Chef Morejon Profile
Daniel O’Connell’s Restaurant & Bar
112 King Street
Old Town Alexandria
Bio: I’m a transplant from Miami that moved up to the area in 2002 because of a job. In 2009 I went to Stratford University in Tyson’s Corner and went back to school to get my degree in Culinary Arts – so I could never “work” another day in my life. And I haven’t, I LOVE what I do, I love waking up and knowing that I’m going to spend the day in my happy place. Not a lot of people can say that.
My first cooking job was at Wegman’s as a cook 1, which meant I basically prepped a large amount of food for the deli. I moved my way up to Lead Cook at the seafood bar; that’s when you cook and serve at the same time. After that I worked at several restaurants in the area. I came to O’Connell’s to help out a friend of the owners. I was working for him at another Irish restaurant and it was going to be undergoing renovations which meant I was going to be out of work for a few weeks. He asked if I would come and help/fill in as their Kitchen Manager had literally walked out. I came in and after a few days I didn’t want to leave. Needless to say, I never made it back to my other restaurant.
When did you first become interested in cooking? Why did you decide to pursue a culinary career?
As the daughter of exiled Cubans, you can say that cooking was something that I was going to be doing whether I liked it or not. I grew up in a very culturally rich family. My mom used to say, “From the door in, it’s Cuba, you speak Spanish and you act like a Cuban, from the door out, you are in America, you can speak English.” I have to say, that now as an adult I’m thankful because it made me bilingual. That being said, the women cooked and the men got served. I remember as a little girl I used to be awed by watching the women in my family cook together; they laughed, talked and truly enjoyed each other’s company. They would serve these delicious meals and we’d all eat as a family. We would laugh and dance and be happy and all because of food and cooking. I guess at a young age I associated cooking/food with happiness. I’ve always loved to cook; food has always made me happy. When I was working in ‘corporate America’ I’d come home and cook by myself just to make my day a little brighter. Never under estimate the power of chopping an onion while listening to your favorite band and having good wine. I got in to it as a career when I got laid off in 2007 when the market crashed, instead of finding another corporate job, I went back to school to get my degree.
Who have been the biggest inspirations for your career?
My biggest inspirations are the women in my family – my mom and both of my grandmothers. My dad’s mom owned restaurants in Cuba and Puerto Rico (where they migrated first). In fact, I truly believe that if and when I get to heaven, my grandma is going to be waiting for me with a plate of her “Fricase de pollo” and a cigar. They were not only hard working women but, through their behavior, I learned work ethics, manners and a few tricks that have saved me in the kitchen more than once! One more thing, Anthony Bourdain ROCKS!
What dish on the O’Connell’s menu are you curious to see how it is received?
I’m floored by the reaction people have to anything I make. Seriously, it still blows me away and humbles me that people are eating my food – really MY food! I am a tiny little Cuban in the midst of a metropolitan area with a world of choices, yet they are eating my food. WOW!!! Still blows my mind. The item I’m curious about is not really on the menu, but it will run as a special. The dish is the Irish Cuban. It’s a Cuban sandwich made with Irish bacon instead of ham. I’m cautious because I believe our guests have palates that are diverse and curious, but at the same time, we all love our meat and potatoes.
What do you do to insure that the quality of the food going out to customers is up to par?
As Kitchen Manager/Executive Chef, I have put lots of checks and balances in place; from ordering from reputable honest businesses to tasting the finished product. I make sure that the every plate not only looks good, but that it’s made with quality ingredients and most of all, it’s made with love.
If any chef in the world could prepare you a meal, who would it, be?
There are 2 answers, both referenced in my “inspiration” question. The first one would be my grandmother from heaven – I would give anything to taste her ‘Fricase de Pollo y platanitos maduros.’ The second one would be not prepared “by” but “with” Anthony Bourdain, and it would be whatever he wanted. He always has a story with his food, and cooking WITH him I’d hear the story, have great wine and amazing food. Food is not only food, but it’s happiness, it’s sustenance not only for the body but if made the right way and eaten in a pleasurable environment it’s also sustenance for the soul.
Written by: Chester Simpson
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