'I Could Fall On My Face'
A roasted chicken with potatoes and a simple salad for dinner. Vanilla ice cream for dessert.
For a man who makes a living cooking grilled branzino with celery root puree and ricotta fritters with cardamom blueberry sauce, Unum owner and chef Phillip Blane is drawn to the basics.
‘If you ask a lot of cooks, what got them into cooking in the first place—what drew them to food—it wasn’t a deluxe four-star meal at Citronelle,’ Phillip says. ‘It was grandma’s cooking, or the memory of a hot dog at a baseball game. Wow, this really created an emotion in me and drew me toward wanting to know more about it.’
Phillip loves food. Like most cooks, he’ll eat anything. But it’s the comfort food—the familiarity of those simple dishes—that most often call to him.
He got his first taste of the restaurant business working in a wine bar in London during high school—fascinated by what was going on in the kitchen. That summer, he got his foot in the door.
‘That was it, I was hooked. But I didn’t actually become a professional chef until many years later. I thought of it more as something a little bigger than a hobby.’
Instead, Phillip got a masters degree in healthcare administration and managed assisted living facilities. Yet, at 33, he had a change of heart.
‘I thought you know what, I’m not happy in this life. Let me see what I can do.’
Phillip met a couple who’d also experienced a life change—a corporate buy-out and the fall-out after 9/11 nudging them toward opening a little boutique hotel on the Eastern Shore. He got a job in the hotel kitchen—his first time at the helm.
‘It was a small little place in the middle of nowhere. It was a great place to test and experiment without the glare of the public eye. I could fall on my face and no one would know.’
But Phillip succeeded, and someone noticed. Specifically, DC chef Todd Gray’s parents, who came in one day for dinner and told Phillip their son was hiring. Ready to leave small town Maryland, Phillip traveled for a bit before accepting a job at Todd’s Equinox restaurant.
While working in DC, Phillip met another important person—his future wife. Laura had an apartment on Thomas Jefferson Street and as the relationship progressed, the couple discussed Phillip’s aspirations to open his own restaurant.
‘She was very supportive and when we talked about the type of restaurant we would open, we were very focused on wanting to be part of a neighborhood,’ Phillip says. ‘Our first choice was Georgetown. We liked being part of the community, getting to know our regulars and being part of the fabric of what’s already here.’
Five and a half years later, you’ll find Phillip at Unum—doing everything from working the line to paying the bills and cooking the special of the night. After looking in Cleveland Park, the Palisades and H Street, he’d jumped at the chance to rent an M Street building when it became available—formerly Mendocino Grille, where Laura met Phillip’s parents for the first time.
‘What I like most is seeing so many regulars,’ Phillip says. ‘We have so much repeat business. We’ve achieved that sense of community and space. Ironically, so many people still don’t know about us. We don’t have big street visibility, big signage and flashing lights. That’s somewhat by design. We like the idea of feeling like you discovered us.’
In addition to neighborhood residents-turned-regulars, Unum hosts its share of celebrities and politicos. But Phillip won’t cook and tell.
‘The idea is that there are other restaurants where people go for the see and be seen aspect and we don’t want that. Here they’re anonymous and out to dinner for the night with friends, unfettered by photographers or tweeters. People come here to be off.’
Phillip, on the other hand, goes home. After a full day in the kitchen, ‘elaborate, chef-driven meals at home’ just aren’t happening.
‘I would be very happy to order Chinese food every night. When you come home every night after 11, you don’t want to start making noise and banging pots and pans with a 7-year-old trying to sleep, so finding the time to cook is a challenge. My wife is very frustrated by the fact that I’m in a restaurant all day surrounded by food and there’s nothing in the refrigerator. She says there’s something wrong with that picture.’
So what does the at-home menu look like for a chef? Phillip cooks batch food—eggplant parmesan, beef for his son’s Taco Tuesday ritual, roasted chickens.
At Unum, the menu changes frequently, save a few permanent favorites that are off limits. The new American restaurant incorporates a variety of cuisines based on Phillip’s travels and DC’s own international influences. The world is going global, and Phillip says their food—and name—reflects that. Unum came from e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
DC’s current restaurant scene could also be described as such. Out of many, Unum is just one.
‘I was reading the other day that 500 new restaurants have opened in the past two years. It’s imperative to stay top of mind with all of these new places. You have to try and cater to everyone’s needs but stay true to yourself. The other neighborhoods have the draw based solely on their newness. Georgetown isn’t new, and we’re never going to be new, but it’s lovely and charming. We stick to that vision, and I just hope people come, and return.’
Like the familiarity of a roasted chicken and vanilla ice cream, Unum isn’t going anywhere—and neither is Georgetown.