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Volunteer Park Cafe , Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke's beloved neighborhood restaurant on north Capitol Hill, opened its doors on January 11, 2007. In just


Grillaxin' with Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke, Part One

Burke & Earnhardt.jpg
Volunteer Park Cafe, Heather Earnhardt and Ericka Burke's beloved neighborhood restaurant on north Capitol Hill, opened its doors on January 11, 2007. In just three years, VPC has become nothing short of a neighborhood institution. On any given day at noon the cafe is filled with friends, families, and children (not to mention the countless strollers, bikes, and dogs parked on the sidewalk out front) gathering over Earnhardt and Burke's comfort food: fresh baked pastries, brisket sloppy joes, chicken pot pies, brioche French toast. While VPC has been around for three years, the idea existed for close to a decade between these two close friends who first met while working at Carmelita in 1997. Just before VPC's third anniversary, Earnhardt and Burke sat down with Voracious to talk a little shop.

So, how did it all begin?

HE: Well, we used to drink a lot of wine together. Drink wine, have dinner parties, and talk about how we should open a place. We just thought we could cook better food than what was out there. This was back in 1998-1999.

EB: Then I moved to San Francisco for a few years, but we were still in touch. Heather would come down and visit. Eventually, I moved back.

HE: And we'd still be hanging out, drinking wine, and cooking. Then a few years later, my kids started school.

EB: And I left my job, doing corporate catering stuff. And in 2006, Heather really started bugging me again about opening our own place. At first I didn't want to do it. I was like, "I don't want to work 12, 14, 18 hour days." But what could I do. This business is in the blood.

HE: So we started looking, and we found this place on Craigslist. It was dirty, dark and dreary, but we knew we could turn it into what it should have been all along, a great neighborhood place.

Do either of you live in the neighborhood?

EB: No, but I used to buy beer here when I was in high school. Back when it was a corner store.

That's amazing. But back to Craigslist. That's surprising. The restaurant has such a strong sense of place, I was actually going to ask you how important this location was to you.

EB: Yeah, Craigslist. At first I was like, "Are we crazy?" It was a mess, and in this funky weird location. But then I thought about it, and then it was just "Ding! Of course!" We set out to make it an extension of ourselves, of the neighborhood. Our first day open was January 11, 2007, in the middle of a giant snowstorm. It immediately became a place for people in the neighborhood to gather, and now practically everybody knows each other.

I look back and realize that with our combined experience, this place w be successful. But the first few months were the hardest, and we worked eighteen-hour days. But we built such a great foundation. We haven't changed much since we opened--just the menu, and just a little. We're still cooking our food, the food we love.

Is there an ingredient or dish that you're particularly into these days? If so, what?

HE: Browned butter, fresh grated nutmeg, white sweet potatoes, fennel, blood oranges, Meyer lemons.

EB: Citrus. Maybe simply because it's in season and so tasty right now. I have always been a freak about using citrus zest. Zest is probably in 75% of my recipes- it adds a subtle layer of flavor and a little lift of acid.

What do you think this says about your cooking style/interests?

HE: Simple, done well, using great ingredients.

EB: It says, seasonality, simplicity, subtle and straightforward, and not too fussy.

You're making a pizza. What's on it?

HE: fresh figs, onion jam, chevre

EB: a super simple Margherita- tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil

You're making an omelet. What's in it?

HE: I don't like omelets.

EB: Chanterelles, Gruyere and fine herbs. And of course a side of bacon!

Actually Heather, I don't like omelets either. If you could make a simple egg dish, what would it be?

HE: It's not that I hate omelets, but back when I worked in a restaurants during brunch, I was often super hungover and the smell of just turned me off. When you're doing eggs and omelets in volume, it's very different. It's just so easy to have a bad one out there. But if I was doing one at home, it would just be spinach, ham, and some jack cheese, or maybe a good aged English cheddar.

EB: Really, the perfect egg dish is just sunny side up, from your chickens at home.

Check back Tuesday for Part II of Earnhardt and Burke's interview.

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