Chef Kyle Bailey is the wunderkind behind Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Birch and Barley, Churchkey, GBD, and Bluejacket. As the chef behind Birch & Barley, he was one of the first to set his sights on the now bustling 14th street corridor. While giving diners upscale American fare at Birch and Barley and one of the largest beer selections on the east coast at Churchkey, he also opened GBD, infamous for its fried chicken and doughnuts, and Bluejacket, the dining room and beer hall hybrid in the Navy Yard.
Kyle’s cooking philosophy revolves around fresh ingredients used in ways never done before, as evidenced in his cuisine at all four restaurants. We got the chance to spend a morning with Kyle talking beer, juggling multiple restaurants, and snacking on kiwi berries fresh from the U Street farmers’ market. Read on to see what he had to say and read our brunch reviews here, here, and here.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?
I recently went to Kapnos and the brunch was really, really good. That’s where Tiff [my wife] and I go. I’m not off very often so when we go out, we go big time. We got everything on the menu. I like George and the way he runs his shop a lot. He’s very old school.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
I love corned beef hash but the really fun thing is that it take 3 or 4 weeks to brine. Then you cook the brined meat and you have to watch it every step of the way. When that’s done, you cool it, cut it, and recook with the potatoes, so every step is involved.
Do you prefer to brunch in or out?
Definitely in a restaurant because somebody else is cooking. Other chefs will tell you they hate cooking their own food. I don’t want to eat my own food because I know the secrets of the food. Going out to other peoples’ restaurants is great. It’s like how other people’s coffee is the best you’ve ever had.
What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?
French toast, man. I love French toast. Even bad French toast is good. I lived in Miami before the food scene was good, so we’d drink our faces off and go out to Denny’s. Back then they were super friendly and clean. We’d get their French toast and it would be three pieces of toast, so you stack them all and cut them into nine pieces. They’re all buttered and syrup’ed up, but in the middle there are three perfect pieces. Oh my God, just thinking about it. We always get Moons Over My Hammy, too. I don’t know what they do to the eggs, but it is the hottest thing ever. I don’t know how it doesn’t burst into flames or melt. It’s like super-heated ham.
What is your favorite item on any of your restaurants’ brunch menu? What is the most-ordered item?
My favorite is the Eggs in Purgatory at the Arsenal with cheesy polenta. I just came from the 14th and U market where I get tomatoes from Garners Produce for the tomato sauce we use. He always has the best stuff and we end up jarring between 200 to 300 pounds between our restaurants. We take those tomatoes and add chorizo and chili flakes and bake the eggs in the tomato sauce. I don’t usually like to eat my own food, but I could eat that. The most ordered dish is chicken and waffles. 100 percent, every weekend.
Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?
You know, man, I like a corpse reviver. I can’t do a Bloody Mary. Tomatoes tear me up. I could drink mimosas, but I could also just be drinking champagne. The corpse reviver will get you there and has the best name.
If you had to invite a group of local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?
Probably Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor. She’s always been really great to us and comes in a bunch. I don’t know if she’s had brunch, but I’d like to extend that offer. The entire band GWAR from Richmond in costume, if they could. I’ll set up a separate area for them. Dave Grohl has been to Churchkey once or twice but it was super crowded. I would have him come in for a quiet brunch with his family. We don’t bug celebrities.
Congratulations on five years since the opening of Birch and Barley! Being one of the pioneers of 14th street, how you have kept innovating to keep the restaurant a perennial favorite?
The menu changes almost every day and that’s definitely been the ethos of the restaurant. Let’s challenge ourselves and try to do something different and never done before. Every night after service, the kitchen guys sit down and have a beer and talk about what’s in season, what they’ve never done, and what sucks. You should never have anything that sucks. My favorite part of the day is kicking around ideas. We constantly have events going on that help keep it fresh as well.
People always think of wine rather than beer when they think of food pairings, but Birch and Barley and Churchkey have changed that notion. Why do you think that is?
So you have to look back at how food has become more commonplace in America. Different cultures, mostly European ones, have ben crushing food for so long. A long time in America, we were only taking ideas from the French and Italians that pair food with wine. But if you go to Germany and the Czech Republic, they’re drinking beer with food.
