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Patrick O'Connell on Barbara Lynch, Chowder, and More

Photo: Patrick O'Connell (left) with Gary Danko at Menton, February 2014/Rachel Leah Blumenthal

Patrick O'Connell, chef and proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, was in Boston last week to participate in massive two-part fundraiser for the Barbara Lynch Foundation. Eater Boston caught up with him in the kitchen at the Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef Gala Dinner at Menton on Thursday night, and he gave some insight on Barbara Lynch, Menton, the evolving Boston food scene, and chowder memories. O'Connell, once called "the Pope of American Cuisine," is also the president of the North American sector of Relais & Chateaux.

Had you spent much time with Barbara prior to participating in this event?
We've spent a little time together, and I actually came up when she applied to be a member [of Relais & Chateaux]. The organization likes very much when the other members offer their thoughts and opinions about a new applicant. It's helpful that it be sort of universally, unanimously accepted, because it's an organization which belongs to its own members, so I came and was blown away with what she was doing here. Just the elegance and the sophistication and the polish that was going on in a city that wasn't known for that level of cuisine — to me, at least, previously. So it was doubly exciting.

And then I was delighted to learn that she had so much European influence, particularly from some female chefs in Italy and in France. She was already part of this wonderful little community of the upper echelon chefs of the world, which Relais & Chateaux is all about. I can still remember my wonderful meal here that evening, so I'm so pleased that she's part of the group and has such a worthwhile cause and a great story behind it.

Have you spent much time in Boston other than that?
I have a friend who lives outside Boston, and I used to come up every summer to Cape Ann to visit and spend time. It's my second favorite city in America; of course, I was born in Washington, so that has to be my first. But it being a sort of European city in its aesthetic and architecture and the water all around it makes it irresistible. But many years ago, the only thing that it sort of was missing was a dynamic food scene, and it's so exciting to see that take hold now and blossom. It's really, I think, changed the energy here in a wonderful way. We had a delightful lunch today at one of Barbara's many other restaurants, and it's amazing to see what one chef can do — the influence one chef can have on an entire city. I think it has it all now. Boston's always seemed an infinitely livable city to me.

It's so nice to hear somebody from out of state say that, because we get a lot of the "Oh, well it's not New York" people, and that's all they really have to say.
But it has things New York only wishes it could have, and it has such a gritty sort of population. What we try to evoke with all the Relais & Chateaux properties is a strong sense of place, and I think Boston as a city has that and protects that in a wonderful way. Most cities are becoming so homogenized that I sometimes sit down and ask myself, particularly when I'm dining out, where am I again? I think Boston, like San Francisco, has that unique, very strong sense of place.

Any food memories stick out from your times in Massachusetts?
Well, doesn't everyone remember their first cup of chowder? I was born in Washington and raised in Southern Maryland, and it was a period when Washington was a deeply Southern city, so I went to college at Catholic University. The first guy I met was from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and he was an artist, and his mother had a gallery in Gloucester, so that summer, he invited me to come up. I had never tasted lobster salad, and I'd never tasted chowder. Can you imagine? [Laughs.]

How is that possible? But I brought a young man with me today who had never been north of Baltimore, and he's having the exact same experiences. We had chowder for lunch, and a lobster roll. So what is, I think, fabulous, as I was saying about the sense of place — those things are still enjoyed as much by the natives as they are by the tourists, and they're respected in the same way. I could never forget that moment when my friend made a big batch of lobster salad, and it was heavenly — absolutely heavenly.
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