Washington, DC is one of the most visited cities in the United States and now has some of the finest restaurants anywhere. This wasn’t always true. When I arrived here, many years ago, there were merely a few out-of-the-ordinary spots. But that has changed. There are some fabulous eateries in DC. More seem to be opening almost daily. There are lots of new venues arriving in places like the waterfront area, in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and in Downtown DC.
Ocean Prime is a swank restaurant in downtown Washington, DC. It’s located at 1341 G St., NW in the historic Colorado Building just steps from the Capitol Building. It serves a menu of beautifully presented fish and prime steaks. I had a chance to dine at Ocean Prime and chat with Executive Chef Jason Shelley about his love of cooking.
Interview with Executive Chef Jason Shelley
During my meal at Ocean Prime in Washington, DC, I had an excellent halibut, cooked to perfection by Chef Shelley. I recommend halibut, one of the chef's specialties. I travel the world writing cuisine articles and this was, by comparison, a very fine and highly recommended dining room. It compares well to many of the extraordinary venues in this and other countries.
Richard Basch for Wander: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Shelley: I found my love of cooking through my family. I grew up in Pittsburgh with Italian and Irish grandparents and it was all about the food. Some of my best and happiest memories are of the whole family, in the kitchen, talking, and eating. Whether it was a holiday or just the weekend, we were always doing some kind of cooking or eating together—from going to the Strip District in Pittsburgh to making homemade sausages with my grandfather and cookies with my grandmother. As such, my love of food started early and has never really stopped growing. My wife will sometimes poke at me about my love for the farmer’s market, where I’ve been known to just wander around for hours and look at everything in the different stalls. As a response, I tell her, “It’s no different than when you go window shopping for shoes and clothing!”
Sometimes, when you reach that point where the train is about to go off the rails and everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, the back door can seem like a great escape plan. But without fail, when defeat seems imminent, you and your team pull through and make it over the hump.
Wander: Do you have a specialty dish?
Chef Shelley: Not particularly. I just want to be known for being both a great cook and a person. I love to cook a vast array of dishes that have become favorites over the years for different people in my life. However, If I had a gun to my head, I would say fried chicken, or my grandmother’s ravioli (homemade ricotta, marinara, and pasta).
Wander: Do you prefer a particular style of cooking?
Chef Shelley: I like many styles, as I believe that exploring different cuisines and techniques is what makes one a well-rounded chef and keeps the inspiration flowing day to day. Having traveled all over the country and some of the world, I’m drawn towards adopting a range of styles into my cooking whenever I can. This has helped me break out of restraints when cooking and really look at food in different ways. For example, examining how a single ingredient can be used and treated differently in varying cultures and cuisines.
Wander: What kind of atmosphere do you aim to create in the kitchen?
Chef Shelley: Professional but not too stiff, and foremost creative and respectful. At Ocean Prime, we strive to create an environment where people want to work for us and have a sense of pride and distinction about where they work. In my mind, the goal is for people to be beating at the doors trying to get a job, because of how we treat our associates.
Wander: What do you look for when you hire other chefs to assist you in the kitchen?
Chef Shelley: Work ethic, desire, drive, and a sense of humility. I consider myself to be a hard worker—God put me here to work hard and use both my mind and my hands. Our jobs are not necessarily glamorous and certainly not easy, but can be intensely rewarding when we put in the hard work. When hiring young chefs, I look for hungry talent who hopefully want my job down the road. They will continuously push me to stay on top of my game, and I think a little competition is good for morale. People will sometimes mistake humility for weakness, but I truly feel the opposite. It takes strength to let your work and talent shine for themselves, and continuously have faith that others will see it for what it is at the end of the day.
Wander: What is your favorite spice and why?
Chef Shelley: Lately, it’s been jerk seasoning (homemade, of course) because it has so many flavors and is really balanced with the heat. I also would say dill because I love pickles. Crispy, salty, and refreshing. On a sandwich or just on the side, I love pickles.
Wander: What keeps you in cooking?
Chef Shelley: No two days are the same, and the challenges you face every day as a chef will make you better both on the job and as a person. I have found that even in my personal life, being a chef has made me better equipped to handle situations that may have, in the past, gotten the better of me. As a chef you wear many hats—handyman, parent, counselor, negotiator, leader, teacher, and more. While these roles can be intense, crazy, tiresome, and occasionally just outright insane (I have stories for days…), it somehow makes the job all the more rewarding.
Sometimes, when you reach that point where the train is about to go off the rails and everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, the back door can seem like a great escape plan. But without fail, when defeat seems imminent, you and your team pull through and make it over the hump. It then clicks that the next time will be easier due to coming out the other side of challenging experiences. This is the reason I enjoy my job every day in some way, shape, or form—the thrill is my obsession to some extent.
Wander: Have I missed anything that you feel is important that you would like to add?
Chef Shelley: Sometimes we get away from the root of what we do with all the craziness in the world today! I wish as a chef that we had more time to just focus on the food, and less on other areas that we are now pushed to be focused on. For example, in the age of social media and digital review platforms, you can sometimes feel that one online review will make or break you.
If You Go to Ocean Prime, Washington DC
Ocean Prime is located in the Colorado Building 15 1341 G Street, NW in Washington, DC. The restaurant is open 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 5 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Business casual attire is suggested. You can make reservations online at www.ocean-prime.com or call 202.393.0313.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a meal for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.