looks. He’ll go up to tables and talk to people. He’s into baseball so he’ll ask people what their favorite teams are and make lists of the dining room.
Where do you get your oysters?
I always have three east coast and three west coast oysters on the menu. I have three or four farmers in Virginia, some farms on the west coast in California, and I get some from British Columbia and around those areas. I get deliveries every day; we sell thousands of oysters every week. The west coast oysters are very popular. We have a Sunset Cove that’s very popular, and the Dragon Creek.
Also, we have Hayden’s Reef, named after my son. We hooked up with a farmer who has been providing us oysters since we opened. He approached me and asked me if I wanted to help Chesapeake Bay Oyster recovery program. So we went out and built the reef. Now we dump all our shells in the reef, and he grows the oysters specifically for us. It’s a good starter oyster. It’s clean, fresh, meaty oyster.
But are oysters really good for brunch?
People like to have oysters and champagne. Oysters and Bloody Marys also go really well together. We serve a Hangtown Fry dish with oysters and eggs. That started out with the mining in San Francisco—oysters are so abundant there. I also love eggs and oysters. We turned that into a frittata with fried oysters in it, served with tartar sauce on top.
Do you get out to your Alexandria location much?
I’m in Alexandria a little bit, but not as much as in D.C. I have a great team in Old Town that runs it just like their own—a husband and wife team. They do an amazing job of running the place. They take care of everything. I don’t have to go out there as much as I normally would. I go out there a couple times a week.
I named the restaurants after my father, Hank. We have pictures of him around the restaurants. He wasn’t a chef but he loved to cook. I got my love of cooking from him. He loved seafood, and he loved to fish. This was a tribute to him. I thought it would be a nice thing to do.
Do you love what you do?
It’s a hard business. It’s a hard choice. It’s the kind of thing where it was my passion. I fell into cooking. I was an advertising copywriter before I started cooking. That’s what I went to school for. I had gotten fired from my writing job. I needed to find a job and there was a restaurant in the bottom of my sister’s building in New York City and they needed a cook, and I went in and told them I could cook. I had never done it professionally. They took me in, and I just took to it. I loved it so much. It took off from there.
I feel very lucky that I am able to do something that I love so much. But you really have to have a passion for it because it’s a very hard business. I almost feel like it chose me rather me choosing it.