Bitch At Us: Chef Teddy Folkman (Part One)

It’s not very often that Cori Sue and I get to sit down with one of our favorite chefs over their very own brunch. But that’s exactly what happened recently when we got together with former Food Network Throwdown with Bobby Flay contestant and fry master Chef Teddy Folkman at his restaurant on H Street NE, Granville Moore’s. This fabulous meeting came about via Steve Oshana, the bartender at BLT Steak, after he nonchalantly suggested it while mixing me a cocktail. I jumped at the chance. A few weeks later, there we were, asking Chef Teddy all the question we wanted. Steve joined us for the brunch, adding flavor to the conversation and prodding Teddy to tell his funny stories. Here’s how it went.

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Becca: So why H Street?

Teddy: Joe Englert, genius that he is, he saw this neighborhood and in 2005 they were giving people grants, well not really grants, but more motivating people to come to the area and help rebuild it. They had zoned H Street, the first part of it was residential, the second part was retail and this end, from 10th to 14th, was all nightlife and entertainment. And who else to do it but the nightlife and entertainment guru?

So Joe started this place. He had Rock ‘n’ Roll hotel already, and he had Argonaut, and I think Red and Black was here, too. He tapped Chris Rusko, who is the mixologist at Atlas right now, to help open this place. They hired an amazing chef from French Laundry, all this great experience. He designed the menu and the kitchen and two weeks into it he threw his hands in the air and said, ‘I can’t cook this menu in this kitchen, this is ridiculous!’

So I had been here on and off talking to Chris and talking to Joe about the place, and I had been working at Balducci’s in Northwest, I was doing the front of the house and the back of the house, and it was the greatest job in the world. You get up at 5 in the morning, you get there at 6, you’re done by 2, you have a life. For me, it had been 10 years since I had had a life so I was kind of enjoying that.

Then coming here and getting to play around, talk about beer, talk about food, it was great, so those two weeks was their soft opening and then their chef left. So they closed down on a Sunday night and Joe said, ‘What is it going to take for you to come here?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m really happy in my job right now I’m trying to work up the corporate ladder. I like managing staff, I love food, and I love the fact that I have access to these amazing ingredients.’ He asked me, ‘Do I believe in myself?’ And I said, ‘Uh yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well take this position and I guarantee that we’ll write the menu really quickly, we need muscles and fries, and then we’ll move onto another project. You’ll have like four or five places.’ I’m still here.

Steve: But you have all those places now.

Teddy: I do, I have all those places but I still put in my 45-50 hours a week here and other places.

Steve: He’s being modest. He did the menus at a lot of local places. He did the menus at the Argonaut.

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Teddy: I was Joe’s guy. He’d need help with a kitchen, we’d find a staff, I’d go in there for a couple weeks, basically the first thing we do is clean out the kitchen, make sure everything is functioning, then start hiring the right people for the right positions. I don’t know if you guys remember when the Argonaut got Matt Richardson there. Everyone called him Matteo. He was awesome. He completely turned that place around from open-a-bag-of-frozen-food-and-throw-it-in-the-fryer to a sit down dinner and fried chicken brunch. Unfortunately, he left, and then the fire happened. But now that place is booming. It’s so cool. His sous chef is running the place now.

I love that stuff. H Street Country Club, I mean, Pablo is sick. He came from Cashion’s and all those places. The menu has changed a little. At first we were going with authentic Mexican. I got to work with one of my favorite women in the world, Ann Cashion; she was the one who first took me under her wing and let me know that being a chef isn’t exactly a 40-hour work week. She taught me so much about not just cooking but the whole importance of the restaurant industry. I owe her everything, she’s awesome.

So we opened that together and since then, H Street is a beast. It grows in different ways and there are different needs. There wasn’t really a need for high-end Mexican food on the block, but there’s a need for you know, the hand-made tortillas, high-end taco meats. They’ve kept a lot of that authenticity, but scaled down the menu to more of what the clientele that’s there. It’s been an awesome ride.

