How Chef Patrick O’Connell Built The Inn at Little Washington

We visit the restaurant to understand the unlikely story behind the man and the place he’s made.

January 2020

Chef Patrick O'Connell / Scott Suchman

If you want to become known as one of America’s best chefs—good enough to earn three Michelin stars—you go to culinary school, work in a big city, pay your dues under noted toques, climb the ladder, vie for an audience and press and fame, and maybe, someday, you get the nod. Patrick O’Connell did none of the above. Instead, he left college, wandered Europe, lived in a commune in the late ’60s and early ’70s, taught himself how to cook by reading Julia Child, honed his craft in a farmhouse in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, opened a tiny restaurant in a nearby hamlet and angered locals with his “fancy” food and openly gay relationship.

Over the last 42 years, O’Connell has not only earned that coveted third star, awarded in 2018, but also built—dish by dish, building by building—a small empire at the leafy cusp of Appalachia, a destination, a universe after his own vision.

When I visit O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington, in the tiny town of Washington, Virginia, there’s plenty one might construe as intimidating. The entire town seems a remnant from a bygone age of manners and hierarchies, of aristocrats and peasants. Utterly quaint colonial houses painted in cute colors stand out against hills that ripple softly into the distance. Each angle might be a frame in a film. There’s a horse-drawn carriage in the driveway, the staff dash about in sharp uniforms, and then there’s the plaque out front boasting the three stars. But the austerity cracks when I encounter Cameron Smith, the maître fromage, and his cheese cart shaped like a cow. “Cowabunga,” he says to me and other guests. “This is Faira,” noting that her “faucets” are underneath. “We milk it for all it’s worth,” he admits. He offers some Jacques Carles Roquefort from southern France drizzled with local honey. It’s outstanding.  

The Inn's main building.

No, this is not your typical three-Michelin star establishment. It’s not your typical anything. And it all stems from the mind of the 74-year-old O’Connell. The Inn, 70 rolling miles west of Washington, D.C., has grown into a 24-acre, 22-building campus of beautifully refurbished colonial buildings where guests stay, along with the restaurant. The effect of O’Connell’s restorations on the town border on fantasy, and that’s no accident.

The building where I meet O’Connell is rumored to have been a stopping point for George Washington himself, back in the day. O’Connell walks into the room, lanky, courtly, with big green eyes. He’s elegant in his chef whites, but wears Dalmatian-print pants that are, dare I say, goofy. His voice is deep and honeyed, and he speaks with the measured cadence of someone who’s put considerable thought into things. First, he shows me the portrait by Bradley Stevens, Heir Apparent, a painting of his beloved Dalmatian, Luray, sitting on a throne. O’Connell is perched beside him, the Blue Ridge in the background. We look out the window across the long lush lawn to the mountains. “Luray has a feral girlfriend out there. He runs off with her. She survives in the woods,” he says. “She is just fine.” There’s a wistful tone in his voice, as if he’s considered doing the same, a clue as to how all this started in the first place.

In the PBS film, The Inn at Little Washington: A Delicious Documentary, airing March 27, O’Connell remarks, “I believe everybody’s life mission is formed early on. For me it was being cursed with seeing what was wrong in my vision of the world, finding the flaws.” The Inn at Little Washington is the result of him fleeing those flaws, but also obsessively struggling to build something flawless, which is, of course, impossible. The dual beacons of escape and attempted perfection define O’Connell’s life, and define what he has created out here in the hills.

Carpaccio of herb-crusted Elysian Fields baby lamb loin with Caesar salad ice cream, one of the Inn’s most famed dishes.

While studying drama at George Washington University in the late ’60s, O’Connell was pulled aside by a professor who noticed that he wasn’t enthralled with his studies. He encouraged the student to search for something meaningful. Within weeks, O’Connell had left school and spent the next nine months vagabonding around Europe, mostly in France. Upon return to the States, he found himself living in a commune near Washington, Virginia, where a fellow member gave him Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. O’Connell would soon cloister himself in a farmhouse not far from where the Inn stands today, where he says he made every recipe in the book three times before allowing himself to tinker with, riff on and transform the dishes into his own.

