John Lawrence: Head Chef at George’s Food and Spirits

“I want people to see George’s Food and Spirits as a wonderful place to get good seafood.”

John Lawrence is the Head Chef at George’s Food and Spirits at the George Washington A Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Winchester, Virginia. The George Washington Hotel was originally constructed in 1924 with a major restoration completed in  2008.  John has lived in many different areas in the United States but Virginia is his most comfortable area that he enjoys. John’s always excited to get new foods into the kitchen and whip up something that he hasn’t tried before. Being open minded as a chef has had a huge impact on the success that John has reached in his culinary experiences. He’s brought a seafood twist to the menu at George’s Food and Spirits being that he worked in many seafood towns. If you’re in the mood for some fabulous cuisine in a comfortable casual setting come and enjoy the new style at George’s Food and Spirits.

What do you love most about food?

“The challenge, food is fun. I’ve worked with food for so many years and something always surprises me.  There’s always new ways to prepare an item and there’s always new products out there that are available. When I first started way back in the dark ages, it wasn’t as exciting, there wasn’t as much to work with. Nowadays, it’s just awesome. Before it was I’m going to go out and have steak or lobster. But now there’s sushi, Mexican, Indian, there’s so many things available from different parts of the world that I find terrible exciting.”

What is your training, do you have formal training or have you learned everything on your own?

“Both, I started out when I was 16 and I went back to school when I was in my early 30s. I graduated from New England Culinary Institute in 1994, and from there I did almost 8 years with the Ritz-Carlton. After that I a few years in New Orleans, came back to Virginia and did 10 years with The Tides Inn from 2003 to 2013, 2 years with de Cuisine from Kimball’s Kitchen at the Sanderling Resort in Duck, North Carolina, and now I’m here at the George Washington. It’s good to be close to home.”

What have been some of your challenges you’ve faced being a restaurant that’s in a hotel?

“It can be anything from getting a good staff to getting a good product in, making sure that your deliveries are here on time. It’s a day-to-day thing that’s constantly changing. When I first arrived here, there were so really great people who just needed better direction and instruction on how to do things. They were hungry to learn and that’s what I like to have in my kitchen, I want people to challenge me just as much as I challenge them.”

How have you developed your menu in the sense that you’d like it to be set apart from other restaurants in the area?

“Well the first thing I did when I got here was change up the menu. I’ve worked in a lot of great seafood towns. I added oysters, you have to have oysters. I worked with the Rappahannock Oyster Company for years as my house oysters. We serve them raw, we serve them baked, and we are now added fried oysters to the menu. I want people to see George’s Food and Spirits as a wonderful place to get good seafood.”

What were some of your earliest memories in the kitchen?

“Washing too many dishes, I started out as a busboy and a dishwasher. My father when he wasn’t out flying he was at home cooking. When I was about 7 or 8 on a Saturday I got my first lesson on how to cook pancakes and it just snowballed from there. We ate a lot of interesting foods growing up, seafood gumbo, crab gumbo, curry chicken, when my father would spend his time in different parts of the world he would come back with this knowledge and share it with us on the table.”

What or who inspired you to become a chef?

“My father inspired me to become a chef, as we go through history on my dad’s side there were a lot of chefs. On my mother’s side, my great-great grandmother owned and operated the Savoy Hotel in Pearisburg, Virginia. She used a cast iron stove to do all of her cooking, she would wake up at 5 am and start the fire, and at the end of the night she would stay up to put it out. I actually have a lot of her recipes, I’ve modernized a lot of her recipes that I’ve used in the past they’ve been very helpful.”

Have you ever seriously injured yourself on the job before? What were you doing?

“I broke one of my own rules, it was a very busy Friday night and one of my cooks had a pan full of butter that was about ready to slip off of the stove. So instead of letting it hit the ground I pushed it out of the way and all of the butter went down my right hand. I had the dishwasher bring me a big bucket of ice and I continued to expedite until the rush was over.”

What styles have you brought into the kitchen based your experiences?

“There’s an Asian influence, a country influence for example using black eyed peas in some of our dishes. It’s interesting to see what you can marinate together.”

What is your favorite flavor or spice to work with?

“I’m torn on that, I always enjoy some fresh ginger. I’ve been playing with fresh peppercorn, and when it comes to flavoring agents I do a brown sugar and apple cider vinegar that I use with pork. I have an Asian brine that brings out a different element to the meat. I love bright flavors and some sweet.”

What has been your most challenging project so far?

“Getting people trained and getting them to come in and work on different things, it’s winning the hearts and minds. Also, it’s getting customers, when I started to change things on the menu people would say to me ‘oh that’s my favorite dish’ and I would tell them well I can make it taste better for you.”

What is the key ingredient of becoming and maintaining success as a chef?

“Being open minded, don’t be afraid to eat anything. It might look nasty, but it’s going to taste great. Time management skills and realizing that this is not a 9 to 5 job, physically it can be challenging but it’s more of a mental thing you must keep focused on what you need to do. You have to juggle many balls and you can’t let any of them drop or else everything will come to a screeching halt.”

Snack Bites:

I use thyme in everything I cook, no matter what the dish is.

My favorite dish to cook is: Curried Eggs, it’s a family thing (Pooched eggs, Curry cream sauce, and Canadian bacon)

My most essential item in the kitchen is: Japanese Steel Knife

My guilty pleasure snack (or dish) is: Five Guys

My new favorite tool or gadget is: Emergent Circulator: circulates water temperature.