An international crowd enjoyed a special night hosted by The Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell to celebrate his Michelin-starred restaurant’s 40th anniversary.
During a trip to Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte 25 years ago, a chef-owner Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington in Rappahannock County, Va., was enthralled by its mystical energy; so much so that he wondered if he had visited the palace in a past life. Fast forward to the Inn’s 40th anniversary and the self-proclaimed Francophile knew he had to do it up big. “The chateau was the scene of perhaps the greatest party ever given for Louis XIV,” O’Connell said.
“We wanted to take our guests on a journey back in time and channel that historic moment.”
As a commemoration of Vaux-le-Vicomte‘s special history and his own, he brought the celebration to France at the end of September to pay homage to the cuisine that significantly shaped his career and culinary journey. At the reception at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris on the event of the main event, O’Connell joked that he had come a very long way from his childhood preferences for Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks and Velveeta cheese.
The party, entitled “A Magnificent Dream,” lived up to its promise and the timing could not have been more momentous. Weeks earlier, O’Connell and his fine dining shrine had claimed a third Michelin star – a prestigious ranking shared by only 136 restaurants in the world. Guests at the French celebration included Patrick’s family, friends, colleagues, culinary peers and supporters willing to shell out $3,000 for a seat at the table.
A number of Washington-area residents made the trip to support an institution that O’Connell built from the ground up over the last four decades. The high-profile group included the U.S. ambassador to France Jamie McCourt (who also served at the evening’s honorary chairman), Philippe Gombert (president of Relais & Châteaux, the luxury hospitality group with which the Inn is affiliated), Count Alexandre de Vogüé, whose family owns the chateau, and many of the Inn’s frequent flyers. One very special guest, 90-year-old Joyce Conwy Evans (O’Connell calls her the “Inn’s Fairy God Mother”), designed the Inn’s interior when it first opened in 1978.
Unlike the restaurant’s extravagant summer anniversary soirée at Mount Vernon, where hundreds gathered for dinner by the Inn’s team, this meal was handled by the chateau’s exclusive caterer Potel et Chabot, who worked closely with O’Connell to create an authentic 17th-century lineup based on historic menus.
“We were aiming for a look of opulent rusticity with an emphasis on the season,” O’Connell said.
Revelers in their black-tie best-boarded luxury buses from the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris for the hour-long journey, a ride eased by mini bottles of Laurent-Perrier and a guide speaking about the fascinating history of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Audible gasps filled the bus as the chateau’s spectacular facade came into view, with jaws dropping further as actors wearing period costumes led the group to an expansive stone terrace overlooking the estate’s 1,235 acres.
As dusk descended and Pommery Champagne flowed, more than 2,000 candles were lighted to illuminate the supremely manicured gardens. A glowing O’Connell, sporting a classic perruque with cascading locks greeted guests before guiding them into a vast salon elaborately decorated with flair and florals true to the 17th century.
Once seated, the host reminded the crowd that centuries ago, Louis XIV and his courtiers had dined in the very same room. Even for non-history buffs, the magic was palpable within the palatial walls. Trumpeters announced each course with great pomp and circumstance: truffle soup served in goose eggs followed by tender Brittany lobster robed in Savoy cabbage and then the piece de resistance — squab encrusted in pastry with foïe gras.
Towering cakes and French pastries completed the lavish repast. The night was capped by an epic firework and flame bursting presentation accompanied by dramatic classical music that many claimed was the most fantastic light show they’d ever seen. “Let your hair down and party like it’s 1661!” chef O’Connell had exclaimed earlier after removing his wig and toasting the cheering diners.
That they did.
A Grand Château’s Rise & Fall
In 1661, Louis XIV sat on the throne of France, where he relished absolute power and a lavish lifestyle. His finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, who had prospered from the kingdom’s riches, constructed a large château 35 miles outside Paris in Maincy, amid a few tiny villages. After completion of his massive undertaking, which he called Vaux-le-Vicomte, he invited 600 highly placed guests to take the 18-hour trek and celebrate its completion at an epic party that was to last three days and nights.
But as the story goes, the king never made it through the first night. Overcome by jealousy and the effrontery of being one-upped by the presumptuous underling, he departed in a huff, soon to put plans in motion to have Fouquet imprisoned for life on the grounds of misappropriated funds.
Once Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration, the king began plans to create an even grander and more sumptuous residence as a way to increase his prestige throughout Europe. He ended up using the same dream team as Fouquet — architect Louis Le Vau, artist Charles Le Brun and landscape gardener André Le Notre. Upon pride and envy was the glorious palace of Versailles thus built.
Members of the Sommier family, who have owned Vaux-le-Vicomte for five generations, have spent the last several decades restoring it to its former glory, putting special emphasis on its magnificent architecture, art and landscape.