Bluejacket DC on Re-evaluating and Raising the Standards of “Brewpub” Food
Bluejacket’s kitchen was the quietest, cleanest kitchen I’ve ever set foot in. If I hadn’t just walked in from a bustling restaurant, I would have assumed it was closed. That is, until I saw the ticket machine humming, the stoves lit, towering burgers being plated, and strong women quietly working their stations, all with beaming smiles on their faces as I walked by.
Chef Marcelle Afram runs a tight ship. There were maybe three or four people working diligently but they were blazing through hundreds of tickets like it was no big deal.
It was an unassuming Tuesday night—no baseball or football—at around 5:30pm and the place was already packed. And, it turns out, that’s Bluejacket’s “quiet” time.
“We do roughly 300 covers in the dining room but double and a half more at the bar,” Chef Marcelle explains. No surprise, given that Bluejacket is also a brewery. “The beer program has always driven this place,” she continues. “Food wasn’t an afterthought but I don’t think people used to come here for the food.”
That changed in late 2015, when Chef Marcelle went from being the restaurant’s sous chef to executive chef. “We were the first of our kind in a neighborhood like this,” Chef Marcelle sweeps her hand over the surrounding area, which now includes a Sweetgreen, Potbelly, Nando’s, and Philz Coffee. Bluejacket opened up in Navy Yards in November of 2013 before any of the aforementioned had really come into the area.
“We wanted to make great food that goes with great beer, and still do. When I took over, we had built up a repertoire of great burgers and sandwiches but we saw the need for some finger foods or maybe even a great fish dish. We’re in a unique area because we’re not that far from Capitol Hill so, while people are looking for good bar food, they’re also just looking for great plated food as well.”
Now when one mentions Bluejacket to a group, someone will invariably light up and eagerly recommend the tots and the burger.
I’d add that the mumbo chicken sandwich is an exquisite tribute to those who love fried chicken; drenched in zingy sauce and still beautifully crisp.
Chef Marcelle seized the opportunity to revamp and expand Bluejacket’s offerings in combination with an initiative very dear to her heart—hyperlocal sourcing.
“The connections we have with the people that we source from are so special. It’s an amazing opportunity and an honor to work with them.”
Impressively, 90% of all the ingredients used at Bluejacket DC have been sourced within 100-mile radius in the summertime, a number that drops to 80% in the winters.
Chef Marcelle gained a great deal of respect for local sourcing thanks to her hands-on training in Spain and Wisconsin (she opted to learn on the field as opposed to going to culinary school).
“I worked on a co-op in Wisconsin and had to put down a cow with my bare arms. It gave me an appreciation I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The co-op was a prominent source for everyone in the community surrounding it. My training in Spain also taught me the importance of the little guys to greater society. These [experiences] really became ingrained in who I am and who I want to be.”
Meanwhile, items on the menu like the double cut pork chop served with a variation of Chef Marcelle’s mother’s potato recipe, the diver scallops with warm quinoa salad, the summer gazpacho, or even the pickle board highlight Chef Marcelle’s Mediterranean roots.
“My parents owned mom and pop shops throughout Montgomery county when I was growing up. A lot of pizza and subs, but they always had their Lebanese staples, which were my favorite. My mom would put up our family recipes as specials and they would end up being bestsellers.”
Chef Marcelle smiles reminiscently.
“I just fell in love with it. It’s so cliché but those were my formative moments…being surrounded by food and people creating food.”
Chef Marcelle admits to being a bit of a troublemaker when younger.
“I worked our pizza counter when I was 10 and didn’t want to go to school anymore. I just wanted to make food. It kind of became an obsession from there.”
By 18, Chef Marcelle was working at restaurants in Spain.
“In Majorca, we were at a pier and we had a fire pit. Whatever the catch of the day was, we’d cook and sell Pintxos style. A lot of what I learned to do as a chef was out there.”
Memories of the firepit are conjured up every time Chef Marcelle fires up Bluejacket’s impressive wood fire outdoor grill. “We have it open every weekend and every time there’s a baseball game. We even do bushels of crabs on special sometimes!”
Every day she spends in the kitchen is a day dedicated to lifting the standard of food at breweries and brewpubs. “We’re doing great plated food that pairs really well with delicious beer. Its time people know about that. We’re hoping to set the standard of breweries higher when it comes to a food focus. Beer is a communal event…beer and food together? Makes a lot of sense to me.”