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RAMW Member on the Menu: Ris Lacoste

September 3, 2014

Ris Lacoste: Chef/Owner of Ris

Ris Lacoste is one of the most respected and dedicated chefs working in Washington D.C. today. She has earned her reputation built upon high-quality ingredients, bold innovative technique, and food that is both familiar and simply delicious. RIS was recently honored with the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Restaurant Neighbor Award for the District of Columbia.

What is the hardest part about owning and opening a restaurant? The financial responsibility; learning the legalese of lease language; learning how to speak to someone who will invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in you; how to make that deal; what to give up; how to protect yourself; knowing your business better than anyone else on your team; how not to be consumed; being financially successful for yourself and your investors.

…and the most rewarding part?
Building, creating, being responsible for an ambiance and culture that is you and pleases all - your staff, your customers and yourself.

Where do you look for inspiration when putting your menu together?
•    Memory, taste, smell, texture
•    Farmers' markets - fresh product
•    Dining out
•    My walk-in
•    Cooking magazines
•    Menus of favorite restaurants
•    Staff members

How are your restaurants (West End and Union Market) influenced by the neighborhood they are located in?
In 2006 I was looking for an underserved neighborhood and the first location I looked at was 15th and P, not yet developed but in the works.  I realized immediately that i needed to find a spot where all of my loyal clientele would be comfortable.  My clientele of the prior 20 years was from 21 Federal, Kinkead's and 1789.  I realized that they weren't ready for 15th and P and I owed them something else.  When I walked into the space in the West End in the Ritz Carlton building, I knew in a second that I had found my home.  

The West End is perfect for me.  We are surrounded by residential buildings, including our own Ritz complex.  We have so many regular customers. There are many days when I walk the 20 seat bar and kiss everyone seated there.  We love our neighbors.  I love our clientele.  
We are also surrounded by many great hotels.  The weary traveler is my next favorite customer.  It is wonderful to have a place when traveling to be embraced and welcomed.  I think our staff at RIS does that beautifully. 

Our politico clientele is next.  I think RIS offers a great escape from the craziness of their lives.  A good place to hide.  We are very discreet and they appreciate that.   

We are an adult restaurant.  Sophisticated comfort, rustic elegance.  You can speak and be heard.  Our crowd is a little bit older and so the West End offers them a safe and well cared for neighborhood.  

We are also home to the Georgetown University crowd, both young and old, the World Bank and the State Department.

Union Market offers us access to the younger crowd whom we would love to entertain.  Branching out across town gives us pioneer status and keeps us young. Hopefully we can draw the younger crowd to RIS by teasing them with deliciousness. 

The Union Market clientele are busy raising children and do not have time to cook or dine out.  Therefore they love to bring food home. Our chefs' larder and prepared foods are perfect for them.  

How did you get started in the business? What was your first job in the industry and what did you learn from it?
I worked as a store clerk from the age of 12-16 in a Polish deli in my home town of New Bedford, MA.  I took care of customers, received goods from delivery men, stocked shelves, sliced bologna, ate great Polish food, filled orders.  LOVED IT!!!  I wanted to work in a super market - only A&P then - and stock shelves, with labels lined up as perfectly as I did at Johnny's.  (aka Gorka's Market, Bullard Street).  

I learned to take good care of the delivery people, how to talk with customers and how to please them.  How to stock shelves, make change, and be responsible.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
Tough one.  

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Greet your customers.  Defend your staff.  Cook what you love.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I would love to be an athlete, not going to happen.  A singer, not going to happen.  Writer - will happen.

What song always makes you happy?
Pink Floyd, “Us and Them”

What’s your favorite DC spot?
Washington Cathedral

What is your favorite ingredient?
Dijon mustard

You’re hosting a dream dinner party.  What three people would be at your table?
Tom Robbins, Jesus Christ, Superman

It’s the last meal of your life  - what’s on your plate?
Brie de meaux, tomme de ma grandmere, any one of my favorite blues, baguette, country pork terrine, cornichons, Dijon. Cheeseburger, MR, potato roll, provolone, fries. Hot fudge sundae, jamoca almond fudge ice cream, whipped cream, maraschino cherry. Tanqueray on the rocks, Didier Dagueneau Silex, Turley Zin.   In the correct order, of course.

What are your pet peeves?
•    Hands in your pockets
•    Crooked bar stools
•    Bad editing; typos
•    People who honk.  Horns are for emergencies

What is your favorite way to give back to the community?
Being nice to my neighbors, all I meet, showing them a good moment that will hopefully pass on to another.

What’s your favorite go-to junk food?