Chef Brian Hill might be a recognizable face from television’s Top Chef, Bar Rescue, and MasterChef, but behind his celebrity status lies a life of hard work and dedication. Hill’s new restaurant, Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen, located in Washington D.C.’s trendy Dupont Circle, represents a homecoming of sorts.
“I’m like the Mayor of 19th Street,” said Hill, who likes to stand outside on the sidewalk and greet his customers. It’s how he collects feedback on his unique comfort food, like the homemade turkey meatballs with fresh, oven-roasted tomato sauce, or the golden fried boneless chicken and waffles.
Brian Hill might be sitting pretty in Dupont Circle now, but he grew up on welfare in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood in the 1970s, long before the area was making “best of” lists on D.C. lifestyle blogs.
“We had to save up to be poor, so I didn’t understand why I didn’t like my mother’s cooking,” Hill said of his childhood. At 11, he discovered PBS cooking specials, like Julia Child’s The French Chef and The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr, and immediately started experimenting. “The only problem is you don’t have much food in the refrigerator,” said Hill, “so I started with making omelets.”
His early successes of cooking for his siblings prompted him to take a series of jobs, first at a bodega, making sandwiches, then at the Plaza Hotel, where he worked as a bellman. But Hill missed making food. In the mid-90s, he moved to Philadelphia for college and worked at the Penn Tower Hotel for Marcia Rafig, one of only a few black general managers in the country. Rafig saw potential in Hill and placed him in eight positions over the course of 11 months, so he could learn the ropes in hospitality and hotel management.
From his stint at the Penn Tower Hotel, Hill moved to South Beach, where he worked for Gloria and Emilio Estefan at the Cardozo Hotel, and then set his sights on Los Angeles. There, his hustle and good-natured bravado put him in the same orbit as celebrities like Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey.
“I mean, my life just went from zero to a hundred,” said Hill of his time cooking in celebrity kitchens. “They saw I wasn’t scared. ‘You’re a celebrity, but I’m the Culinary Kanye,’” Hill would tell himself.
Hill’s confidence helped him prepare fresh food that earned rave reviews and landed him job after job. “Although I’m in the yes business, I was just giving them what I love,” he said. “And that’s what they needed.”
Nine months ago, Hill opened Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen with the same attitude fueling his menu. He built the business from the ground up with his own savings, rather than relying on investors. The move gives Hill plenty of latitude over his menu and business operations, and he’s focused especially on hiring black and brown kids from the neighborhood.
“It is literally now my obligation to send the elevator back down,” said Hill, who works with five “young guns,” ages 19 to 24—the same age he was when he started working in hospitality.
Hill’s desire to give back carries over to other aspects of his business, too, including price point. “I don’t care how much money you make,” he said. “I want everyone to be able to afford this cuisine. So that’s why the most expensive item is 13 or 14 dollars.”
But what a menu. Every item is made to order with fresh, simple ingredients, right down to the paprika and tarragon mayonnaise for the golden fried chicken sliders. Each of the eleven dishes has the Brian Hill stamp of approval because he’s been serving them for fifteen years to his all-star client list.
“Now you guys are celebrities, the general public,” he said. “I’m going to give you what I love.”
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