Curiosity Expert: Patrick O'Connell

Chef/Proprietor, The Inn at Little Washington

Patrick O'Connell
Courtesy of Patrick O'Connell

Patrick O'Connell, a native of Washington, DC, is a self-taught chef who pioneered a refined, regional American cuisine in the Virginia countryside. His alliance with local farmers and artisanal producers was an adaptation born of necessity more than 30 years ago when nothing but milk was delivered to the tiny town of "Little" Washington, Va. (pop. 158). Long before the farm to table movement had a name, he began cultivating fruitful relationships with his neighbors – many of whom have a strong connection to the land and a heritage of self-sufficiency.

The Inn at Little Washington opened in a former garage in 1978 and has evolved from a simple country inn to an international culinary shrine. Its legend is multi–faceted; some view it as a classic, inspirational American success story – reaffirming that dreams can come true. Others focus on The Inn's pioneering efforts in the evolution of American cuisine. Preservationists marvel at the positive effects such a place has had on one of America's few remaining unspoiled, historic small towns. Students of business study The Inn as an unlikely business model and try to analyze what makes it work seemingly against all odds.

O'Connell has been referred to as "the Pope of American Cuisine". His orientation is different from most chefs today primarily because he considers himself to be a restaurateur and as the title implies, his goal is to actually restore and heal people – the preparation and presentation of food being but a single element in the process. Selecting The Inn at Little Washington as one of the top ten restaurants in the world, Patricia Wells of the International Herald Tribune hails O'Connell as "a rare chef with a sense of near perfect taste, like a musician with perfect pitch."

Patrick has evolved and refined many of the dishes from his childhood, making them relevant in a new century while keeping their soul intact – building a sort of culinary bridge between past and future. His commitment as an Ambassador of American Cuisine has fueled his involvement in the international association, Relais & Chateaux, where he currently serves as President of Relais & Chateaux North America. On the occasion of The Inn at Little Washington's 30th Anniversary, O'Connell commissioned a documentary film celebrating the evolution of American cuisine over the last three decades and honored 30 American culinary pioneers who helped make this transformation possible. His American Culinary Pioneer Award continues to be given annually.