He and his then-boyfriend, Reinhardt Lynch, soon opened a catering business in rural Virginia, utilizing their homegrown produce, and rallying their hippie friends to function as staff. But they also had visions of opening a restaurant in the farmhouse. “My first desire was to let guests experience the sort of feeling—stepping out of your reality into a kind of magical space and allowing enough time to really savor and enjoy a meal. But the farmhouse was a bit impractical.” A plank over a creek was the only way to get there. He soon found a dilapidated garage in the town of Washington, population 247, and they set up shop in 1978, removed from the thrall of Washington, D.C., and the vogues of the culinary world.

It was, at first, a bare-bones, no-staff operation with outhouses in back. “The plan was that during the week, I would cook and serve, and on the weekends, he would come back and run the dining room,” says O’Connell. But things escalated quickly.

As for the food, the Inn was French influenced by choice and farm-to-table out of necessity. “At the time, you couldn’t buy an herb in the grocery store, but I had a farm and everybody around here had a garden and there were two women, one 80 and one 90, and they had herb gardens. They were like tribal leaders with this secret knowledge.” The result was astoundingly good food, and a quick discovery by the D.C. press. Within weeks of opening, a Washington Star food critic proclaimed it “the finest restaurant within a 100-mile radius of Washington, D.C.”

Lush interiors of the dining room. / Courtesy of the Inn at Little Washington

At the end of their first year of business in 1979, O’Connell and Lynch took a month-long pilgrimage of sorts to the great culinary cháteaus of France—two- and three-star Michelin spots out in the countryside. Here they found a template for the future of the Inn.

Before long, VIPs from Washington, D.C., were flying into town on helicopters. O’Connell bought and restored the garage and other buildings. A local newspaper ran the headline, “The ‘in’ ate Little Washington.”  “Oh, we were definitely a lightning rod,” says O’Connell of their impact on the small town. “We were very foreign in many ways—imagine if a martian spaceship landed in the center of town. It generated a lot of emotion, and some of that emotion was the misunderstanding of not having encountered anyone like the couple we were.” Customers were heckled upon leaving the restaurant. Some had their cars keyed. There were rumors that you might get AIDS if you ate there. But the duo persevered. “My defiant streak has served me well,” says O’Connell in the documentary.

Then, in 1985, The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne paid a visit and swooned, putting the Inn on the map nationally. The dish that seduced him sprung from a moment of serendipity and creativity that epitomizes O’Connell’s penchant for marrying the soulful with the decadent, the fancy with the folk. One of the restaurant’s African American employees would make black-eyed peas for the staff every New Year’s Eve. “It was kind of our little family tradition,” says O’Connell. On New Year’s Day O’Connell was in the kitchen searing some foie gras and needed a little snack to boot, so he grabbed some of the cold peas, added some vinaigrette and then made a pan sauce with balsamic vinegar. He put smoked goose breast, paper-thin, on top of the foie gras and black-eyed peas with a little sliver of country ham napped with the pan sauce. To O’Connell, the downtime improvisation is what American cuisine is all about, the clever juxtaposition of a regional comfort food with luxury, bringing something new to both. “It was only two or three bites,” he says, “but it had this incredible depth of flavor and this irresistible quality.” It was soon on the menu, where Claiborne encountered it. “He said it was the best dish he’d ever eaten in his life,” says O’Connell, who has since named the presidential suite in the late Claiborne’s honor.

Maître fromage Cameron Smith selecting cheese for guests.

Today, the town is O’Connell’s fiefdom of sorts—only the public school system employs more people in the county than he does. Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn, who executive produced the PBS documentary, says O’Connell is “the haute of American cuisine.” But after spending a weekend within his world, I think of him as hospitality’s Wes Anderson. He and his team have put quite serious effort into perfecting their set, their version of perfection, from food to table to wallpaper to music, but perfection ought to be more whimsical than serious.

“People have to make a journey. They have to leave a lot of their mental baggage behind,” O’Connell says, and he has built a stage on which to do so. He admits he was drawn to the restaurant business because being normal wasn’t the norm. “You could be just a little crazy and if you were good at what you did …you got a pass,” he says. “I regard hospitality as nightly improv theatrical performance. And if somebody wants to be part of it, we’ll find a role for them,” he says. He describes the restaurant’s dress code as “anything but wet bikinis.”

The documentary’s director, Mira Chang, who filmed the Inn over the course of 18 months, says O’Connell “had a way of looking at the world through a very cinematic lens,” she says. “He would turn his head and look at something and it’d be a scene where everything in the frame needed to be perfect, as if he was directing that scene.”

