All American

Chef who loves people side of business keeps restaurant small

Chef who loves people side of business keeps restaurant small

June 19, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Daniel V. Harshbarger is slicing vegetables while discussing golf, specifically the wonder of U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods and why he thinks runner up Phil Mickelson is perpetually playing second fiddle.

In Harshbarger's mind, Tiger's edge is mental. Same could be said of the 28-year-old Culinary Institute of America trained chef and owner of the Purple Iris in Martinsburg, W.Va.

A native of Pittsburgh, Harshbarger already owns a business, Catoctin Catering, in Frederick, Md., and is less than three months into his ownership of The Purple Iris with his fiancee, Tiffany Wireman.


When all is up an running, the couple's bread and butter will be big events: Weddings, business meetings, parties. But a tiny, 50-seat restaurant on the Iris' second floor is their passion.

Personalized service is their forte, where Harshbarger, a veteran of the Sheraton Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C., and Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, Md., can mingle with his guests.

And here's a twist. He doesn't want the restaurant to get bigger. Because bigger means unwieldy, with many more employees and management issues that will take away from the personal interaction he craves.

"The part I like is the people part of it, the food part of it and what we wanted to do with this place was take our house and extend it to our business," Harshbarger says. "We want it to just be like coming to our house for dinner. We love to entertain."

After touring the restaurant and event center, which rests on 17-acres along U.S. 11, and before a demonstration of his cooking prowess, Harshbarger sat down to talk culinary arts and restaurant management with Staff Writer Kevin Clapp.

Q: How did you get involved with cooking?

A: Mostly family. I have a godfather who owned a small family bar and restaurant and my mother managed it.

Q:Why do you enjoy cooking? What keeps you doing it?

A: I enjoy food. I like the creative side of it. I enjoy eating first of all, different foods.

And it's more tied together: Food and people. It's a hectic atmosphere on the working side of it, and on the dining side of it I go out into the dining area. I love meeting and talking to people in the dining room and getting to know them. Food opens up a lot of conversation.

Q: Earlier you mentioned creativity. How much do you enjoy the creative side of it?

A: Being creative in terms of I like taking foods that people know and really, my style is not ... A lot of chefs like taking all these things and mixing 'em up in a way that most people don't even like 'em. I like taking foods people like and making them better.

Q:How so?

A:The things I really key on and that make my food different than others is I pay attention about the food I buy, seasoning correctly and most importantly correct cooking methods, and that all comes from my background, training. I don't think you can go to a chain restaurant and get that.

With meat I age all the meat here and understand what aging meat is and how it works, (how it) really complexes the flavor of it. It makes it much more tender. There's a lot of little details like usage of marinades.

You don't marinade too much or you'll dry it out. ... It all goes into preparing a good meal as opposed to just a meal.

My fiancee, Tiffany, and I look at a meal at our restaurant as an experience. We want it to be relaxed and we want people to enjoy the whole place, this whole experience and get to know us.

Q: Do you think the art of eating out has been lost at all?

A: I think there's a small percentage of people that really enjoy dining out as an experience. ... What we're here to entertain is that small group.

Q: Why is it so important to be able to sit down and enjoy a meal?

A: I think from a chef's perspective a mealtime is very important in life, to be able to sit down for an hour or two with a friend, a spouse, a child, a cousin, and sit down and have a good conversation, leaving your worries behind.

Everybody's so busy that it's nice to be able to go somewhere, be served, enjoy a meal, just relax and talk, bond, whatever you're into. Whatever you want to do. I think it's a good escape.

Q: And if you've done your job, that's what will happen here?

A: Definitely.

Q: What do you enjoy cooking? Do you have a specific style of cooking?

A: It's pretty wide-ranged. I would say my style is American. It's a new thing basically in the States. You can find any ingredient you want. Things aren't so separated any more. ...

I tend to really stick within the seasons and the mood that sets. You come here in spring, summer you're not going to see beef stew on the menu. You'll see a nice, perfectly grilled steak with a light cherry sauce.

Q: Does mixing up the menu like that keep the work from getting stale?

A:Definitely, and that's where a lot of creativity comes in. Just like people don't like eating the same thing everyday, I don't like cooking the same thing every day.

Q:How often do you change your specials?

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