“Top Chef” star Brian Hill is bringing his talent for cooking back to his hometown, with Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen due to open Thursday. Located downtown in the Golden Triangle, the restaurant will offer classic American cuisine with Caribbean and Asian influences.
Hill grew up in Petworth but has lived in Los Angeles for the past 15 years. Hill, a contestant on the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” also appeared on “Bar Rescue” on Spike and was a regular on “Private Chefs of Beverly Hills” on the Food Network.
The “culinary Kanye,” as Hill calls himself, said he wants to bring his cuisine to D.C. because it is important for him to offer his community the comforts he did not have as a child. He said he wants those with lower incomes to be able to afford his food. He plans to serve dishes such as tequila-lime, oven-roasted chicken with oven-roasted mashed yams for around $12.
“I grew up poor,” Hill said. “I couldn’t graduate from college, because I couldn’t afford to pay for my books. I knew people that couldn’t afford fast casual places.”
Growing up in poverty, it was hard for Hill to imagine a life of success.
“When you come from where I come from — where they shoot at night on your block, where you used to eat Tootsie Rolls for dinner, where your mother tells you you won’t ever be anything, and you graduate from high school and are homeless — but where people kept telling me, ‘There’s something special about you,’” Hill said. “I looked around and thought, there’s something more.”
Hill’s family, including his five brothers and sisters, were evicted from their home in 2002 and began receiving welfare assistance after their father left. As an impressionable 9-year-old, Hill was left with a skewed understanding of family.
Hill started cooking around age 13. He learned how to grill and sauté, and to make meals that his younger sister would enjoy. He didn’t view cooking as a career until after dropping out of college at Temple University and moving to Los Angeles. There, he began helping other chefs with their businesses — hosting events and catering for parties, and operating a food truck.
“Those people would know more people, and they would tell their friends,” Hill said. “Then came this one woman who loved my catfish. And she told me, ‘I want you to work for my boss.’”
Hill was skeptical, assuming the offer wasn’t concrete, but decided to show up at the address she gave him to meet the potential client. It turned out to be actor and comedian Eddie Murphy, and Hill immediately got the job.
“I cooked for him and his kids for a year,” Hill said. “I made him everything he loved, and the only thing he didn’t like was cilantro.”
But Hill said it was cooking for music star Mary J. Blige that made him who he is today. Not only did she love his food, but “she taught me the art of conversation. Mary J. Blige is the reason I’m Chef Brian,” Hill said.
Hill grilled and roasted for Blige, but on her “cheat day” he would make her favorite dish: golden-fried chicken sliders with paprika and tarragon mayo, a fan favorite he plans to offer in his new restaurant.
Hill plans to do a soft-open, letting customers come in and sample his food before purchasing, saying that he hopes to offer a higher focus on customer service than other restaurants. “Is the customer always right? No, but you have to fix problems for the customer,” he said.
Hill isn’t too worried about people enjoying his food, however.
“You can’t get what I make anywhere else,” Hill said. “I’m giving what I’m giving, and you’re going to love it.”
Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen is scheduled to open Aug. 10 at 1020 19th St. NW.