How Will Artley turned an eight-day restaurant into a full-time gig.
By Stefanie Gans / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
On October 24, 2011 Will Artley was out of ideas.
For six years the chef ran the kitchen of Evening Star Cafe, the foundation of Del Ray dining and a crown of Michael Babin’s sprawling Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which counts Vermilion and Rustico as members.
“I just wasn’t inspired anymore,” remembered Artley, now chef of Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church. “It’d been so easy for me in the past to put menu ideas together. And then I got to the point where ‘Oh My God, I’m burned out now.’”
The chef wouldn’t find a permanent residence until the second to last day of February. “That’s a long time for a chef to be out of a kitchen,” he says of his time between gigs, although that’s not to say Artley wasn’t cooking his ass off during the gap. Boy needed to find a J-O-B.
Within his current home though, an airy, sunflower yellow space with an exhibition kitchen, Artley perfects small plates. His crispy Brussels sprouts should make kale nervous: With leaves separated and salted, it makes for a better chip than the recently avowed kale.
At 35-years-old with 20 years of cooking experience, Artley had not yet saved enough money to buy his own restaurant, although that didn’t stop him from trying. He cultivated a following in Alexandria—so much so that Artley assembled a team of investors solely from the neighborhood of Del Ray—but like many wishful restaurant owners, he never manged to find the right spot or the right lease.
After an eating adventure in New York and a two-and-a-half-week stint in the Bahamas working as a private chef, Artley started consulting for Virginia restaurateurs “Mango” Mike Anderson (of Mango Mike’s) and Bill Blackburn. With four days before its anticipated opening, they tapped Artley for recipe testing and staff training prior to the launch of Del Ray’s much-awaited Pork Barrel BBQ. With its successful opening, he started presenting dishes to test groups at the team’s Asian concept, Chop Chop. But the restaurant wasn’t ready to open, and there sat an unoccupied space on the main drag of Del Ray, 2312 Mt. Vernon Ave., just a few blocks from Evening Star.
Artley, a burly man with garden vegetables (eggplant, artichokes, squash blossoms, carrots, peas, beets) tattooed on his arm, knew he still possessed a fan base.
In one conversation—20 minutes to be exact—a passionate Artley convinced Anderson and Blackburn to let him use Chop Chop’s space for a pop-up restaurant in Del Ray. (Artley’s plea to take over the space for good, however, was dismissed.) Artley assembled a team, built tables, bought reservation software and drafted a menu of 25 rotating dishes for an eight-day temporary restaurant.
Project 2312, named for its address, let Artley reminisce with past inventions (a gorgeous sweet carrot emulsion from the farm table picnic dinners at Planet Wine Shop) as well as experiment with the flexibility of a beet (sliced, then cleverly rolled, to resemble a cannoli).
Bigger cities have been exploited by the pop-up trend for some years now. At first the concept seemed exciting. Buzzy chefs could host previews of their forthcoming projects, gain some press and hype, and start testing dishes for an enthusiastic audience. Now pop-ups are like cupcakes: once a trend, now a staple.
Northern Virginia hadn’t seen a proper pop-up until Artley’s, save for the month-and-a-half-long, casual patio party next to Planet Wine in 2009 featuring surplus meats from Red Apron Butchery (also Neighborhood Restaurant Group).
With restaurant space in his former culinary backyard, he played to the home crowd. He listened to his loyal followers: Artley received texts and emails asking for his luscious BLT gnocchi, which started at Evening Star, snagged a spot on 2312’s menu and now finds a home at Orso.
The pop-up’s version welcomed more truffle oil and bacon than his current iteration, my dining partner at both locations, and I, agreed. But it makes sense—interviews are all about showing off.
Whether or not Artley understood it at the time, his pop-up became a performance test, ultimately securing him his spot at Orso.
Artley’s conversations with the Orso team, who also owns restaurant 2941 in Falls Church, started before the pop-up when a fellow chef and friend mentioned him as a possible candidate. Artley had been constantly interviewing at this time, performing multiple tastings in a given day.
As part of the process, Artley made it a policy to drop into restaurants where he thought he might like to cook. “I was looking for a neighborhood,” says Artley, but he also searched for a challenging new experiment and somewhere he could roll deep; he refused any job offer that wouldn’t allow him to bring his four-man crew.
Two different groups representing Orso tasted Artley’s food during 2312’s short run. Along with turning down a Maryland chef gig, Artley refused five positions, including two opportunities in the District: a big operation downtown and a Monday-through-Thursday pop-up/club.
“I could go to D.C.,” Artley remembers thinking at this pivotal time in his career, and “move from the small town of Del Ray and go over to the big boys, [but] I still love Virginia.”
“I had more ideas than I knew what to do with,” remembers Artley, reinvigorated after the pop-up. “That’s when I knew: Now is the time I need to get them out and about.”
As the third chef for the year-and-a-half-old Orso, Artley works on retooling the restaurant, focusing on small plates maybe even more so than the namesake pies.
Artley ate at Orso five times before accepting the job. He studied the locals, the scene, the menu. He saw potential. He saw a family. But most of all, he savored the challenge.
Artley attended a Neapolitan pizza training school before starting at Orso, although he had slung a few pies as bar snacks in previous kitchens, but not with this equipment. Gushing about Orso’s dough room—temperature- and humidity-controlled—as well as the dough mixer engineered to mimic hands kneading dough, with an automatically rotating bowl, Artley still needs to find his perfect base.
Pizza can arrive beautifullly chewy, salty, charred and stiff enough to stay horizontal through bites of an ensemble cast of cheese (mozzarella, pecorino, fontina, grana, ricotta) stripped with prosciutto slices on the self-titled Orso pizza.
Or, slices can turn sad and soupy, with a dud of a tomato sauce and tiny splotches of mozzarella for the Margherita DOC.
Born with a sourdough starter, the dough reflects changes in the weather, even with the lock-down dough room. Artley knows, “My dough is the most sour it’s ever been,” but the lack of a consistent structure still plagues the new pizzaiolo.
Other dishes soar, like tender meatballs sinking into a creamy polenta below. It’s straightforward, delicious and satisfying. Dinner must not always shift toward inventive for attention.
Uncle Ben’s rice gets purposefully overcooked and then pureed with firm tofu for a lunchtime-only meatless burger more resembling creamy risotto than anything from the freezer aisle.
Artley arrives at Orso at six o’clock in the morning on Mondays, even though the restaurant is closed.
“It’s nice to be alone in the restaurant,” he says. The tenacious toque comes in to feed the dough starter; only a family dog or dairy cow typically receives that much attention in the morning.
Artley also starts a fire in the oven so it doesn’t get cold. He sits in various seats throughout the restaurant, trying to understand what it must feel like to dine there, just like he did during his try-out.
“I think it was pretty influential,” Artley says of his pop-up’s success in landing him the Orso gig. “They got to see me at my best, at my prime.”
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Average entree: $13-$20 ($$)