A Dale City native, Richard Cook -- the bustling, energetic and young executive chef of BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant -- is a guy who readily admits he started out in the restaurant business as a busboy to earn some fast cash. At that point, he could never have guessed he'd end up running a very busy kitchen that caters to devoted seafood fans.
What steered him to a culinary vocation?
"It was boring in the front of the house," he said. "The cooks were having more fun. That looked like my speed. So I asked to be moved to the back [kitchen]."
As a result, he ended up being a pizza cook in Dale City. But that didn't start his career path.
Warming to his new profession, Cook moved to a family-owned restaurant that had no chef. In fact, Cook ended up doing everything in the kitchen, including washing the dishes. Ironically, that stint did the trick.
"That got me hooked," he said. "I found I was good at [cooking]."
In a dramatic career move, Cook moved to Georgia to work in a high-end French restaurant, working with a proper chef who had worked at the Inn at Little Washington.
"I saw that people my age were doing a good job, and I wanted to compete," he said. "But I didn't like fancy French food or anything that wasn't basic American cooking."
He even resisted sampling foie gras, but that tasting opened doors for him, making him more willing to sample other exotic fare.
When Cook landed a job at BlackSalt four years ago, he went right on as a line cook on to the grill station all on his own. But he realized that he lacked something critical: a knowledge of seafood.
"I learned that fish are all different," he said. "They have a different texture and flavor."
Working frantically to gain that knowledge, Cook heard from his executive chef to slow down, to taste and to get excited about each plate that he set up.
"He moved me around," Cook said, while he sipped a cup of dashi, the Japanese seafood stock. "The job has never been a letdown. I am always being educated ... and I am addicted to the fast pace."
Today, responsible for dreaming up seven to 12 seafood specials a day, seven days a week, Cook said as his day starts, he walks up in front of the restaurant where its seafood market is located.
"I look at the fish," he said, "and we carry 60 different pieces of seafood. ... We put thought into each dish with a special fish."
If you go BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant 4883 MacArthur Blvd. 202-342-9101 Hours: Lunch -- 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; Dinner -- 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; Brunch -- 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
Reading books and watching cooking shows on TV may inspire him, but Cook finds seafood has its own influence on him. He may prepare it with an ethnic twist -- such as the wood-roasted sturgeon with a cumin-piquillo broth -- but he concludes that with seafood, the taste canvas is wide-open. In fact, simply grilling fish moistened with just a drizzle of olive oil may signal a culinary triumph to Cook. Now at the advanced age of 26, does Cook have any regrets about all the hard work? Not at all, and, in fact, he says his parents are blown away by what he's doing. By the way, what Cook eats these days certainly does not resemble the fish sticks and ketchup of his youth.
Q&A with Richard Cook
What is your comfort food?
Slow-roasted pork or crispy pork belly. Or a whole fish right in the pan or going to get a bowl of pho.
What has been your luckiest moment?
Everything here. I walked right into it and it was a pretty lucky decision ... being on the spot and being prepared for the wackiest insanity.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
I have to say Vetri in Philadelphia. It's the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast. In D.C., I am addicted to Palena and Sushi-Ko ... I used to eat out all the time. Oh, and Komi.
What's in your fridge?
I have a little thing of Spanish boquerones, some water and condiments.
Where do you go on vacations?
I spent two weeks in Italy, and last summer, two months in Spain. That gave me a new outlook on life. I am going to South America, Cancun and Peru.
From the chef's kitchen
Blue Shell Mussels with Chiles and Basil
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 shallot, peeled and minced
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds blue shell mussels, cleaned
2 cups fish stock
1 cup diced and roasted butternut squash
1/2 cup white wine
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
6 stems fresh cilantro, chopped
1 stem fresh basil, torn
Fresh lime juice, to taste
Using a large saute pan, heat the chilies, garlic and shallot over medium heat with the olive oil until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Add the fish stock, squash, wine, butter and bay leaf. When the liquid and ingredients have come to a simmer, add the mussels and cover. The mussels are finished when they have all opened. Serve with cilantro, basil and lime juice. Taste, season as needed and enjoy.