Cathal Armstrong cooked for Julia Child. Twice.
The normally unflappable chef remembers the day when Julia Child turned up unannounced. He was working at Bistro Bis, a popular brasserie on Capitol Hill.
“I had nothing ready,” Armstrong says. “So I cooked for her off the cuff.”
A certain gleefulness enters his voice as he recalls that she came back the next day with celebrity chef Jacques Pépin and signed a book for him. “To Cathal, a great chef,” it read. “From Julia, a home cook.”
That was seven years ago, before Armstrong and his wife and business partner Meshelle had opened his first of three restaurants in Virginia.
The Armstrongs and partner Todd Thrasher also own and operate Eamonn's A Dublin Chipper; PX, the upstairs speakeasy lounge; and the historic eatery the Majestic, all within five blocks from Restaurant Eve.
Sitting at a table at Restaurant Eve, a quaint yet sophisticated 100 seat dining experience located in Old Town, Alexandria, Armstrong talks about some of the celebrities he has cooked for.
He cooked a private dinner for George W. Bush in the White House residence, and hosted a fundraiser at the Majestic “for a very little known senator from Illinois about two years ago, at the beginning of a presidential campaign.” Michelle Obama came back to eat there once she was first lady.
His favorite guest to cook for, however, was the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who he cooked for “at least 100 times at Bistro Bis.” As soon as Kennedy heard Armstrong’s accent, he realized he started introducing him to all of his Senate friends as “our chef.”
“He liked his liver and onions,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong grew up in a suburb of Dublin called Killiney, “Which is where Bono's house is, actually,” he notes with a chuckle. “But we didn't live in that neighborhood. We lived on the other side of town.”
He went to a small, all Gaelic-speaking school, played hurling for the Dublin minors and moved to the United States in 1990, just two weeks short of his 21st birthday. He landed a job at Murphy's Irish Pub in Woodley Park, and the plan was to “earn some fast cash and get out of the restaurant business” and head back to London to attend culinary school.
“That was about 19 years ago,” laughs the man who got his U.S. citizenship about five years ago but still thinks in Irish.
Armstrong describes his life as the “quintessential American dream story.” He applied for a green card in the Morrison visa lottery, eventually landing one of the visas aimed directly at Irish immigrants.
It would not be the only time his Irish heritage would help him out. He met his wife when he was making pizzas part time at a restaurant she managed, and they “went out dancing one night and one thing led to another.”
“The movie The Commitments had just come out and she had just seen it, and everybody was all enthralled with Irish at the time and horses in elevators and that sort of thing,” Armstrong says. “So I think she was a little smitten with me because of the movie.
Now his wife, who was born in the Philippines, is “close enough to Irish citizenship,” and Armstrong is teaching his young kids, Eve, 10, and Eamonn, seven, a few Irish words.
“Seas suas,” he says in an airy accent. “Stand up.”
“Sí sios -- sit down.”
“They're good words to start with kids,” he says, erupting into that easy smile of his.
Talking to Armstrong is bit like pulling up a stool at your local pub and lucking into good company -- there is a passion and excitement underlying everything he says, especially when he's talking now about his own early and unlikely introduction to food.
His dad was a tour operator, and had people working for him “who lived in Benidorm, the Canary Island and Costa Rica and Costa Brava, Tunisia and Greece.”
His father, “a great natural cook and a hobby gardener,” was always learning from his friends how to cook paella and couscous and “all this crazy stuff no one in Ireland ate.”
“We would be sitting at the table on six out of seven nights, and he'd say, 'No one in Ireland is eating this dish,' and it was true,” Armstrong says.
Even the fish they ate on Fridays, “because that was the Catholic rule,” received special treatment. “My friends, all of them, had frozen fish fingers,” he says.
“But that would be sacrilegious to my father who went to the fish market on Friday to buy fresh fish, caught from the sea that day.”
Armstrong has stayed true to his father's ideal.
“Cathal Armstrong really cares about the provenance of the food he serves at Restaurant Eve,” says food priestess and Chez Panisse impresario Alice Waters. “He serves local, organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, and even has a kitchen garden growing out back.”