Brian Marshall Johnson doesn’t think much of traditional food criticism. “Food judgments are BS.” It’s like saying, "‘Do you like the color green? Yes! Oh, you’re wrong!’" he says. Tastes are unique and one isn’t better or worse than the other. He’s emphatic about that. Except for truffle oil. “Truffle oil,” he says, “is like Satan's tears.”
By day Johnson is an oil and gas lobbyist. By night he’s searing quail and smoking turkey and posting recipes to his blog: The Hungry Lobbyist. It’s an atypical Washington D.C. inside-the-beltway blog that’s actually meaningful outside the beltway as well. It features stories about the D.C. food scene, recipes, restaurant reviews and information about lobbying.
Johnson’s blog was an unintended consequence of “The Toothpick Rule” (aka “The Hotdog Rule”) that prevents lobbyists from feeding congressmen fancy sit-down food at restaurants or events. Lobbyists can provide congressmen only with finger food and hors d’oeuvres—food that can only be eaten “on a toothpick.”
“I’d leave a function and still be hungry because there was nothing substantive to eat,” he says. He was “a hungry lobbyist.” It’s a catchy name, he says, but it has nothing to do with lobbying and everything to do with stuff like “finding the best bulgogi (Korean barbecue) in D.C.” (He goes to a place called Mandu.)
Johnson’s love of food and cooking comes from growing up hunting and fishing on his family’s North Carolina farm. The now overdone notion of “farm-to-table” food is how he was raised. Which explains his homemade jerky and pasta sauce and “an arsenal of kitchen gadgets.”
Simple techniques can improve anyone’s cooking he says. Like not over cooking eggs (eggs keep cooking after you remove them from the pan so adjust accordingly). Also, he says, most people under-season chicken and over-cook pork. And, please, he says, please, rest your meat. Meat should rest 10 minutes per pound before slicing, otherwise the juices run out.
He subscribes to Chef Anthony Bourdain’s notion that basic cooking skills are a virtue. He’s a big fan of recent Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino’s creativity. (Cosentino, along with Houston’s Richard Knight mainstreamed cooking offal—animal organs and extremities.) His favorite D.C. chefs— Café Belga’s Bart Vandaele, Graffiato’s Mike Isabella, and Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza—reveal his appreciation of uncomplicated, unfussy, well-prepared food. Blue Duck Tavern’s “classic American cuisine” is, he says, a must.
Family meals in his home centered around his Sicilian mother’s cooking. Family meals meant everyone sitting around and drinking wine while a pot of red sauce simmering on the stove for hours. He learned to cook from his mother (her pasta sauce recipe is on his blog),and went hunting and fishing with his dad who is an outdoor culinary guy; Johnson says he’s an expert at roasting and smoking 350-pound pigs. “Food was a common bond,” he says. “I enjoyed that. I liked being around that.”
Johnson emerged as the go-to food guy in college, arranging and cooking most of his frat’s big meals. Every year he throws a “Friends-Giving” party the week before Thanksgiving for 30 to 30 friends. This year he loaded a 30-pound turkey into a smoker around 4:30, morning of. Guests brought the sides.
Johnson even tried out for the Food Network series, "Chopped," answering a casting call for amateur chefs. He made it to the qualifying rounds but just missed the final cut. A great experience, he says, that made make him get more serious about the Hungry Lobbyist.
Johnson’s newly re-branded website, launched this week, is more food-intensive and food-specific. He’s still blogging his recipes but now divides reviews into three categories, “K Street Classics,” “Off The Lobbyist Path” and “Lobbyist On the Run” (food trucks reviews). He’s adding a men’s fashion section, “Lobbyist Lifestyle” (“There’s more to D.C. than Brooks Brothers,” and “no man bags. Ever.”) a link to his celebrity interview column and Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest posts.
He credits his upbringing with inspiring him to create the blog. His parents are proud of it thought they’re really not sure what it is. His mother, he says, is surprised that he’s actually writes it. And his dad is skeptical of Johnson’s cooking ability. “Put it this way,” says Johnson of his father, “if there’s a pig to be cooked on the farm, he’s gonna do it.”