I’m working with Joe on another project right now. We’re going to New Orleans for four days to go play around. He has an idea. Whenever he has an idea, he takes you to where that idea came from and then tries to get you to imagine everything that he does. No one would have ever imagined a put-put course with the dead presidents. And their rooftop deck that they’re doing now, they’re putting nine more holes, if you looked it from the air, if you were in a helicopter passing by, you would swear that it was a pool. They’re building like the community pool. I haven’t seen it yet, but I saw the drawings, and it’s pretty awesome.

Granville is ever expanding. When we first opened, we were closed on Sundays and Mondays, and then we were open seven days a week, then we started brunch, and now we’re doing lunch and it’s like, wow. We always considered ourselves the bar on the block. There are a lot of places that do things a lot better. I always think of the Atlas Room, because the food there is just insanely wonderful and then the ambiance of something like the Red Palace, rest in peace, but to keep up you have to keep on doing these things. We also do off-site catering now. We do like rent-a-chef.

Cori Sue: So you can make me French fries at home?

Teddy: I can teach you how to make French fries at home.

Cori Sue: No, I just want them delivered.

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Becca: Tell us about the brunch at Granville’s.

Teddy: Brunch was selfish for me. I wanted to be home on a Saturday night. Not a lot of chefs like to wake up at 5, 6 in the morning. So we decided let’s open at 11 because that’s when we can start selling booze, so we get here around 9 am and get everything ready to go. All we have to do is pay one person to work behind the bar. We’re in the kitchen anyway prepping for the day, so if people come in and want some eggs, I’ll cook some eggs. There was no one really doing brunch on the block, and it’s one of my favorite meals. I love making sure eggs are cooked perfectly. Poached eggs. How much do you hate it when you order poached eggs and it comes out to be warm hard boiled eggs?

Becca: Or too runny. There’s a perfect medium.

Teddy: You want your whites at least cooked all the way through. We were just doing Saturdays, because there was no foot traffic here on a Sunday morning. I didn’t want to work Sundays. Just kidding. I was living in Alexandria at the time, and now I live right down the street, so that’s what’s so great about it. I’ve been working every brunch until about a month and a half ago, every Saturday and Sunday, just because I love being here. It’s a great time, it’s a great vibe.

Steve: At the time, Teddy was doing all the restaurants, consulting, and this was after the whole Food Network Bobby Flay Throwdown. So, people used to come in every day asking for Teddy.

Teddy: My PTSD is kicking in!

Steve: No, Teddy is just modest. Everyone used to come in all the time, every day, like a hundred people would come in, ‘Is chef Teddy here? Is chef Teddy here?’ He was always out doing the show or doing something and the brunch was the only time that you were here for a while, so brunch became the day when people would come and see Teddy. We didn’t tell anyone about it, that wasn’t a publicized thing, but people would come in asking for Teddy and then he would come down and put their food down in front of them, and they’d get so excited and take pictures and ask for autographs.

Teddy: No, I did not enjoy the Food Network stuff. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Well, in the food industry, yes there is, if the health department is publicizing something bad, that’s bad publicity. For the most part, it was definitely an experience. Doing a reality TV show is like finding out that Santa Claus is dead or doesn’t exist. My character, unfortunately, just didn’t survive. Let’s put it that way.

Steve: Which, by the way, every time I see Bobby Flay, I still give him shit.

Teddy: No, of all people, he was so awesome. People would expect him to be pompous, but he’s a really good guy. He really cares about food. He really does care about the whole food part of being a chef. But, eh, all the hate mail that I got. When you’re on a TV show, no matter how you are portrayed, if people don’t know you personally, they see you’re the portrayal of your character.

We got a letter from the Asian American Women’s Alliance for the way that I treated Debbie on the show. Debbie and I are still friends, we’re doing a pop-up restaurant here soon, I went out to LA to do a pop-up with her. It was one of those things where we saw the episode, we called each other and laughed. It’s a show. The bottom line is they’re trying to entertain people. If there’s just a bunch of people competing and there’s no drama, why put it on TV? But it has helped us out.

