Catching Up With Amy Brandwein

The Arlington-born chef is a finalist for the James Beard Foundation's 2017 "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" distinction.

Photo by Greg Powers

Earlier in her career, Amy Brandwein worked under famed toque Roberto Donna at Galileo, Bebo Trattoria and Alba Osteria. She’s now the talent behind Centrolina at CityCenterDC, and was recently named a finalist for “Best Chef Mid-Atlantic” by the prestigious James Beard Foundation (winner to be announced May 1). Born and raised in Arlington, the 47-year-old dynamo lives in Aurora Hills. Here’s what she’s up to.

After cooking with Roberto Donna, you were the chef at Fyve in the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, and at the short-lived Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle. What did those experiences teach you?

When I was cooking for Roberto and dishes changed all the time, that’s where I was the happiest. I’m best on the fly and on my feet, and at my worst being tied to a concept and having signature dishes that put you in a box. I learned that I need to have the freedom to do what I want and to work with whatever ingredients are available.

Centrolina was a hit as soon as it opened in 2015. What surprised you most?

That we were very busy from the beginning and that people got what I was doing, even though there was no concept to it. It was what I wanted to cook and people took to it without any hesitation. I feel strongly about what we do and the integrity of the food—what’s important to preserve and what’s important to innovate.

How many hours do you work per week?

All in, with tinkering at home, about 75 to 80.

Where do you like to eat in Virginia?

I love a few places near where I live. Bonsai Sushi on 23rd Street is good. I just went to Jaleo last night and had baby chorizos wrapped in potato chips—which blew my mind—and roasted peppers with shaved lardo on top. Another favorite is Mark’s Duck House. I also like Ambar, Duangrat’s and Crystal Thai.

I’ve seen a lot of important political types at Centrolina.

We’ve had two Supreme Court justices—Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Nancy Pelosi comes in often. Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill—a lot of really successful women.

Speaking of which, your management staff is mostly women. Is that on purpose?

The general manager, assistant general manager and pastry chef are women. The sous-chef is the only male manager. I never intended to have a female team—I’ve worked my whole career with men—but I think I had a natural affinity toward [GM] Angie [Duran] and then it just seemed right that the person supporting her was also a woman.

What’s on the menu this spring?

The usual suspects: asparagus, ramps, morels. But what I’m really excited about is our partnership with DC UrbanGreens, a farm in Southeast D.C. that sells produce grown in the District by D.C. residents. They asked me to collaborate with them as a wholesale account. We set up a program where they are growing all this stuff for me: mustard greens, baby turnips, baby carrots, garlic, microgreens, beautiful arugula, lettuce mixes. They cut it and bring it over the same day. You can’t beat that for freshness.

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