“Enjoy it while it lasts.”
The same advice I once gave about Jose De Brito’s phenomenal, but doomed, Ciboulette I would also offer about his food at The Alley Light. It’s not just that nothing lasts forever. It’s that the way Jose was cooking was unsustainable. And, this week it came to an end.
I have described Jose at The Alley Light as being in “the zone” – a manner of cooking which few people attain and which is impossible to maintain for a long period of time. It requires a perfect convergence of skill, effort, passion, and creativity. Some chefs might rev a few of these cylinders here and there, but it is rare for a chef to crank all four to full speed at once. And, it’s exhausting when a chef does. Too exhausting to last.
Jose did it for two years. Literally every time I ate there — and there were many — his food caused a “wow” moment. Usually, there was such a flurry of “wow” moments that it became ridiculous. Some guests proclaimed their meal the best they ever had in Charlottesville. Others called it the best they had ever had. Anywhere. And, almost all of them eventually found themselves laughing (LOL!) at the splendor of the food. Enjoying Jose’s food recalled some of my own favorite meals at four-star restaurants in big cities around the world. Yet, unlike the chefs of those restaurants, Jose did not have the help of a large army of elite culinary school graduates. He did it with a small staff of hard-working cooks, some of whom he trained himself.
While Jose’s talent and creativity are undeniable, to those who know him well his passion stands out most. To begin to appreciate Jose’s passion, it helps to know that he began at The Alley Light with no stove — just two electric burners to go with a small oven in a kitchen smaller than many closets.
Most chefs would allow these conditions to limit what they cook. But not Jose. There were so many dishes he wanted to make, and he would find a way to make them. A sauce poivrade, for example, tastes best if it can simmer and reduce for hours, says Jose. But, with just two electric burners, which he would plug into the wall, he didn’t have that kind of time. So, Jose would cook the sauce a few minutes at a time each day over weeks. That’s one sauce, for one dish.
“Every day was a battle,” Jose says of the early days of The Alley Light, before an expanded kitchen was built. “No fridge space, no containers, and one saute pan which I had to run to wash at the sink between each guest’s plate and run back to do the next ticket.” And then, after a full day of cooking and service, he would begin prep for the next day. At 3 in the morning.
Why did he do this? Passion.
Raised in France, Jose loves French food, and, perhaps sensing he is nearing the end of his career, was eager to introduce as many dishes as possible to as many people as possible. “I love the depth of French food,” says Jose. “The terroir, the cheeses, the markets in Provence, the butcher in the village, the apertif, the millions of ways to make charcuterie, the hundreds of ways to do bread, the millions of sauces, pastries, pies, regional dishes, and more.” At The Alley Light, Jose’s aim was to share his love with others. “My objective was to have people experience the real cooking of France,” says Jose. “To democratize French food and take away the stereotype that it needs to be precious or extremely expensive.”
And so, Jose would pour himself into his work, each week creating a new menu of blackboard specials to share with the world. Take a minute to read through this one example among many of Jose’s weekly list of specials:
- Duck Liver Mousse w/Port 12
- Braised Pork Shank w/Lentils 12
- Braised Mussels w/Mushrooms 10
- Farro, Egg Yolk, Parmesan 11
- Mussel Stuffed w/Pork & Tomato Stew 12
- Roasted Beets, Creme Fraiche, Orange & Pistachio 9
SALAD, CHEESE & SOUP
- Simple: Lettuces, Herbs, Olive Oil, Sherry Vinegar 8
- Cheeses: Bijoux, Epoisse, Comte, Nuts, Armagnac-pickled Cherries 14
- Sunchoke, Roquefort & Toasted Almond Soup 9
- Foie Gras & Duck Confit, Fig Gelee 18
- Quail stuffed w/Rice, Bacon, Cranberry, Chestnut 15
- Saffron Risotto, Braised Calamari in Shellfish & Orange 14
- Ahi Tuna & Potato Terrine, Whelk Vinaigrette 12
- Braised Beef Cheeks, Macaroni & Carrot, Cabernet Reduction 25
- Crispy Crepe, Cognac-Braised Escargot, Pork, Parsnip Puree 14
- Roast Cod, Artichoke, Fennel & Potato Puree, Pimento Vinaigrette 24
- Scallops, Sunchoke, Grapes, Almond & Maple Sauce 24
- Lamb Rack, Artichoke stuffed with Lamb Shank, Red Pepper 28
- Veal Sweatbread, Lentil & Aged Balsamic Stew 26
- Poached Lobster, Lobster & Tomato Ragout, Lobster Crumble, Pasta 28
- Choucroute Garnie (Serves 2-3) 45
- Duck Breast, Braised Red Cabbage, Pear & Fig Reduction 26
- Four Spice Brulee, Cat’s Tongue 9
- Mousse au Chocolat 9
It’s tiring just to read. Now imagine the energy required each week to conceive of, prepare, and execute all of these dishes. And, that’s on top of a regular menu of several dozen outstanding items, like his signature green beans with shaved foie gras, braised and roasted pork belly with apple, and salmon tartare so picturesque that diners would hesitate to eat it.
