Interview: Roberto Donna and Hakan Ilhan at La Forcetta

Roberto Donna

There is a neat woodpile at the entrance of La Forchetta in Northwest Washington DC. It’s a clue to the restaurant – a pizzeria cum trattoria from one of Washington DC’s premier Italian chefs, Roberto Donna. The space is large, but divided into three areas, making it intimate. There is a long exhibition kitchen with bar seating, a wood burning pizza oven, with more bar seating, and a long banquet with tables for two. There are black chandeliers, modern lighting and exposed pipes, and yet, the restaurant seems ready for action. Everything is in shades of gray accented by vivid orange. It’s the setting for a marriage between Turkish restaurateur Hakan Ilhan and Roberto – who has returned to the city after a stint in Arizona.

Super Chef sat down for a chat with chef and owner before the opening slated for April 2. Roberto insisted he is returning to his roots – having opened a trattoria in Adams Morgan as his first restaurant. Hakan walked Super Chef through the restaurant, commenting on the Pietroberto Dough Mixer specified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana which the restaurant adheres to. He is hiring a pizza consultant to train the staff, while initially Roberto focuses on the trattoria offerings.

SuperChef: Did you know Roberto?
Hakan Ilhan: We had never met before. We had a common friend. I was looking for someone with a lot of talent to head out kitchen here. He told me about Roberto, that he was in Arizona and you know, and Roberto’s family was not so happy there. So, why don’t you meet him? So, I said, OK.

SuperChef: Was this before you settled on this restaurant?
Hakan Ilhan: No, it was a month ago. This is how I do things. First I build the space, and then I see who is going to head the kitchen. We were very blessed that Roberto was available with his resume.

SuperChef: This is quite different from what you have done before, hiring a celebrity chef. What was the thinking? Did you go out for someone with a name?
Hakan Ilhan: Yes, that was the idea. This is a tough neighborhood. People are well educated, well traveled. You aren’t going to get the impact we want with a regular chef. We have competition right next door. Chef Geoff, one can comment on the food, but at the end of the day he is a chef who is known, if you are going to compete with him, you need someone in the same league, but of course we didn’t anticipate that we would go to the top with Roberto. Of course, Chef Geoff used to work for Roberto.

It is good to have competition. The food is totally different. They are more of a bar scene, we are more of a regular restaurant.

We met, and our chemistry clicked. I liked him very much, and respected him tremendously. When you are bringing someone like Roberto there are some concerns: will this be challenging enough, and what about the future what are his goals? In business terms his restaurants had great names…

SuperChef: And great financial difficulties?
Hakan Ilhan: Yes, we are a great team together. I have the know how of managing many locations. He is the best in the kitchen. We compliment each other. My background is with multiple restaurants. I used to be a TCYB franchisee. I learned how to manage stores with tight budgets and seasonal operations. It is very difficult to manage it. That gave me a lot of experience through the seasons.

SuperChef: Is this seasonal?
Hakan Ilhan: No, but its good experience as a manager.

SuperChef: He is in charge of the kitchen?
Hakan Ilhan: He is in charge of the kitchen, but food costs are important. We can do deals with suppliers. I pay and he orders. If costs get too high, we can change things.

SuperChefAre you a micromanager?
Hakan Ilhan: I never get too involved. I look in from the outside. If you get too involved you loose the big picture.

SuperChef: And the future?
Hakan Ilhan: I see a future with him. There are a lot of restaurant we can do together, not only Italian. He knows what needs to get done.

SuperChef: Why didn’t you hire Roberto as a consultant?
Hakan Ilhan: When it’s a chef situation, you need someone in the kitchen all the time. He was looking for something more permanent and so was I.

SuperChef: And is this challenging enough for you Chef?
Roberto Donna: Personally, I like to cook this kind of food – pure, regional food. If you cook Italian food, it is regional food.

SuperChef: How do you feel about working with Hakan?
Roberto Donna: I wish I had met him a long time ago! Hakan is smart and his strength is finance.

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