eat • drink • gather
local • seasonal • sustainable
I arrived a few minutes early, eager to see Ripple without its makeup on. Executive Chef, Logan Cox, had agreed to meet me in the restaurant at noon; as Ripple is closed for lunch, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Absent a crowd of happy diners and bustling staff bound by the experience of sharing an inventive, hyper-local, hyper-seasonal menu, would the energetic vibe one senses when eating at a restaurant that’s really gotten things right still be palpable? I knocked, eager to meet the creative force behind this place.
Since Ripple opened in 2010, I’ve spent many a happy evening dining there. It’s the sort of joint that’s so comfortable in its own skin, so sincerely devoid of pretension, your spirits can’t help but lift. Cox’s unabashed willingness to take risks with the ingredients he utilizes suggests he’s having fun, and that you should too. Indeed, that is the essence of his gift as a chef. To consistently produce unique dishes that challenge notions of how given ingredients are typically prepared - malted rutabaga anyone? - but remain accessible to diners with a wide range of palates is a tough balance to strike. Rarely, a dish misses its mark, but each time I leave Ripple, I feel inspired, glowing with the sense that I might be able to recreate my meal at home.
As I waited for Cox, I found myself bopping along with the Mariachi music emanating from the rear of the building, catchy tunes punctuated by the sounds of efficient, confident chopping readying ingredients for the night's meal. I glanced down the entry room, a long and narrow shotgun lined by a few tables on one side and a mammoth bar on the other. That great, hulking bar – mirrored and inviting – is stocked as if it wants to sustain patrons for years. As my head swiveled back towards Ripple’s front – oh, those lucky six who get to sit by the huge plate glass window by the door! – my eyes forced a pause at the cheese station. The day’s offerings were written on small placards thumb-tacked to rectangular corkboards; those hung above haphazard stacks of the wooden trays on which these milky treasures would later be served. All in, the suggestion to sit back and enjoy sighed from every nook, and so I did.
Cox bounded in and greeted me warmly. He’s a friendly bear of a man, with big hands, hair just long enough to tuck behind his ears, and a stockiness suggestive of some athletic prowess; when he mentioned he’d once played college football, I wasn’t surprised. He ushered me to one of those golden tables near the front window, shoved aside two place settings, and we sat.
He grew up in Northern Virginia, just outside of D.C. The youngest of six, Cox recalled that although his mother regularly prepared family meals and occasionally grew tomatoes in porch pots, food wasn't a central focus in their home. During his teenage years, however, Cox found that the creative process of bringing disparate ingredients to life made him tick. In college, he worked full-time in a number of fine dining establishments and scheduled his classes “religiously” around the Discovery Channel’s Great Chefs program, an effective adjunct culinary education.
Though he seriously considered enrolling in culinary school after graduation, he concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits and that toiling in a European restaurant kitchen would be a more appealing means of earning his "masters degree." He moved to the Italian city of Orvieto because it was situated in an area between Florence and Rome where “English would be spoken very minimally” so “I could immerse myself in the culture and try to understand it from the inside out.” It also boasted two Michelin-starred restaurants. For four months, Cox worked nine days of every ten, doing anything asked of him and honing his skills.
When his visa expired and his plea for an extension was denied, Cox returned to the States, and spent several years cooking for top restaurants in D.C. and Charleston. In South Carolina, where chanterelles grow like weeds, Cox, ever -eager to add new flavors and regional specialties to his cuisine, became passionate about food foraging, an activity that more deeply connected him to his local community. In 2011, he returned to D.C. to assume the role of Executive Chef at Ripple, quickly infusing a more modern, produce-driven attitude into the menu and solidifying the restaurant's commitment to environmental stewardship. As Cox asserted:
"as a culinary professional, you definitely have a responsibility... you have a direct impact on the environment and you have to be aware of that. If you don't act responsibly with how you purchase...what you use, how you source it, you're hurting a lot more than just yourself."
That this attitude underpins Ripple's food philosophy makes it somewhat a rarity in D.C., a definite point of pride for Cox. As he told me, sourcing ingredients from as near home base as possible not only makes his food taste infinitely better but also stimulates the local economy. Cox does much of the foraging for Ripple and is the primary link to many of the farmers from whom he purchases, and I sensed that these relationships to farm and field are important aspects of his beliefs about what being a chef should and does mean.
Though D.C. boasts an endless supply of dining options, from food trucks to cupcakeries, upscale salad bars to organic juicing joints, holes in the wall to five-dollar-sign tributes to haute cuisine, I still don’t think of it as a food-lovers paradise, a city to which I’d pilgrimage just to eat. It’s certainly not New Orleans or Philadelphia, New York or Charleston. But since I moved here in 2007, a handful of restaurants have opened and really made their mark. Without a doubt, I consider Ripple a member of that select group.
I was sincerely disappointed, then, to find that Chef Cox is leaving Ripple in March, heading West with his girlfriend, an Alaskan eager to be closer to her family. He's spending time at a few highly-regarded restaurants throughout the Northwest and will then run the kitchen at a bay-facing lodge in Alaska, serving just 16 meals a night. It is my hope that he return East at some point, exciting his fans with all he's learned since bidding Ripple goodbye.