Throwdown helped a lot. It still airs, that happened in 2008. Every time it airs, we get the Throwdown hangover. We get about a 20 percent bump in business the next day. It’s solid. People still talk about it, and it’s fun. The Argonaut still gets people over there. It’s funny, I don’t know if it still goes on, but Argonaut was where it was filmed, because the space was too small here, so people go to the Argonaut and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, is this that mussel place?’ And they go, ‘No it closed down, just stay here.’

We’re always thinking about expanding. We’re trying to expand to either side. That’s been an ongoing battle for years and years. I just want one more floor. We just need another 25 seats. Because there are nights in the kitchen where, even though it’s a 10’ by 10’ kitchen and we’re full and there’s a wait, we’re bored, you have that lull of 15 or 20 minutes, and that could be another 20 guests.

Steve: I used to do the cocktails at Sova, and Teddy and his wife would come in and talk cocktails. So I only worked the brunch here on Saturdays. I did all the cocktails for the brunch menu. It’s still my favorite place to work. We used to talk a lot of shit. Teddy used to fire me every week. Teddy has always very reluctantly embraced his celebrity. People would want autographs and pictures, and he’s a very modest guy so he doesn’t embrace the spotlight. So I would always be the one like, ‘Oh Teddy is here, do you want a picture, do you want an autograph?’

Teddy: I’m like, ‘I’m cooking. I’m the only one in the kitchen cooking.’ And Steve is like, ‘Nuh uh!’

Steve: I loved it.

Teddy: I’m glad somebody did.

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Becca: So what’s your brunch philosophy?

Teddy: The Good Doctor is a perfect example of what we like to do. I grew up in New York City on a diet of New York deli sandwiches. I ate sandwiches in the morning, every morning. I worked at a deli since I was 13 or 14 years old. When I was in high school I would go to work at 4 am, open the deli, cook breakfast until about 7, then go to school. Because at $4.25 an hour I couldn’t turn that down! And I had the key to a deli and I was 15 or 16 years old.

But, I love it when people put together a sandwich. My wife has a PhD in microbiology and immunology, so we always call her Doc Worth.  Her favorite sandwich was the egg sandwich with chipotle mayonnaise and avocado, and she hates bacon on there, but she just liked it that way. I love bacon, so that had to be a part of it. So it’s kind of an homage to her and her favorite sandwich, and of course, to Doctor Granville Moore’s.

Cori Sue: That’s so romantic! You named a breakfast sandwich after her!

Teddy: Well, I didn’t name it like, the Kate, or anything like that. So, if push came to shove and something happened, It’d still be on the menu as the Good Doctor.

Steve: Says the man who was married two weeks ago …

Teddy: The other stuff just comes from what I like to eat. Like, the Monte Cristo. It also has to do with the limitations with our kitchen. There’s not a lot we can do. We don’t have any burners. We have two friers. The home frites were kind of a fun thing. We originally started doing potatoes with the whole thing, but it was so much work. Like, I have all these fries that are blanched off, let’s just use these, and toss them with onions and peppers.

Then, people come up and suggest things. This place was built on the neighborhood. When we first opened our neighbors were coming here and eating and I’d sit down and talk to them and be like, hey guys what do you want to eat? So, I get inspiration from the neighborhood and the people who come in here, but we also have to look at the limitations of what we can do and can’t do.

On our new brunch menu we’re going to do a brisket hash. Our steak and cheese sandwich has been on the menu since day one and people want the steak sandwich for brunch. I’m like, it’s not brunchy!

Steve: Just put an egg on it.

Teddy: Well, OK, put the fries on the bottom, then the sandwich, two sunny side up eggs and some hollandaise. Now it’s brunchy.

Cori Sue: I see a hashtag in the works.

Steve: #putaneggonit

Teddy: Also, you can drink lots of Belgian beers. And whats better than that?

… Stay tuned for Part Two of this epic brunch interview with Chef Teddy!

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