It used to be all food and wine and that’s it. You were laughed out of a place if you ordered a beer. Then cocktails got hot and we started paring cocktails with food, but you’d usually leave dinner fucked up. In the 80s, craft beer blew up and, in the 90s; it blew up in a big way. There’s a good craft beer place in Navy Yard from what I hear. I just loved it because I was home brewing a lot a year before I got a call form Michael Babin. He asked if I wanted to move here to start Birch and Barley. When he said it would be beer-focused, I thought is the best thing I’ve ever heard.
Beer Director Greg Engert read every wine book he could get his hands on to understand the flavors and beer was such a logical next step. Beer is naturally effervescent, so every sip it clears the palate. There are so many flavors to play around so there’s so much you can do with it. There is craft beer all over the world—but this is the place you can get the biggest selection.
All of your restaurants have a different vibe to them. How does that affect the food you serve and the crowed you attract?
The different vibe thing was very important to us because I didn’t want to open Birch and Barley Part Two across town. I didn’t want to copy myself. People say location, location, location, and it’s true. It really matters. If this restaurant was one block down, it would be different. It’s the zeitgeist of the building, which has its own soul. We knew GBD was going to be fast casual and it works for that building and the kind of food.
The Arsenal was always supposed to be a little more casual, but with food that may challenge you. We wanted to nail the old school techniques well without doing ten things on the plate. The idea was a beer hall like a shining beacon in the snow. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the snow but, oh my god, it’s the best. It’s a big building that’s shaped all crazy and you can see the amber lights from the lamps through the windows. Tt feels so comfortable and you can go in and get a giant bowl of handmade pasta, mussels, or a big fat killer burger and drink beer that can’t get fresher.
Wine will age, but you want beer fresh. Beer won’t wait for you. Potatoes will wait for you, but beer won’t. Birch and Barley became a little classier but only with food. We wanted to keep it so you could walk in with jeans and sneakers. Why can’t you get great food in jeans? Our décor speak s to that no tablecloth atmosphere and the knowledge our service brings to the table.
You are constantly experimenting with new ingredients. What is the most experimental dish you’ve created that really worked and what is one idea that didn’t?
One that worked is a dish with paw paws. We made foie gras torchon with paw paw flan and kiwi berries. I had never used kiwi berries or paw paws because they’re foragables and really hard to get. The thing about paw paws is you have to be careful because one time at a restaurant we made paw paw sorbet that was really delicious but we got 50 calls from guests who got sick. The thing with paw paws is sometimes they will make you sick, and sometime they don’t. I would never serve something that makes anyone sick and, if it made you sick, I would throw it out. But I ate one and it was so good and we didn’t have any problems, but if I ever serve it again, you have to taste it every bite.
One dish that didn’t work but I want to revisit was haggis minis. Haggis has lungs and its stuffed in sheep stomach, which I found fresh but you can usually only find frozen. So you stuff it in the stomach, staple in the ends, and boil it for 3 hours. We did a beer dinner with this brewery in Scotland and they brought haggis and it was so, so good. So we took it and made haggis minis. I don’t remember where we fell off with that, but it never made it to the menu.
We were also growing cilantro on the roof and that grew into coriander seed with green berries, which are awesome. We decided to brine them on capers and make coriander capers. I’ve never seen them before, so I’m proud of that. We’re going to boil out the stalks and roots and make a stalk or soup.
Your wife, Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakery and formerly of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, makes some of our favorite pastries and desserts? What is your favorite thing she makes? What is the secret to working with your wife?
Apple pie, man. It’s the best flavor of pie. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where they have the best apples in the country. The apples she grew up with are from Hawaii and she’d tell you every apple was shitty. She moved to New York when she was 18 and someone asked her to go apple picking and she was like, “why do you want to do that”. She went and took a bite and she was like, “Oh my god, what have I been eating?” She blind bakes the pie crust first so it maintains structural integrity and she stuffs them double stuffed. She recently put dulce de leche in the apple pie and it was awesome. She also made a pumpkin pie and I ate half of it last night.
I don’t think there’s a secret to working with my wife. It’s a team. I think one thing to remember is, if one person is freaking out, the other one can’t. If one person is mad, the other one can’t be. We’re looking out for each other’s best interest. If some shit went down here, she would come in and help. Working here isn’t easy, but she would do it without hesitation. There are nights when I get out of work and I go home and she has three more hours of work to do, so I’ll help. I’m not gonna let her do it herself.