The Planets Aligned
No other chef does this. And there are good reasons for that.
For one, economics. Time-honored rules of menu construction dictate one chicken dish, one vegetable dish, etc. Restaurateurs typically follow these rules or learn quickly how much ignoring them can hurt the bottom line. In The Alley Light’s case, owner Will Richey eventually gave Jose carte blanche in the kitchen. This is a highly unusual approach, and to explain it Richey cites a quote from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” At The Alley Light, Richey says, “the idea of working with Jose De Brito and telling him what he should or should not do in the kitchen seemed ridiculous to me.”
Another reason “the zone” is so uncommon is the make-up of chefs. Few have the skill, energy, passion and creativity to pull it off. Talented young chefs, for example, are often full of energy and passion, ready to change the world with their cooking, but may lack the wisdom gained through time. Think about the knowledge required to compose Jose’s weekly menu of specials. Older chefs, on the other hand, can have the wisdom of experience, but may have lost some of the energy and passion of their youth. Do you know how much mettle it takes to endure a single night in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen? Try that for two decades.
A related limitation, particularly for older chefs, is time. Older chefs often have families and other responsibilities. The enormous time commitment to stay in “the zone” is time away from those responsibilities. In Jose’s case, his only child is full-grown and living in France. His sole other main responsibility, his wife Christine who he married last year, actually helped Jose remain in the zone, rather than distracting him from it, by serving as his inspiration for everything he did. From your muse, waste not a moment of time apart.
And, so the planets aligned. Carte blanche in the kitchen granted to a chef with the skill, effort, passion, and creativity to do something extraordinary. From a tiny second-floor kitchen in a dark alley of a small city in central Virginia, Jose spun magic that beguiled diners across the nation. The James Beard Foundation named The Alley Light one of just 25 semifinalists for best restaurants in the country. Jose himself was a semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. And, the award-winning critics at The Washington Post and The Washingtonian both traveled to Charlottesville to bear witness. “In this, the era of Instagram, when chefs across the country swap dish pics at the touch of a button and restaurants at a certain level all begin to look and taste alike, De Brito remains a lone wolf with his own aesthetic,” wrote James Beard award-winning food writer Todd Kliman, urging D.C. readers that Jose’s food warranted the 100+ mile trip to Charlottesville.
Though I always knew that Jose’s moment would be fleeting, its end still brought sorrow, at least initially. But, then I reflected on how lucky we are to have enjoyed the moment. It brought to mind what someone said when David Bowie died in January: “4.5 billion years the Earth has existed, and we were lucky enough to have lived at the same time as David Bowie.”
Almost three years ago, Richey was at a party describing to friends his idea for a new lounge on the downtown mall. Jose, who was working at another French restaurant at the time, overheard the conversation and expressed interest in cooking there. Until that point, Richey was not even sure what type of food his lounge would serve, if at all.
What if Richey had not run into Jose that night? What if the other planets had not aligned? Fortunately they did. And, the rest of us just happened to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy it.
We are blessed.