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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Bialecki

Capital Chefs: Ann Cashion of Johnny’s Half Shell (Part 1)

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

If I were to ever ditch the desk for a kitchen, I think I’d want to work for Ann Cashion. There’s a certain warmth about her–several of her staff call her “Ann” rather than “chef,” and the way she interacts with all of them you can see that she cares about everyone in her kitchen. In return, she doesn’t even have to breathe a word and the right prep bowls and ingredients wind up at her station when she needs them. “I’m very hands-on and I’m willing to do the same things others are doing,” says Cashion about her style in the kitchen and referring to some of the more “drudge” tasks.

For the chef and part owner of Johnny’s Half Shell,  leading and developing her staff is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. In fact, if you take a look around the city you’ll see more than a handful of chefs, such as Teddy Folkman, who have trained under Ann and have gone on to open their own restaurants or run their own kitchens. From our conversation, Ann’s approach to leading in the kitchen seems so nurturing and down to earth that if she were your boss, she’d be the last person you’d want to disappoint. “You can’t over-demand from your staff. I had to learn that,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist and perfection is something to aspire to. But if you don’t achieve it every time, that’s okay too.”

With her attention to mentoring other chefs and developing culinary talent, it comes as no surprise that the people behind the food are part of why Ann became a chef in the first place. “Food is a very wide open field. It’s a very human field,” she explains. “Everybody connects to food.”

In addition to the human factor, Ann liked that food “wasn’t so specialized,” unlike her doctoral program in English Literature at Stanford which she left early to pursue cooking. There are still instances when her background in literature peeks through in conversation though. “I think of food as a language–if you don’t have the vocabulary and syntax down, it’s hard to write poetry,” she says, explaining why traditional Western training is important for aspiring chefs. “Italian food was my first love. It formed the basis for my aesthetic,” she adds. “I liked the non-fussiness of it, the emphasis on the quality of ingredients and the idea of the slow food movement.”

Growing up in Jackson, Miss., food options were more limited. Once she started to travel to New York City and Europe though, Ann’s eyes opened up to a whole new world. “Restaurants became an avenue for food exploration that I had never had growing up,” she says. After graduating from Harvard University, studying at Stanford and spending some time on the west coast in San Francisco, Ann moved to DC in 1984. Back then, the District had a declining population and a steep homicide rate, not to mention not all that much happening in the culinary realm. But despite those cons, Ann says she always felt DC was one of the best kept secret cities to live in. “I’d say the opposite of what Kennedy said about DC, even back then. It’s a very livable city,” Ann says, referring to the famous JFK quote that characterizes DC as a city with “southern efficiency and northern charm.”

Although the city and our dining scene have changed enormously since the 80s–thanks in part to chefs like Ann Cashion and José Andrés, who were cooking here long before DC got any national attention for its food and helped pave the way for the growing dining scene that we have here today–there are still areas for improvement. “I’d like to see DC develop more of its own identity,” says Ann. “I think that’s happening. We’re moving in a positive direction on all levels.”

Ann says one of the factors that has helped has been how DC has finally embraced its African American heritage, as evident in the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the building of the African American history museum. “Connectedness to history is part of the development of a great restaurant scene,” says Ann. She gives the example of New Orleans as a city that loves its indigenous cuisine and takes pride in it, but can continue to riff on the classics. In DC, Ann sees the bustling farmers markets as a sign that people here are becoming more connected to their food. “There’s a pride in what the region produces and a desire to cook again, to know where our food is coming from,” she says. When I ask if she thinks that creates a certain breed of food snobbery or overly trendy locavores, she dismisses such an idea. On the contrary, she says, knowing where our food comes from and being more connected to food sources puts a downward pressure on food prices.

Looking ahead to the future, I asked her what was on the horizon. Cashion has already won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2004 and a RAMMY award, among other accolades she’s received throughout her career. At first Ann tells me she’s not entirely sure of what’s next. She’d like to possibly have a second career in community service, using her expertise and business savvy to help with issues surrounding economic development and social justice. How exactly that might materialize remains to be determined for the chef who has been focused on food full-time for 34 years.

In the meantime, Johnny’s Half Shell just renovated their 95-seat and 1000-square-feet patio and Ann has plans to open another restaurant: Taqueria Nacional. What started as a counter at Johnny’s Half Shell for tacos during breakfast and lunch will now get its own space on 14th and T streets NW. Taqueria Nacional will serve tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner is set to open sometime between November 2012 and January 2013. For Cashion, she wanted a place that her good prep cooks could graduate to, run the restaurant more and start another phase in their staff development. The answer was the taqueria.

“There are so many different things going on,” Ann tells me as we wrap up our conversation. She adds that the quality of food is even better now since Johnny’s moved down to Capitol Hill from P Street. “The longer you operate in a location, the better your instincts get and you get into a rhythm.”



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