Chef Patrick O’Connell on the Dream

By Martha Steger | June 18th, 2024

Stoves and (Michelin) stars

Chef Patrick O'Connell at the event as part of the Julia Child exhibit at the VMHC

Chef Patrick O’Connell appeared at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture as part of the emphasis on the life of Julia Child as it connects to Virginia. Writer Martha Steger spoke with O’Connell there. The exhibit “Julia Child: A Recipe for Life” runs through Sept. 2, 2024. 

Before becoming Virginia’s most celebrated chef, Patrick O’Connell found it necessary to become a private detective in the early 1970s. Standing next to his red, wood-burning stove in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture exhibit, “Julia Child: A Recipe for Life,” he told his great stove story: He’d had to solve the theft of his prized cast-iron stove with its elements set for differing levels of heat.

He had purchased his perfect stove and put it in the kitchen of a Washington, Virginia, farmhouse where he and Rheinhardt Lynch would begin operating a catering business in 1974, prior to renovating the town’s old gas station – which in 1978 they opened as The Inn at Little Washington. Years before completing that transformation, he returned from work in Washington, D.C., 96 miles to the east, and found a big hole in the kitchen floor where his prized stove had been.

He immediately saw that dropping the heavy stove through the floor to the basement hadn’t deterred the thieves. They had made off with it, but O’Connell received a tip – and he headed to Virginia Beach. Using the description he provided, local police found the main culprit of the team was someone known to have promoted himself in the Beach area as one to keep an eye on homes while owners were away.

Julie Child filming in the studio kitchen. For What's Booming, March 14 to 21
Julia Child and production crew at Cambridge Electric Kitchen. 1963. Photography by Paul Child © The Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Like his friend and mentor Julia Child, who was unperturbable no matter what happened as she cooked on her television show, the self-taught Chef O’Connell took this incident in stride with his sense of humor. Though cooking is – and was – serious business to this culinary perfectionist, he says he tells his hundred-or-so employees, “This is not life and death.”

Given the inn’s environmental reputation, he does see sustainability as a matter of life and death: In addition to the three Michelin gold stars received in 2019, the inn is the recipient of the Green Star, awarded annually by Michelin to restaurants “that uphold outstanding sustainable and eco-friendly culinary practices … [that] aim to reduce waste throughout every step of the supply chain and work directly with suppliers and vendors striving to do the same.” He uses as many locally grown ingredients as possible. (I remember dining on apple-smoked trout at the inn in 1983, when waitstaff told me the smoking of the Shenandoah Valley trout had been done locally with Virginia apples and hickory.)

He had planned to be an actor, but the love of food that he got from his grandmother, plus a restaurant job at age 15, set his culinary future. He has connected the relationship between theatre and cooking by saying that great dining involves drama. In this conversation, he added that “with any ambition, there’s no shortage of people who tell you it can’t be done.” As with Julia Child, it was tenacity and authenticity, with a touch of drama, that put him (and Virginia) on the map for fine dining decades ago.

With a smile of filial affection, he recalled his mother’s serving fish sticks on Friday nights – with her own dramatic touches. Decades later, he said she told him, “If things don’t work out with the restaurant, you can always sell door-to-door that wonderful granola you make.”

That restaurant not only worked out – one of only 13 Michelin three-star restaurants in the U. S. and the only one in Virginia – but expanded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination – except, perhaps, for O’Connell’s. He and his team recently opened Patty O’s Café & Bakery, where he says he serves the simple food that was his trademark when he first opened the inn.

“We get diners from all over the world, and those from overseas don’t want dishes like boeuf bourguignon. They want my macaroni and cheese with country ham or wild mushroom pizza.” (Note to readers: Save room for warm plum torte with sweet-corn ice cream.)

By way of advice, he said, “There’s no shortage of people telling you why something won’t work,” he said, “but you have to dream the dream. You can always scale it back … All you have to do is do what you did yesterday and make it a teeny bit better.”

More images from “Julia Child: A Recipe for Life”

“Julia Child: A Recipe for Life” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Image by Annie Tobey
“Julia Child: A Recipe for Life” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Image by Annie Tobey


Display of a Banquet beef dinner frozen TV dinner
The exhibit looks at the revolution in food in the 20th century, including frozen meals like this Banquet beef dinner.


A fun photo of a guest at the VMHC exhibit posing with an image of Chef Julia Child.
Entrance to exhibition provides a selfie opportunity! Writer Martha Steger poses with a cut-out image of Chef Julia Child.


The story of Thomas Jefferson's enslaved cook, James Hemings, being freed at Jefferson's death, is included as a Virginia highlight in the exhibition.
The story of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook, James Hemings, being freed at Jefferson’s death, is included as a Virginia highlight in the exhibition.


Julia Child old photograph at the exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture
An old photo of Julia Child at the exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture

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