"We’re Not Just Selling Food, We’re Selling an Experience"
Terp Chef Behind D.C. Restaurant Group in Running for James Beard Award
In the plush bar of his Foggy Bottom restaurant, Marcel’s chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier tastes a cherry mousse dotted with cookie crumbs brought to him by his pastry chef, who awaits his verdict. As suited men buzz by him setting up for dinner, Wiedmaier, dressed in his chef’s whites, considers the pale pink confection for a moment and then proclaims, “It’s delicious.”
This late March afternoon marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of Marcel’s, the tony French-Belgian restaurant that the former UMD student named after his first son. This year, Marcel’s is a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard Award in the category of Outstanding Service. Finalists for the 2019 awards, the Oscars of the restaurant industry, will be announced today, with the winners named in May.
“People are very finicky about restaurants,” said Wiedmaier of his ability to keep a restaurant relevant for two decades in the ever-changing Washington, D.C., scene. “They can eat at a restaurant 20 times and have a great time, but then they go one time and don’t like it and they won’t go back. They’ll go someplace else. So it’s really putting your heart and soul into something and pushing it every day.”
Born in Germany to a Belgian father and a Californian mother, Wiedmaier “ended up hanging out in the kitchen all the time” with his mother and grandmother, who he describes as “unbelievable cooks.” Going to local markets and tasting produce from farms near the small German village where the family lived helped spark Wiedmaier’s interest in food and cooking.
Wiedmaier knew he wanted to be a chef, but his father pushed for a college degree. After finishing culinary school in the Netherlands, Wiedmaier came to UMD in the early 1980s, a result of his father’s links to Washington, D.C.
Though he declared a major in psychology (and made longtime friends as a member of the Theta Chi fraternity), Wiedmaier decided after two years to return to Europe and make a go of it in restaurants. He cooked in kitchens in Brussels and London before returning to D.C. to work at the Four Seasons and the Watergate. Since opening Marcel’s in 1999, he’s expanded to a mini-empire of 10 more restaurants in the region, including Brasserie Beck and Siren, which earned a Michelin star.
“We’re not just selling food, we’re selling an experience,” said Wiedmaier. “You know you’re going to come and eat something that you might not normally eat.”
Marcel’s menu—which has been sampled by celebrities like George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and “every senator or congressman in the city,” according to Wiedmaier—is filled with special-occasion creations. “You can choose among plates such as buttery lobster navarin with lobster-filled ravioli, the most ethereal of boudin blancs, and a supremely flavorful pepper-crusted entrecote,” wrote Washingtonian in February, when it ranked Marcel’s No. 36 on its list of the 100 best restaurants in D.C. The magazine also noted that “this is the sort of place where you can rest in the knowledge that servers and sommeliers will know what you want—sometimes even before you do.”
“I want to see Marcel’s be here another 30, 40 years,” said Wiedmaier. “You go to Paris, there are restaurants that have been there 30, 40, 100 years. There’s no reason why Marcel’s can’t.”