At first glance, Thomas Madrecki is your above-average cool guy: slim and attractive, hip and well-dressed, absurdly intelligent (he’s a University of Virginia grad, after all), and sweet. What more could you ask for in a friend?
How about a friend who just happened to fall into the culinary world and, with a bit of ambition and courage, landed himself a spot working in some of the most famous restaurants in the world? Or what about a friend who put together, on a whim, an underground dinner party– one of those ones you read about in the Washingtonian or on the hip blogs– to such success that he now throws monthly dinners for those in the know? Talent like that doesn’t just happen. Talent in Tom is manifested in a combination of guts and savvy, an taste for experimental flavor, and a nostalgic romanticism.
I met Tom through the Cavalier Daily– at a time when we were both major journalism geeks– and his path into the culinary world has been incredible to watch. Chez le Commis, his dinner party series based in Arlington, has quickly become fabled among DC foodies. Without much more blabbering from me, meet Tom Madrecki– you’ll likely be sitting at one of his dinners (or restaurants!) one day soon.
images of a Chez le Commis dinner by Scott Suchman for Washingtonian Magazine
You had an interesting journey into cooking. How did your passion for food, cooking, and culinary experimentation begin?
Tom: The things we call passions, the things we love, the things we identify with– I’m firmly convinced they have their origins in childhood. So I can’t say for certain what first set me down this path, but perhaps it was sorting peas with my mom when I was little. Perhaps it was the first bite of an ice cream sandwich. Those moments leave indelible impressions, and I don’t think I would be the first chef to admit to wanting to recreate something latent in those experiences. I think that’s true for everyone though– it is very human to long for childhood.
What was the inspiration for Chez le Commis? Why was this the route you wanted to go with your cooking career?
Tom: The idea for Chez first came about while sitting in my apartment in Paris– it was like 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and a friend of mine (who I met while working at Noma) was staying with me at the time. He and I were going back and forth about different cooking ideas, drinking beers, depressingly eating McDonalds because it was the only thing open at the time and it was in the same building as mine. And I was throwing out all these dish ideas, and I finally realized– this is what I want to do. I want to cook my food. I hate that saying something like that makes me sound like some overly-confident, impatient millennial. But I suppose that, to some degree, that’s what I am; I also think, though, that that is precisely the reason Chez succeeds. It’s too young and immature to realize risk.
What does a typical Chez experience look like for you– and what can your guests expect from the experience?
Tom: It looks like a stack of 100 dirty dishes, 50 wine glasses, 15 empty bottles and my living room being turned upside down. It also looks like 16 people having too much fun– actually smiling at dinner! I want people to relax, to enjoy themselves, to fall in love. Have too much wine– it’s good for you.
What are your current favorite flavor combinations?
Tom: Grapefruit and olives. Smoke and pork fat. Burnt limes, grilled asparagus and seaweed. Ice cream and ice cream. OK, seriously– I love some weird, interesting flavor combinations, but I also want to make food that’s tasty, that people enjoy. I don’t want my cuisine to be an intellectual one. I want it to be an emotional one.
One of Tom’s several appearances on DC morning television– hitting the big time!
Tell us the truth: what’s your take on the whole local food movement? Overrated or totally worth the investment (for restaurants and for home cooks)?
Tom: People need to understand that it’s not a choice between “expensive local” and “cheap normal.” Yes, some foods at farmers markets and organic grocery stores can cost more than their non-local counterparts. But if you’re smart, if you educate yourself about how to actually cook, you’ll save money and eat better. Instead of spending $60 on industrially produced crap at the Giant, you could spend that money on vegetables, eggs, maybe a chicken or two. You could make a whole week’s worth of dinners. To be fair, they’d be simple dinners, but you’d actually be eating real food. Your kids would be eating real food. And you would be happier, because the food would actually taste like something worth eating. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be a moralist– you know what, I enjoy some of that industrially produced food, too! But there are ways to pursue quality without breaking the bank.
What’s your dream culinary project?
Tom: Making pasta and drinking wine with my girlfriend. And opening a restaurant where the wine is $20-30 a bottle, there’s a few simple but awesome dishes that change every day based on the market, and a totally chill, laid-back vibe. I want to create the kind of experience I want when I go to a restaurant– the experience that never exists, but you always wish did.
Tom in Foodshed magazine
Cooking– and creating your own underground restaurant– is such an ambitious and courageous adventure– what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Tom: I don’t think it’s cliche, because nobody actually does it… Good things happen when you follow your heart. A lot of bad things will probably happen, too, but I think you’ll always be happier at the end of the day if you respond to those feelings inside you rather than dimming the lights on them.
Where do you turn for inspiration? Chefs, blogs, restaurants, food photographers…
Tom: I read and collect cookbooks, but it’s almost an academic exercise. You look at them so that you know what the rest of the world is doing, and then you try not to do that. Travel inspires me– the sights, the sounds, the feeling of being in a foreign land. Music inspires me– there’s something about the way it connects with us, in a way I don’t think the culinary world full understands yet. We have to get to their level. You know how some music comes on, and you have this very physical reaction? You just want to dance. And in a way, that’s my goal in cooking, to cause that physical reaction, but in this case I want to elicit a smile.
My perfect day is _____.
Tom: Brunch, Beach, BBQ, Repeat.
What’s next for you? What’s next for Chez?
Tom: Keep pushing. Chez isn’t where I want it yet; there’s so much we can improve. And maybe one day I’ll figure my life out, wake up and realize that it’s finally time to quit my day job and open a real restaurant. We’ll see.
Follow along with Tom’s culinary adventures (and hey, get yourself to a Chez dinner– maybe hitting Charlottesville one day soon!). Chez’s site | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram! All non-Chez dinner images courtesy Tom.