From dishwasher to master chef

Ireland and cuisine didn’t always belong in the same sentence. But Ireland’s relationship with food has evolved along with its ever-changing economic fortunes. Membership in the Common Market in the 1970s (now the European Union) saw borders and trade barriers come tumbling down, allowing people and goods to move more freely across Europe. The Irish gained access to a broader culinary landscape.

Alexandria-based chef and restaurateur Cathal Armstrong was among those who benefited. His father owned a small travel business in Dublin. The tour operation was the family’s gateway to the continent’s gastronomic offerings. 

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But the young Armstrong never envisioned a career in the kitchen, and went off to college to study computer science. He lasted two months before dropping out and taking a job as a dishwasher at a friend’s restaurant. Before long he found himself waiting tables and watching plates being prepared in the kitchen. 

Armstrong was hooked, and began to think about his own place. He was 19 when he opened The Bay Tree in the Dublin suburb of Monkstown. But Armstrong broke all the rules. He drank, fed his friends and spent too much money.

Armstrong recalls reading in the Evening Herald what was supposed to be a review but ended up being an obituary of sorts. “The Bay Tree was mysteriously closed.” Ten months had come and gone, and so had the restaurant.

It was 1990 and the Celtic Tiger hadn’t yet been born. With few prospects in a struggling economy, his father suggested he head for America. Landing in Washington, he found work at Murphy’s and New Heights. “It was a good introduction to real food,” says Armstrong of the latter. 

Armstrong spent a decade honing his skills in various kitchens, eventually working under the tutelage of chef-owner Jeff Buben at Vidalia. When Buben opened Bistro Bis in September 1998, he turned to Armstrong to be his chef. Armstrong initially declined. The timing wasn’t right for a man with a family on the way. But a few months later, Armstrong accepted with some preconditions. “Staff would work 12 hours a day, five days a week. None of these crazy hours. And leave me alone to run the place,” Armstrong recalled.

Of his four years at Bistro Bis, he says, “It was an interesting experience, because I cooked for Ted Kennedy, Michael J. Fox, Hillary Clinton, Christina Aguilera and Julia Child, the high priestess of American cooking.”

Child was in town with Jacques Pepin to launch their cookbook, Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home, and arrived at the restaurant a day earlier than expected. Armstrong was caught off guard and, like any chef worth his salt, had to think on his feet and make do with the ingredients he had in-house. The memory is all a blur now, with Armstrong unable to recall what he served, save some sorrel soup. But he does know she liked it. Child came back the next day with Pepin in tow and followed up with a thank-you note Armstrong ranks as one of his most prized possessions.

Still, Armstrong was restless. The whiff of failure he experienced with The Bay Tree lingered, and after seven years with Buben, he was ready for the next step. “I felt like I was at the middle of the path I was on, with the constraints of someone else’s vision.”

Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle, had talked of owning their own restaurant one day, with visions of opening an inn in Middleburg, Va. “We never considered Old Town,” he recalls. “We thought it would be out of our price range.”

But they got a lucky break when Santa Fe East on South Pitt Street came on the market. Sitting in the window of the Majestic Café on King Street, they conceived their plan to open Restaurant Eve, named for their daughter. They took over the premises in March 2003. The place was in considerable disrepair and remained shuttered for another year before opening its doors to the dining public.

When I asked Armstrong about his vision for the restaurant, he said, “Eve is our idea of what great food should taste like. We shop for the best local and freshest ingredients.” True to his word, he sources products from purveyors such as Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative and Polyface Farms. He’s also hired a gardener, Catherine Bolton, to tend to the herb and fruit garden at the back of Restaurant Eve. Bolton does a show-and-tell with the kitchen and bar staff when they are on lunch break in the garden.

As in theater, a chef, like an actor, must deliver the goods daily. The kitchen is his stage and diners are his audience. Armstrong knows he must strive for the best not just at Eve, but at all his restaurants, whether it’s Eamonn’s: A Dublin Chipper (named for his son), The Majestic (both on King Street) or his latest venture, Virtue Feed and Grain (at the waterfront on South Union Street). 

While Eve is fine dining and a labor of love, Virtue is about memories — his memories. “I put every dish on the menu that I loved as a kid.”

His former boss, Buben, is full of praise but shies away from taking credit. “Look at what he’s done with it. I didn’t create his talent. He has an incredible energy and ability with food. Passion is great, but determination is what matters. He has the passion and the determination.”

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Those characteristics have served him well as he’s built success upon success and earned five James Beard nominations for Best Chef — Mid-Atlantic. Armstrong is not finished, however. He’s launching another Eamonn’s on Columbia Pike in September. And later this year, Society Fair will open in Old Town, a gourmet store offering cooking demos and classes.

One might be forgiven for thinking Armstrong’s next stop is TV. Asked if he’s interested, he says, “Only if we had complete creative control.” He has appeared on Martha Stewart’s show and talked to folks in Ireland about the possibility. He also interviewed for “Iron Chef” but it didn’t work out. He’s glad — his one fear of being a television chef is losing sight of who he is: “You sell out and become a gimmick,” he says. “I’d rather go sailing — and I don’t know how to sail.”

Armstrong knows full well that he couldn’t have done it alone, crediting Meshelle as the real driving force. 

“She has a brilliant, keen sense of people and what people feel when they go out. This is Meshelle’s empire. I just work here.”