For centuries, cooking has been a game of weeding out the weak and celebrating the strong. The greats—from Joël Robuchon, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Alain Ducasse, to Dominique Crenn, Thomas Keller, and the likes—are revered because of their ferocious yet elegant commitment to their craft, outperforming their contemporaries.
Although the Bocuse D’Or, which originated in 1987, is the most honorific culinary competition in the world, the general public didn’t become fascinated with competitive cooking until 1999, when the Food Network brought Japanese cult hit Iron Chef to an American audience.
Bombastic shows like Beat Bobby Flay and Chopped began to outperform their more docile counterparts that merely demonstrated how to cook as opposed to turning it into a pulsating sport. With the premiere of Top Chef in 2006, the genre roared into popularity. From a marketing and publicity perspective, winning such a competition is the equivalent or greater than winning a James Beard award—the most distinguished culinary honor in America.
In this age of Olympian cookery, what happens when a chef decides that collaboration is more important that competition?
“People were excited to see and learn what was going on outside DC. It’s important to have a bigger picture view of what’s going on for both our chefs and our guests.”
Enter Chef Johnny Spero of Reverie in Washington D.C. You might know him as a contestant on the Netflix show, The Final Table. After being eliminated in the fourth episode, Spero came home to focus on opening his first restaurant, Reverie, and preparing for the birth of his first child, Fiona.
Within its first month of opening, Reverie began planning guest chef dinners. The premise, according to Johnny, was simple—invite someone that inspires him and the team to come and cook at Reverie.
“It’s a special thing,” Spero describes. “I choose people who I look up to that are doing something cool and unique.”
Reverie opened in October of 2018. Since then, Spero has hosted 10 guest chefs from such celebrated restaurants as Blackbird, Contra, and Longoven. During the months that Reverie did not host a guest chef within its walls, Spero traveled to cook with friends around the country and even did guest stints in Moscow and Copenhagen.
“It’s one day in the month that we get to do something entirely different,” Spero explains. “It helps us get out of our day to day routine…breaks up the monotony…and helps me to push my creative process.”
Spero was first exposed to the idea of a collaborative dinner while working with Michelin-starred and James Beard award-winning Chef John Shields at Town House in 2011.
“We’re not looking to compete on a national stage. We’re looking to collaborate on a national stage.”
“I remember [Shields] just saying we had a chef coming in that week,” Spero recalls. “It was the first time I had ever worked in a restaurant where another chef drove to us. He came with coolers of fish and softshell crabs and we just did this dinner.”
The idea that Spero could learn from more than just one mentor stuck with him.
“I started paying attention to more of these all-star dinners. It was all about collaboration and networking and sharing ideas. When we opened [Reverie], I knew I wanted to be a part of that.”
Spero took almost three years to build the restaurant of his dreams. The space accommodates about 60 guests at a time with a fully open kitchen that is geared towards a modest fine dining menu.
“I wanted to build a restaurant where we could invite friends and chefs to work alongside myself and my team,” he continues. “I want every chef who comes in here to feel comfortable and to see this as a pristine, beautiful work space that has everything they need.”
Spero’s biggest challenge when it comes to these events is the self-imposed stress of being the perfect host.
“It’s like having friends to sleep over,” he gesticulates. “You want to make sure that you have an extra toothbrush. You want to stock the beer they like in the fridge. I know what it’s like to have to leave your restaurant. It’s never easy. We want to do everything for them so that this feels like a breath of fresh air.”
When the time came to hire his staff, Spero’s dreams of collaboration became a big selling point. “People were excited to see and learn what was going on outside DC. It’s important to have a bigger picture view of what’s going on for both our chefs and our guests.”
For Spero, the food he serves has always been inspired by experience rather than cuisine profiles. “It’s inspired by everywhere I’ve been and the people I’ve talked to. These [collaborative dinner] moments are the perfect opportunity to explore new flavors and textures. It takes us out of the day to day routine of doing payroll and scheduling and learning something that’s wildly delicious.”
For every collaborative dinner that Reverie has hosted, their contributions are usually items that are not normally offered on the regular menu. Often, those dishes (or those of their guests) inspire new menu items.
“Looking back on the past year, some of the dishes we’ve done for the collaborations have ended up being some of our favorite dishes and they’ve [eventually] appeared on the menu.”
Out of all the restaurants in Washington D.C., none do collaborative dinners as often as Reverie.
“We don’t do it for the money,” Spero emphasizes. “We just want to bring in new ideas and expose a group of people to something that they may not be familiar with. We cook food we like in the hopes that it gets DC excited not just about what we do here but the friendships we want to bring in here.”
Most of the guest chefs that Spero has hosted at Reverie were those he had never met before.
“I just slide into their DMs,” he laughs.
Despite his extensive fine dining experience (Spero has trained under world-renowned chefs such as John Shields, José Andrés, Johnny Monis, and Andoni Luis Aduriz) and his recent stint on Netflix, Spero does not consider himself to be a “big name chef”. He does, however, consider all his guest chefs to be the meccas of dining in their locales.
“The fact that these people say yes to coming and cooking with me is one of the coolest things that has happened for this restaurant. We’ve built a network of new friends that I can rely on for ideas or just talk about life. They’re people that I respect 100% professionally but also am lucky enough to consider them friends now.”
Spero considers it important to create channels of communication for chefs to help nurture inspiration and encourage unique approaches to food and service.
“We’re not looking to compete on a national stage,” Spero confirms. “We’re looking to collaborate on a national stage.”
This month, Reverie partners with Un-Plated to host guest chef Zach Engel of Galit in Chicago.
“We don’t do it for the money. We just want to bring in new ideas and expose a group of people to something that they may not be familiar with. We cook food we like in the hopes that it gets DC excited not just about what we do here but the friendships we want to bring in here.”
“I knew of Zach and his restaurant but I didn’t know much,” Spero admits. “When we talked on the phone, it was less about the menu for the dinner and more about our backgrounds. That’s the reason why these dinners are so fun! Our restaurants aren’t polar opposites but we operate differently.”
For instance, Engel recently posted about serving 270 people during a snowstorm in Chicago. “That’s more than we do in a couple of days!” Spero chuckles, spreading his arms out to gesture at the cozy dining room.
“We both know that we just cook food really well,” Spero continues. “I guarantee Engel is going to do something that’s just going to blow me away.”
It is custom for Reverie guest dinners to include several courses of which each restaurant takes turns in sending out a course. In the spirit of collaboration and Un-Plated events being unlike any other, Chef Spero and Chef Engel will be serving dishes that they’ve conceived together as well as signature dishes representative of each of their restaurants.