Breakfast With Zeke

In a pop-up restaurant for two weekends, a renowned bioethicist sets out to prove that healthy living and exceptional French toast are totally compatible.

Asico Photo

It's not every morning a renowned bioethicist asks you if you’d prefer to sit indoors or out, or freshens your water glass. But that’s what happens when Zeke Emanuel decides to cook breakfast at a pop-up restaurant in Washington D.C. for four days over two weekends. The impromptu venture, devised seemingly on a whim, and with all proceeds going to charity, came together after friends heard Emanuel complaining about the lack of good breakfast options in D.C. and challenged him to do better. But like most breakfasts, it’s a family affair: By the time the fourth and last meal is over next Sunday, each of Emanuel's three daughters, and at least one nephew and niece, will have helped source ingredients, greet guests, and clear tables.

Nearly all of Emanuel’s pop-up breakfast venture, in fact, was true to the dinners he hosts at home, from the ingredients obtained from his favorite purveyors at the Dupont Circle farmer's market to the simple and direct flavors in the dishes he made—French toast, pancakes and waffles, omelets, fruit salad with granola and yogurt, hash browns, and breakfast sausage, with some slightly fancified additions including quail eggs with quinoa and grated tomato.

Emanuel’s palate, like most people’s, was cultivated by family, curiosity, and cultural background. Breakfast is a meal he says he believes in as part of family life: His grandfather, a “food-delivery guy,” served him and his brothers breakfast from scratch every day, and that’s what he serves his three daughters. He hosts breakfast as often as he does dinners and stands at the waffle iron conversing till guests have finished every quarter.

But standing at a kitchen counter and keeping four guests fed isn’t the same as directing a staff of nine cooks and serving over 100 people a day. That took a few months of planning, and enlisting friends as assistants.

“What is this, some kind of George Plimpton thing?” someone at my table asked as we watched Emanuel, his mic clipped to a blue “Breakfast is on the table with Zeke” T-shirt, take long tweezers to thin slices of compressed honeydew before sprinkling spearmint leaves in fine chiffonade over the top. “A midlife crisis,” his brother Rahm commented to the Chicago Tribune with familial bluntness, though he did lend his brother two children to help serve and clear dishes. (“This is Rahm’s standard thing for everything that is unusual,” Zeke explained).

Though the breakfast was billed as healthful, there were no admonitions on the menu and no tableside lectures from the chef. Instead there were enthusiastic details on the ingredients Emanuel had “sourced,” and a blanket ban on potatoes (the hash browns were made from grated malanga, a nutty-flavored tuber commonly used in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and a complex carbohydrate). His kitchen is kosher and though he eats everything on his trips to cutting-edge restaurants, he has no taste for pork, so bacon is duck and sausage is lamb.

The cooks and servers—on loan from the soon-to-open restaurant Masseria, where the breakfasts were served—plunged into the Emanuel experiment with good cheer and efficiency. The first-day results, as you might expect, were slightly bumpy, but with the satisfaction you get when a father cooks you breakfast (and with few complaints, since most of the diners were family and friends). A father, that is, who shops with care. Berries with a pitcher of just-pourable honey yogurt demonstrated the importance of sourcing: I scraped the bottom of the yogurt pitcher with a spoon. Blueberry pancakes were so light yet rich-tasting that I suspected sour cream in the batter, but the recipe provided in the goodie bag specifies just flour, eggs, milk, and a modest amount of canola oil—though the last step does say “smother in butter and maple syrup.” And there were better-than-proficient omelets, with lacy exteriors folded over sauteed oyster and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; a large deep orange-yolked soft-boiled egg; and superior French toast.

As soon as we sat down, Emanuel arrived at the table and announced, “You have to try everything on the menu.” (By the time I left, three hours later, I had, much of it cadged from unsuspecting diners’ plates with coerced permission.) He plunked down a plate of three thick, mottled-brown slices of raisin challah with a half white peach sauteed in saba (grape juice cooked down to a syrup) in the middle. “Wait for the syrup!” he barked (his standard form of address). “It's special.” It was indeed, having been fetched from a New Hampshire farm by his daughter Gabrielle, who loaded a car with plastic gallons of it.

But the French toast, which in an informal survey was everyone’s favorite, was special too. As is almost never the case, the egg-milk mixture had thoroughly soaked through the challah, but not so much to make it soggy. The sauteed slices had the milky freshness and souffle-like texture inside you hope for in fresh-out-of-the-oven bread pudding but seldom get, and crisped crust. I’ll be hoping for that French toast for a long time.

Next week the challah for the French toast will be handmade and shipped from Boston by Marc Garnick, who taught Emanuel oncology at Harvard and is, he says, the best baker he knows. The Zeke show, at close range or far, is always entertaining. And for two more days it comes with the best breakfast in Washington.