If you are a connoisseur of top-tier cuisine and an aficionado of the best dining experiences you can find, you’ll likely already know the name of acclaimed culinary trailblazer and chef Patrick O’Connell. He is the founder of The Inn at Little Washington, one of only 14 restaurants in the United States to hold the coveted three-Michelin-star status since 2018. But an often untold chapter in the story that is the Inn at Little Washington is how O’Connell set out to create a one-of-a-kind experience with global influences in a little slice of Virginia that he lovingly calls home.
O’Connell’s and the Inn’s accolades are many, and easy to find. The restaurant has been raved over in national publications for decades, was one of a few U.S. properties to join the prestigious hospitality association Relais & Chateaux in 1987, and became the longest-tenured AAA 5 Diamond restaurant in history in 2011. Most recently, the Inn received a Michelin Green Star for its ongoing dedication to sustainability. O’Connell himself has been decorated multiple times for his commitment to excellence in the culinary industry, and his cookbook has graced the New York Times bestseller list.
Young O’Connell was an actor. As early as elementary school, he felt the most at home on a stage, and he eventually went to university for speech and drama. Before he embarked on his theater education, O’Connell worked for a carry-out restaurant during the summers and continued to work at restaurants while in college. The dining experience was electrifying, and it filled the aspiring actor with an adrenaline that he couldn’t find in memorizing and reciting lines. It was the duality between hosting and cooking, presenting and preparing: on the one front, poise and put-togetherness, and on the other, action, high stakes, and sometimes a little chaos.
At a fork in the road of his future, O’Connell embarked for Europe, where he would learn how much French culture treasured the work of chefs. At the time—the ’60s and ’70s—being a chef in America meant that you were unable to find a “real” job, while in France, cooks were highly esteemed. “Parents were not happy about their children going into the restaurant business [in America],” explained O’Connell. “That has thankfully changed.” France, in that era, considered cooking to be a noble art form, and “chefs were regarded the way sports heroes or famous celebrities were in America.” O’Connell was determined to bring the French relationship with the culinary arts and reverence for the dining experience stateside.
A Smash Hit
The Inn at Little Washington—located in the village of Washington, Virginia—is O’Connell’s best European memories come to life: eclectic, fresh, nourishing food; warm and authentic service; a sense of working with family rather than simply working with staff. The Inn harvests from its own farm, orchards, and livestock to create its own unbroken cycle of farm-to-table dining. Wild-grown ingredients like mushrooms and roots are foraged from the surrounding Virginian land. The restaurant’s six- or seven-course meals change daily based on seasonal harvests. While O’Connell did come back in the 1970s to open the Inn, he knew he wanted it to be more than just a place to come and eat. After all, with his acting history, he knew the value of a good performance, and at O’Connell’s restaurant, it is not just food that takes the stage but lighting, set design, presentation, body language, and staff interaction. This standard of service is credited to highly-trained waitstaff; as O’Connell explained, old habits of “just playing the waiter” must be broken so guests can be served by people being their truest selves.
The Inn and O’Connell have made a splash globally, welcoming A-list guests like celebrities and politicians throughout the decades. O’Connell will never forget hosting Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Richmond, Virginia, in 2007 for the 400th anniversary of the state’s founding. O’Connell had “distinct impressions of what she might be like” before the queen visited, but he was surprised by her amazing sense of theater. “That certainly stayed with me and was an inspiration,” he said. The queen came in the spring, prime time for harvesting the elusive wild morel mushrooms, which O’Connell prepared by combining with a delightful custard-like scrambled egg, fresh asparagus tips, and Virginia country ham. There were thousands of tiny cookies and pastries, traditional candied grapefruit rinds, plates and plates of delicacies—which the Inn staff prepared twice so as to have an entire rehearsal run of eating the courses “to ensure that anyone eating it looks good,” ensuring that the Queen’s photo-ops would not get ruined. “No spaghetti,” O’Connell laughed. “It was great fun, and what we imagined would be fit for a queen.”
Regardless of royal status, O’Connell’s goal is to make guests feel hosted as they’ve never felt hosted before. People are fascinating, the chef said, each filled seat a different guest from the night before. “All of that knowledge and fascination with theater I was able to bring with me into creating a restaurant experience. Today, that more than any other feature probably distinguishes us from all other restaurants—in that we regard it as performance art. Ultimately, we are attempting to elevate the service industry and create an entire immersive experience with the guest. … [We give] the guests a sense that they are the star performer, center-stage.”
His culinary and hosting approach whispers of a scene most of us have only witnessed in movies: a French countryside chateau, a place of quality and stature where dozens of staff bustle about, harvesting in the garden, snapping bed sheets, and throwing open windows. The Inn employs 238 staff in a village of only 133 people—so his restaurant, O’Connell says, feels like a village within a village, a sense of family that he deeply cherishes. O’Connell does not need to consciously sustain personal joy and passion when in the kitchen. After decades of cooking professionally, he’s never worked a day in his life—or, at least, that’s how it feels. “I never really thought of it as work,” he explained. “Yes, it’s extremely challenging, but the whole property feels like home. Like my home. The staff feels like my extended family and the guests feel like company.”
O’Connell, it seems, has a penchant for breathing life back into retired gas stations. The Inn once stood as a humble, early-1900s gas station, one of only three in the little village that served as the last refueling stop before Shenandoah National Park. O’Connell opened the Inn in 1978 after a year of renovations on the building. Over four decades later, O’Connell offered another one of the village’s gas stations a new life as Patty O’s Cafe—named after the chef’s childhood nickname. The cafe-bakery, with its charming blue-and-white awnings, intimate al fresco seating, and freshly-made-this-morning croissants that will enchant your taste buds, also deserves a spot on your bucket list.
The Inn at Little Washington is more than just O’Connell’s life’s work. It’s a forever nostalgic reminder of his childhood, a token of times past. “As a child, I would drive with my family through the town to go to the next village over the mountain, called Luray, where there was a fine old hotel at the time,” O’Connell, now 76, recalled. As a wide-eyed 6-year-old, he’d watch from the backseat as the storybook village passed quickly by: busy storefronts, cozy homes, Bel Airs and Coup de Villes lining up for gas at the filling stations that O’Connell would, decades later, transform. “My parents had had their honeymoon in that old hotel [in Luray], and we would drive out for Sunday dinner and drive right through Little Washington.”
On its website, the Inn is referenced as O’Connell’s never-ending story. His next chapter is brimming with new adventures, including writing another book and adding guest rooms at the Inn. He also plans to breathe life back into an old country store he recently purchased, where he will roast coffee and sell quality cheese and wine. In the meantime, he hopes to watch his new bakery-cafe flourish. “It is absolutely beautiful. It’s got a big stone fireplace and gorgeous sidewalk patio that people sit out on. Even [in the winter], we have blankets out there and people are enjoying being in the center of town. So that was a long, long awaited dream of mine—to have the simpler foods. Even some of the things that we had on the menu when the restaurant first opened in 1978 could be brought back. And so, it’s very much like what you might encounter in a beautiful village in France.”
And that—bringing a slice of the French countryside to the country he calls home—has been the chef’s goal all along.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.