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RAMW Member on the Menu: Zena Polin, The Daily Dish

Zena Polin and Jerry Hollinger, The Daily Dish
April 30, 2014

Zena Polin, co-owner of The Daily Dish, A Restaurant & Catering Company, is also a trilingual author, editor and writer who writes about food, wine and travel in Latin America, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and the US. She wrote two travel guidebooks The Other Side of Sydney and The Pub, Club and Grub Guide to Washington, DC and is the managing editor of St. Kitts and Nevis Visitor Magazine. From 2000 to 2008, she lived in Puerto Rico and was the owner of The Winning Ticket, a public relations, marketing and communications firm with clients in Washington, DC, St. Kitts and Puerto Rico. She received a Master of International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management and her BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University. 

What is the hardest part about owning a restaurant? People say it’s not personal, it’s just business. But when you own a restaurant it’s both. It’s hard not to take things too personally. I’ve never had thick skin so it’s particularly tough for me.

…and the most rewarding part? Our regulars. Their kind words at the end of a long, crazy day.

Where do you look for inspiration when putting your menu together? I think about the people who come to dine here. We have a huge percentage of regulars. We like to think about what they like to eat and then try to take something normal and mix it up a little. We go to Lancaster County once a week and come back with great, fresh produce. That really helps determine our sides. I’ve learned about vegetables I never knew existed from our local farms.

How is your restaurant influenced by the neighborhood it is located in? We are in Silver Spring where there is such a conglomeration of needs: gluten free, dairy free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. It makes us be creative in how we make our food, and it ensures we are more in touch with, and aware of, our ingredients.

How did you get started in the business?  I fell backwards into it. I had just returned from Puerto Rico where I had lived for eight years and someone asked me if I wanted to do some catering. I started working with Jerry Hollinger, my now business partner, and the opportunity came up to invest in the restaurant. When my mother found out she said, “You’ve wanted to do this since you were three.” So I guess I had a lot of prep time, but just didn’t know it!

Where do you see yourself in five years? I’d like to own another restaurant, and I’d also like to have more time to travel. I think those two desires are mutually exclusive however. 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? I’m so fortunate to have a strong network of restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to turn to for advice. But my favorite was in response to a tweet I sent to Danny Meyer. I asked him “How do you remember to stay calm when someone is baiting you and how do you remember to love what you do?” His response, “No wave deserves to knock you off your surfboard!” was so simple that I try to remember it when I’m feeling crazed from all angles.  

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? I’ve been so many things in my life, writer, teacher, lobbyist, publicist that I feel as if restaurateur/entrepreneur is really the last thing on my “to do” list, but sometimes I think I’d like to be a flight attendant.

What’s your favorite DMV spot? I love supporting restaurants owned by friends of mine: Hank’s, Pizza Paradiso, Equinox, Bastille. But, if I’m eating by myself, my favorite is The Majestic in Old Town for Chef Shannon’s Fried Green Tomatoes and a glass of wine.

What is your favorite ingredient?  Unsalted butter and really good olive oil. You can do anything with those two ingredients.

You’re hosting a dream dinner party.  What three people would be at your table? Danny Meyer, Alice Waters and Cathy Corison.

It’s the last meal of your life  - what’s on your plate? Every preparation possible for Foie Gras and Sweetbreads, our Mac ‘N Cheese with Bacon and Blue Cheese and a Banana Chocolate Chip and Nutella Whoopie Pie from Makin’ Whoopie, and I’m drinking a Kronos Cab Sav from Corison Vineyards.

What are your pet peeves? People who steal and people who demand to sit where they want to or “they’re never coming back.”

What is your favorite way to give back to the community? I love helping in small ways – we let the girl scouts sell cookies in front of the restaurant, donate to the local school and work with smaller non-profits in our area. We also participate in Sugar and Champagne, Turn Up the Heat and the HRC National Dinner. This year we are starting our own non-profit that will help kids learn more about where their food comes from.

What’s your favorite go-to junk food? Chocolate chips – by the handful, in my oatmeal, in a spoonful of peanut butter, in my coffee, in cookies. I can do anything with them.