As for the staff, they’ve bought into O’Connell’s vision. Turnover is so low some parents work with their adult kids. After winning the three stars, a dozen or so employees had three Michelin stars tattooed on their forearms. “Forty-one years is a long time to wait for the impossible,” O’Connell says. “Like a family, they got behind it.”

The team’s Michelin star tattoos.

The vibe might be familial, the set playful, but you sure as hell better execute. While I’m walking through one of the guest houses with Cameron Smith, the maître fromage, Smith suddenly stops and adjusts a sconce, whispering, “Better to fix that before Patrick notices. He’s very good at noticing.” And when there’s an iota of difference between O’Connell’s vision of perfection and what’s being put down in front of a guest—something as minor as the angle of a garnish—the chef is known to welcome staff members into an elevator for particularly colorful conversations. The pressure is real. “Any flaw is simply not acceptable in a three-star establishment,” O’Connell says.

Why not just run an excellent restaurant and plate amazing food? Why all the stagecraft? The yen for a world into which he and guests can escape stems from childhood. “Early on, I realized that I was seeing life through a lens as a film, and I was jarred by the flaws. I wanted to eliminate them. I wanted to make it beautiful,” he says. He tells me a story of road-tripping with the family at age 6. “I had a secret little game that I played. My brothers were horsing around in the back seat and pounding each other. And I would crunch down by the triangular no-draft window. By raising one finger in front of my eyes, I was able to use that as an eraser for anything that I found ugly. And if I saw something wonderful, I would drop my finger, allowing it to remain.” He caught himself pulling the same trick a few years ago on the property. “I thought, oh my god, I have been playing the magic eraser game for all these years!”

Even before that, he was enchanted by what seemed like his grandmother’s ability, honed during the Depression, to alter reality. “She would step out into the side yard where there was a makeshift kitchen garden where she had an old apple tree, some rhubarb along the fence line, strawberries and a few tomatoes, and come back in with her little apron filled with stuff. And then she’d make something out of nothing,” he says. “As a little kid, I didn’t so much focus on her cooking ability as regard her as a magician.”

The Apparently a Pear dessert, sculpted from pear cheesecake.

That evening, I sit down to dinner, for a tour of some of the Inn’s classic dishes. There’s a sense of anticipation in the room. Spike Mendelsohn calls it frisson. “There’s something in the air, just this beautiful thing—this brigand, this team, are on the same plan,” says Mendelsohn of the staff’s verve. “It’s just this great, great energy.” The only thing missing is a raised curtain.

The service is sharp, unobtrusive, highly orchestrated yet fun. My table and I try a crispy Napoleon of chilled Maine lobster with royal osetra caviar sitting in a shallow pool of pea soup with a surprising undertone of mint. It’s briny, sweet and earthy, the soft countered by the right amount of crunch. Then there’s delicate carpaccio of herb-crusted baby lamb loin from the Elysian Fields farm in Southwest Pennsylvania. O’Connell has been searing the outside of the lamb for 30 years, but updated it with dollops of Caesar salad ice cream that melts into the fresh herbs and croutons—whimsical and evocative.

The meal has indeed been a show, a play within a play, not a frame out of place. After a flamboyant dessert experience in the kitchen, which involves Gregorian chants, altar boys and O’Connell intoning that the final course will “absolve you of all your sins, however difficult,” the pace slows, the frisson ebbs like some adrenaline sunset. The show is over. 

I ask O’Connell what he does to unwind after such an intense night, at age 74. He tells me he walks with Luray through the fields, where he feels cosseted and embraced by the forested ridges. “You know, along about one o’clock in the morning, you come to realize that one of the greatest extravagances is space. You’re immensely calm just looking at the stars and the moon. You don’t hear anything and you feel as if you’re the only person on the planet.”


More Washington, D.C. related features

D.C.’s NoMa is a Pioneering Neighborhood for the Deaf Community

Establishments in Washington D.C.'s NoMa Neighborhood provide ASL interpreters, ASL yoga and trivia contests.

This is the best way to fill your getaway with local flavor

The next time you take a vacation, try spending some time in the kitchen at one of these U.S. culinary schools.

More Food & Drink

Maui Brewing Company Aims to Be U.S.'s First Off-Grid Brewery

Martin Riese Is a Water Sommelier

Cool Beans: Creative Culinary Uses For Chickpeas

New York Chefs Replace Foie Gras With Monkfish