Though it just opened in January of this year, Ada’s On The River in Alexandria’s Old Town has already become the subject of laudatory profiles in national publications and dubbed as one of the best restaurants in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.
The reason? Ada’s secret weapon: Chef Randall Matthews.
The Executive Chef and native of District Heights, Maryland, has taken helm of the restaurant’s menu which includes wood-fired prime steaks, fresh seafood and vegetarian fare — all set to the sweeping views of the Potomac River. In a word, the food is delicious. But in a city often overshadowed by its neighboring sister of D.C., his efforts come as no small feat, coupled with the fact that just 14.7% of chefs and head cooks identify as Black, the lowest percentage of category by gender, race and ethnicity, according to a 2020 study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Matthews is doing it, and doing it well.
Within the past couple years, Northern Virginia — Alexandria in particular — has given birth to a food scene that rivals that of New York, D.C., Philadelphia, and its other east-coast neighbors, thanks to Ada’s parent company in Alexandria Restaurant Partners, the magic behind other hot spots The Majestic and Vola’s Dockside Grill.
Matthews talents began at The Greenbrier Hotel & Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and he journeyed throughout chef positions at The Country Club at Woodmore, Bourbon Steak, at Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC and True Food Kitchen, before charting his path at Ada’s. For ESSENCE, Randall speaks on the challenges of being a Black chef in a competitive culinary landscape, the inspiration behind his culinary creations at Ada’s and advice for other burgeoning Black chefs.
Can you start off by telling us a little about you, who you are, and how you got into cooking?
Growing up, I always had an interest in cooking – I would spend time with my mom and grandmother helping them in the kitchen. In college, I played football but decided that wasn’t for me. I then began working in restaurants, doing internships with various mentors and enrolled in The CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
What are some of the challenges facing the restaurant industry — specifically for Black chefs?
Consistency – in the sense of what the role entails. It’s different for black chefs. You know you have to work extra hard. Being a minority, you are always “picked last”, so the challenge is to do double or triple the work just to make yourself visible.
What do you think it is about yourself that helped you survive the gauntlet that’s defeated so many other black chefs?
I figure out what was my “why”. Like, “why are you here?” or what’s the end goal? My “whys” help me persevere – my future, my family, my goals. I know it sounds cliché, but my personal goal is to open up my own restaurant. But I want mine to be one that gives back to the community. Where the profits are used to fund things like a school or community center. I want to mentor youth on cooking and working in the hospitality industry. So that they see that they have options for the future.
What is the value of a good dining experience?
A good dining experience starts when you first walk in a restaurant. It starts when you first walk in – from the greeting to the service. It should be clean, organized, warm, and comforting. Then, the food needs to memorable, with robust flavors and ingredients. It (the service and food) has to surpass a certain level to truly make it a memorable experience.
Black people have often been written out of food history. Do you think there’s a shift that’s emerging now?
Not sure if I call it a shift yet, but I see more cultural understanding. It’s more profound now than it was 5 years ago, but it still has a long way to go. For instance, where you used to only see French, people are now including African and Haitian cuisine in the conversation. There’s not a complete awareness just yet.
What inspired the menu at Ada’s?
The menu is inspired by a mixture of my upbringing and experience. It’s larger format family style meals like pasta and lasagna that are influenced by my travels. My experience traveling around the world has helped refine my skills when creating and plating a dish.
What is your favorite or signature ingredient?
What advice do you have for black cooks starting out in fine dining?
Stay the course. Fine dining has changed, the expectation has changed, management style has changed. I would say be persistent and stay the course. For me, seeking out a mentor made all the difference.