By Stephie Hass
In an ongoing series, Washington Life sits down with some of the area’s best pastry chefs to see where D.C. desserts are heading. We begin with Fiola’s Tom Wellings, who discusses his new position at Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola in Penn Quarter, which recently won a 2012 RAMMY for Best New Restaurant.
Wellings began his career studying art, until a job at a restaurant on Cape Cod sparked his interest in food and he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute. While working at Hugo’s in Portland, Maine, Wellings got a taste of dessert preparations and moved to the French Culinary Institute in New York to pursue his new interest. After graduating in 2004, Wellings gained experience in notable pastry kitchens around the country, such as WD-50 in New York, Clio in Boston and Trio in Chicago.
Fiola marks the third time Trabocchi and Wellings have worked together. In 2007, Wellings served as pastry chef at now-closed Maestro in Washington where the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington nominated him Pastry Chef of the Year. He and Trabocchi again collaborated at Fiamma in New York. Wellings comes to Fiola from Equinox.
What was your response to Fiola winning a RAMMY for best new restaurant this year? Were you surprised?
We were hopeful. Everybody’s been working hard to make things like that happen. We were happy and surprised.
What works really well at Fiola?
I think everything’s working really well. The idea of the restaurant fits into what people are looking for — a nice meal, high quality and good service. The food is really, really good and it’s the only place that offers somewhere in between fine dining and casual in this neighborhood.
You and Chef Trabocchi have worked together several times before. What made you make the switch from Equinox to Fiola?
I was at Equinox for a couple years and I really enjoyed working with Todd and Ellen [Gray, co-owners of Equinox.] Eventually I started talking to Fabio about coming over. We have a really good professional relationship. When it comes to our approach to food, we really think alike and complement each other.
Describe your working relationship.
I know what he is looking for in desserts, and I try to match what he does with aesthetics, flavor profiles, etc. One thing I love about working with him, he can tell you the whole history behind a dessert, which gives more meaning to the food. He’s like a dictionary of Italian food.
How has your working relationship changed over the years?
Initially he wasn’t sure what I would do, or what my style was. Now there’s more trust. He lets me do what I want, but I’ll still go to him for a tasting to see where I can improve. Our styles mesh well together.
What was the process for creating a new dessert menu at Fiola?
Consider the seasons, that’s the starting point. I think about what fruits and vegetables are available, what I would eat at that time of year. Summer desserts are lighter, more refreshing, more berries and fruits. For fall, richer and warmer, more nuts and spices. I researched traditional Italian desserts and designed a menu to make them a little more contemporary.
Where do you get your ingredients?
We source most of our ingredients locally when we can; berries, fruits, butter are all sourced locally. Fabio sources vegetables and meat from farms out of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
What is a must-try on this menu?
The panna cotta and “La Zuppa Inglese.”
Any upcoming special events or tastings?
We’re about to start offering really nice chocolate by weight at the bar, the brand is Amedei, out of Italy.
With the focus on healthy eating habits, are people ordering fewer desserts? Is there any pressure to use low-fat ingredients or lighter ingredients?
Personally I don’t use corn syrup at all. I use glucose made from wheat. It works very similarly. Our restaurant is not the kind of place to expect something like spa food. My main concern is to make something taste good. But there is a trend toward lightening things up that comes from customers. We as chefs will adjust to that.
What are your favorite ingredients?
I like vanilla beans lot, also the Tonka bean, a legume from South America, although that’s not on the menu. In some cities it’s illegal because it’s considered a carcinogen. In my restaurant we use it — the amount you’d have to consume is like pounds. I also like herbs, lemon verbena especially.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
My wife’s Colombian and there’s a Colombian candy called Coffee Delight. I eat like 10 a day.
How long have you worked in D.C.? What changes have you seen in the city and the restaurant scene in that time?
I came to D.C. from Boston in 2004. Since then the D.C. restaurant scene has gotten a lot bigger; there’s a lot more to choose from. When I first moved here there weren’t many causal places. There were many famous, expensive French and Italian [restaurants]. But now there’s a lot of mid-range restaurants, and the dining scene’s a lot younger.
What favorite D.C. spots do you visit when you’re not working?
2 Amys Pizza, Posto, Bar Pilar, Pearl Dive. I live around there, and there are a lot of great places.