Washington, D.C.-based chef Johnny Spero is, as they say, making lemonade out of lemons. In this case, the “lemon” is the early morning fire that ripped through his Michelin-starred Georgetown restaurant Reverie in August, forcing the fine dining destination to close its doors indefinitely while the space undergoes renovations. The “lemonade,” then, is a months-long world tour that will take the chef from California to Kyoto with stops in Maine and Seoul along the way. “We’re making the best of what was probably one of the worst moments of my life,” Spero says. “I feel like I have too much forward momentum to want to stop. I'm not good at slowing down.”
The first and longest leg of the tour, which concludes in May, will bring Spero and a small team to Oakland, where he’ll cook alongside two of the Bay Area’s high-profile culinary talents.
First, Spero — who’s bringing both Reverie’s head chef and general manager along for each leg of travel — will head to Michelin-starred Commis on Friday, January 27 and Saturday, January 28 for two nights of dinners hosted by chef James Syhabout. Each chef will cook half of the courses for the dinner’s tasting menu ($275, optional $119 wine pairing). Spero says he and Syhabout first met through mutual friends in D.C. and he’s “always been inspired by what he does.” Next, Spero will head to Oakland’s Snail Bar to cook with Andres Giraldo Florez; the pair cooked together at Mugaritz in Spain and have kept in touch over the years, Spero says. The Snail Bar dinner — dubbed “Homie’s Night” — will be held on Sunday, January 29, and will feature a shorter tasting menu ($125, optional $65 wine pairing) than the dinners at Commis.
The menus for all three events are still in flux, Spero says. But that’s not just due to procrastination. Spero says the plan is to build on the basis of what he does at Reverie but to swap in local ingredients, based on what’s fresh when he arrives later this month. For example, Spero says he does a dish using Jonah crab, Carolina gold rice, and miso; he’ll likely keep the golden-hued rice but swap in local Dungeness crab. Similarly, for dessert, he’ll use the base of Reverie’s fromage blanc mousse, which he augments with seasonal ingredients like wild allspice and lemon verbena, to showcase what’s growing in Northern California right now.
After leaving the Bay Area, Spero heads down the coast to Los Alamos for dinner with the teams at Bell’s and Bar Le Côté, then it’s back to D.C. for just over a week before the team goes international to pop up in Seoul. Other stops include a residency in Portland, Maine, and a final trip to Kyoto. Spero says the tour is not only a way to keep himself busy while Reverie undergoes renovations — after all, the chef also has a wife, three kids, and a stunning new Basque-themed restaurant on his plate — but also a chance to get re-energized and inspired before reopening his flagship. “The last couple of months have been a very ridiculously aggressive few months to deal with,” Spero says. “I need to get a little bit inspired, and I think working with like-minded people, that’s our goal — to just go and have some fun.”
Spero, who also appeared on Netflix’s cooking competition show the Final Table, says he’s still figuring out the repair schedule for Reverie but hopes to be able to open in a number of months. In the meantime, he’s hopeful that traveling and cooking in fresh spaces with familiar friends will help him bring the restaurant back stronger than ever. “Fire is cleansing,” Spero says. “I can kind of start over.”