Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo
Chef Buben is going to make fun of me for this, but his house really is out there. Past the scant parts of Virginia I’m familiar with, past the vast parts of Virginia my photographer is familiar with, we find ourselves off of 123, down a desolate road. A few turns later, we’re navigating a little suburban neighborhood chock full of mini mansions. Lucky for us, Google Maps tells us to stop right outside of the house with the cute dog.
We’re here to dive deep into the contents of Jeffrey Buben’s fridge and talk a little bit about what he’s planning for Zoofari (grab your tickets here! It’s gonna be great!). Head chef of Vidalia (RIP), Woodward Table, and Bistro Bis, Jeffrey has been a force in D.C.’s food scene for decades. The chefs who have trained under him, from Kinship’s Eric Ziebold to Bad Saint’s Tom Cunanan, have gone on to completely change dining in D.C. If you look close enough, his influence is all over the city.
As the tiny little dalmatian looking pup leads us to the door, Chef Buben’s wife steps out. Sallie is immediately all smiles, warmly welcoming us in and pointing us right into the kitchen, where her husband is making a snack. It’s obvious straight away that Jeffrey and Sallie are quite the team, as Sallie ducks into the office to work on the latest draft of Woodward Table’s upcoming spring menu, Jeffrey starts telling us about his Easter plans. His son, who has just joined the team at The Inn at Little Washington has stopped by to visit, and the kitchen is jam packed with food. Buben laughs, explaining, “This week it went from zero to 100.” Frozen waffles for the grandchildren, shrimp for Sunday’s dinner, and smoked salmon from New York clutter the already well stocked fridge.
Jeffrey and Sallie laugh, explaining that they have a bit of a trading post set up between their three children. No one comes to the house without bringing a regional snack, whether it’s BBQ or Philly cheese steaks. They moved from Astoria into the D.C. area in the 80s, Buben explains, and while there are things they miss about New York, Philly (where Jeffrey grew up) and North Carolina (Sallie’s home), they love the physical diversity of the area. “In 20, 30 minutes you can be out in the county!” he says. He mentions the eastern shore of Maryland saying, “You have the best of both worlds on both sides.”
When their kitchen isn’t stocked for the holiday, Sallie is the main cook, crafting traditional southern dishes, but Jeffrey is always in charge of snack duty. He rarely has the time to sit down for a full meal (he jokes he’s a part of the Sink Club), but he makes little things throughout the day, like today’s egg, smoked salmon, and arugula sandwiches. Served on a delicious brioche bread with a little bit of whitefish, they’re a way better snack than I could throw together. I’ve been through a ton of chef’s kitchens, and it’s always a little awkward for everyone involved. I’m cavalierly walking through a stranger’s house while asking overly familiar questions and directing a photographer. I totally get why someone would want me in and out as fast as possible, so I was surprised as anyone when Buben threw together two sandwiches for me and my photographer. I’ve been offered samples and bites of things before, but no one has ever actually tried to feed me mid interview.
When I make a comment about it, Buben looks at me perplexed, saying “That’s not very hospitable.” I can’t imagine a better word to describe the Buben’s then wildly hospitable. They were funny, charming and at no point did they seem even remotely bothered by my intrusion.
After destroying that sandwich like my life depended on it, we start poking around. Buben shows off some of the seasons first vidalia onions, still a little greener than he’d like. That reminds him of the days when he would go out and pick up crates of onions from a grower. His Jeep Cherokee could fit 36 boxes if you put down all the seats. He’d usually meet them somewhere off of 95, at the time, D.C. was still infamous for it’s violence and according to Buben, “they were not going to come down town.”
The fridge doors open, and for all of Buben’s talk about it being crazy around the house this week, it’s immaculate. He laughs, “I run the fridge like a walk in.” Everything is labeled, portioned and organized, from the pickled vegetables to the aforementioned whitefish, but it’s the condiments that catch our eyes. The Buben’s have a wide swath of hot sauces, BBQ sauces, mustards, and more. His personal favorite (Inner Beauty hot sauce) isn’t there at the moment, but they have plenty of other options.
A single can of whipped cream catches my eye, and I ask about it, wondering if they have any desserts planned for Easter, when Buben explains that it’s for coffee. He admits to drinking about five cups a day (not all with whipped cream, of course). Later on, we find a loaf of cauliflower bread and learn that him and his wife occasionally go paleo from time to time (“It helps when you’re a chef because you eat when you get nervous”). The Buben’s are full of surprises.
We spy pomegranate syrup that the chef occasionally uses with Brussels sprouts and dumplings that he gets from a lady in Centreville. Asking about his homemade iced tea, Buben talks about how his family always gets down to the very end of the pitcher, leaving only enough left for a single cup. Buben is in charge of making the iced tea and it (jokingly) drives him nuts.
We stop for a couple of seconds to ask him about what he’s going to cook up at Zoofari and Buben cracks a smile, talking about the year he served frog legs along with roasted vidalia onions on skewers. It was the Year of the Frog, and he likes working with a theme. He’s the kind of chef who would serve rabbit pate on Easter.
Speaking of pate, we dive straight into the freezer and find a ton meat. Buben says they’re a big pork family, but we also find short ribs and chicken fat along with chorizo. We spy spring rolls (that are also from the lady in Centreville) and some rice grits, but the best find are a box of popsicles. Buben didn’t even realize they had any, and of course, he insists we each take one. Heading out the door with a popsicle in each hand, Buben jokingly says he hopes I enjoyed my day in the country.