Ris Lacoste is in a bit of a quandary.
As one of Washington’s premier chefs, she’ll soon be out of a job when she leaves her cramped kitchen at 1789 Restaurant near Georgetown University to open her own restaurant. Worse yet, she doesn’t know where it will be, when it will open or what she’ll call it.
But for someone who considers herself an artist and loves what she does, that’s a minor obstacle.
“What do I want?” she asks rhetorically.
“I want a great place. I want to have a restaurant and surround myself with the things I love. I want music, art. I want to offer my guests a great place to come and enjoy themselves. I want a place that’s full of life, lots of windows to look out of. I want the outdoors, where you can see the weather. I love the weather, lots of rain and snow. I want to be open all day, lunch and dinner.”
She also wants to evoke memories of favorite restaurants in cities where she’s lived and worked, such as Paris, Boston and Berkeley. “I want it to be a world atmosphere. I want a European caf頷ith fine dining. I want to take care of the customers I have taken care of for the past 18 years,” including the past 10 at 1789 and before that at Twenty-One Federal, Kinkead’s and Vidalia.
And the food? She wants it to be like what she’s served to a generation of satisfied diners, from countless Georgetown students and parents to celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, who was there last week, and important people such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was there twice two weeks ago.
Only better. “I want to do ingredient-driven seasonal fare. I want delicious food — I love the word delicious. My food is traditional, not fussy. I don’t want to call it caf頦ood. I don’t know what it’s going to be, so I don’t want to apply any word.”
Still, the only thing certain is when she will leave the restaurant that she started cooking at 10 years ago in August.
“I’m leaving here on New Year’s Eve, no matter what,” she says as she sits in one of the five dining rooms of the renovated Federal-era houses decorated with American antiques and historical prints. “I have started scheduling visits [to possible locations]. I’m not set on a location. I’m not set on a name. I don’t know when it’s going to open. It could be six to 12 months away. It could be up to two years away.”
Even the choice of a name is difficult. ‘Ris’ — short for Doris — won’t work because there are too many ways to pronounce it. Nor would ‘Lacoste,’ because it could be confused with the name of the fashion company with the alligator symbol. Coincidentally, her father’s name is Rene, the same as that of the company’s founder.
With all the uncertainty surrounding her future, does she worry about failing?
“Of course,” she admits. “I’m very nervous about opening a new restaurant. It’s a very high-risk venture. But I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 12. I feel I have a little edge. Yes, I’m afraid of failing, but I have great support and many financial backers.”
Lacoste’s vision of what she wants came to her, of all places, in far-off Australia in 2001.
“A lightning bolt came to me when I was sitting in a restaurant in Melbourne,” she recalls. “It was a wine bar, and we had fresh sardines, mussels, delicious bread, fantastic wine. The service was very savvy. The walls were marble.
“I lived in Paris for a couple of years, in Burgundy and Spain for a while, too, and I love sitting in a caf鮠When I went to Australia, it just felt good. I really want to create that. I don’t want New York. I want rustic elegance.”
She says she’d love to stay where she is, and even tried to buy 1789 from the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, but it wasn’t for sale.
“I love Georgetown and its community life,” she says. My only reservation is the ability to do a good lunch business. It’s difficult here.”
So, driven by necessity, she’s looking for “something in a very high-density neighborhood,” perhaps downtown with “a good office building above you.”
But she insists she hasn’t ruled out any D.C. neighborhood, whether uptown, Penn Quarter or Logan Circle.
One place that has caught her eye is the former Marlo Furniture store on 7th Street N.W. “I would love that space, but I don’t know if it’s possible,” she says.
As she plans her future, the New Bedford, Mass., native is finding it hard to leave 1789. “It definitely hurts emotionally,” she says, especially when she tells longtime members of her staff they can’t come with her. “It’s a matter of professional courtesy. I have nothing to offer them right now. I would maybe take them if I could, but I’m jumping off a cliff.”
Lacoste, who is single, laments that female chefs face more obstacles than their male counterparts. “Women are hard-wired differently,” she says. “Relationships are important but very difficult. You don’t have time to give to yourself or your family. I’ve trained so many women in the kitchen and they’ll opt out for a private life over working 24-7 as a chef.”
While she doesn’t know who will succeed her, she wishes him or her well — but not too well. “I hope they’re going to be great,” she says, “but not better.”
Despite her misgivings, she’s convinced she’s doing the right thing: “I love this business. I was born on this earth to do this. But I will be 50 in January. This is my birthday present to myself. I have to do it now or never.”