This month we’ve partnered with Adam Sobel, Executive Chef at Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C., who boasts an impressive culinary pedigree. Chef Sobel has worked with Bradley Ogden, Charlie Trotter, Guy Savoy and Michael Mina, but he’s developed a style all his own at Bourbon Steak. He’s re-imagining classic steakhouse fare to showcase lighter flavors, seasonal vegetables and fresh-picked herbs, thanks to the restaurant’s 500-square foot garden.
We chatted with Sobel to find out the most important lessons he’s learned from chefs over the years, what he cooks at home, and his favorite fall ingredient (you’ll be surprised!)
You grew up cooking with your grandmother. What did she teach you about food?
She taught me that food really brings the family together. I’d sleep over at her house on Saturdays when I was 4 or 5 years old, and the whole family would come over on Sunday afternoon for a traditional Italian dinner. A lot of people don’t eat dinner at 2 on a Sunday, but it’s a very Italian thing. She taught me about simplicity with ingredients; she made rustic dishes like stuffed artichokes, gnocchi and pork roasts.
What is your favorite ingredient to use from the garden at Bourbon Steak and why?
Purple sage. I think sage, and I think fall. The purple stuff is delicious and beautiful, great for finishing sauces or using in stuffings. I love to use it when we pan roast meats — I throw in sage leaves and baste the meats with the sage, which gives it a great, robust flavor.
What’s one dish you could eat over and over again?
Asian street noodles or dim sum.
What was the most important thing you learned working with renowned chefs like Bradley Ogden, Charlie Trotter and Michael Mina?
The most influential would probably be Bradley Ogden, who taught me about seasonality, the importance of cooking with the terroir and building relationships with farmers. Once I was introduced to that, it changed my life and the way I cook — I became much more passionate about great product.
I worked with Guenter Seeger and learned a lot about refinement from him. Charlie Trotter was all about the guest experience — hospitality at its finest. Michael is the ultimate restaurateur. He creates an atmosphere where guests feel great and provides an incredible experience.
How would you describe your culinary style?
My culinary style is a culmination of everything I’ve learned and experienced. My wstyle reflects my personality — fun, playful, edgy at times. I know how to connect with a demographic, and I can cook to the demographic. In D.C. it’s a more sophisticated diner, and I’m able to do that because of my training, but I’ve also done very casual and simple things as well. I cook with a lot of soul and a touch of refinement and I always try to be as authentic as possible with whatever style of cuisine I’m working with.
What new elements have you brought to the classic steakhouse menu at Bourbon Steak?
I understand what Michael (Mina) wanted to achieve. The menu is split down the middle: half is a perfect example of what people expect from a steakhouse, and the other half is fun and inventive cuisine. It’s not over the top with the molecular side of things, but features fun, exciting, vibrant flavors. It’s a seasonal balance, also playing with textures.
The majority of the food is heavy, but there’s a great balance of large cuts of meat and sides that are light and vegetable-driven — not heavy by any means. With appetizers we have an incredible raw bar where use predominantly local shellfish and things found in a 40-mile radius of Washington D.C. We make our own charcuterie in-house, including terrines, pates, etc. It’s a really well-balanced menu, if I can say so myself.
Why did you start making your own charcuterie and cheese at the restaurant?
We make our own chevre and ricotta and mozzarella and crème fraiche. The charcuterie program was started here by the previous chef, and I’ve carried the torch and evolved it a bit. We have a few hams hanging for prosciutto, 7 types of salami, we do a tete de cochon, country pate, air dried beef, beef jerky for bar — lots of cool stuff. My team loves to do these as extra side projects. They come in early on Saturday to work on it, and it brings some camaraderie to the team.
Working at a restaurant in a hotel, how do you appeal to everyone who stops through?
On top of being in hotel, we’re in the Four Seasons. Guests have the highest expectations, and we have to be ready for anything — they can ask for a Salisbury steak at 2 on Sunday, and it’s our duty to try to make something happen for them. I always take it as a challenge, and so does my team. It’s something that I think a chef who doesn’t work in this atmosphere would get annoyed with, but I’ve been trained to deal with it and take it as a challenge rather than an inconvenience. We roll with the punches.
What is the most important kitchen habit to develop?
Working clean and organized.
What do you cook at home to relax?
Simple pastas are my go-to. I make carbonara at home with good eggs from the farmers’ market and really good, double-smoked bacon. I don’t really make my own pasta, but sometimes I make cavatelli. Simple carbonara with pecorino and parmesan, and I’m a happy man.