After 13 years as a restaurateur of five different properties, one would think that Katherine Thompson wouldn’t be this ecstatic about awards. But with her skills as a pastry chef having caught eyes regionally and nationally, it’s hard to suppress her smile.
“It’s so flattering to be nominated for anything, I’m shocked by both nominations and equally flattered,” she added.
Thompson’s work with pastries at Thompson Italian, the Little City restaurant she co-owns with her husband, Gabe, landed her as one of five finalists for best pastry chef in the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s RAMMY Awards, set for this Sunday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.
In May, she was also one of the 20 semi-finalists for best pastry chef in the country as part of the James Beard Awards. While Thompson didn’t advance further in the national competition, it was nice to know people were noticing her work
“In our world, the James Beard award is kind of [like] the Oscar of the movie business, it’s a fun way that our industry celebrates our peers,” Thompson said. “I never thought I’d be nominated for anything and it’s also pretty exciting.”
The award season comes at an odd time for the restaurant and others in its industry as they do their best to work around the Covid-19 pandemic. While only finalists will get to attend the actual event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, all guests will get to observe virtually once the event goes live Sunday night.
Thompson first worked as a restaurant chef, until she got hired to work at Del Posto’s pastry department in New York City, where her specialization really came to shine
“I kind of had my fingers in a little bit of everything [in my restaurants], but the pastry program is all mine,” she said.
“She’s been a chef of a couple different things in New York, but she just loves the precision of pastry. Regular, savory cooking is probably a little too chaotic for her — she likes the control,” explained Gabe Thompson.
Headliners for Thompson Italian’s dessert menu are a peach melba panna cotta, a tiramisu, and of course, Katherine’s New York trademark’s in the olive oil cake, one of the restaurant’s best-sellers. A vanilla cheesecake, a chocolate budino and an assortment of sorbettos and gelatos help round out the exemplary post-dinner treats.
For Katherine Thompson, her journey to being a serious chef began with Julia Child while growing up in Arlington.
“I was super-obsessed with Julia Child around age 11. I made my way through her cookbook in a couple of years,” she said.
Thompson graduated Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn Secondary School in 1995 and attended the College of William and Mary. She majored in business and marketing and worked a couple years in the dotcom industry before deciding to follow her dream and apply to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
The school requires a certain amount of restaurant experience and Thompson was fortunate in that she had worked jobs in the restaurant industry through and after college, including an externship at Chef Geoff’s in Washington, D.C.
Katherine and Gabe Thompson are both alumni of high-end restaurants in New York City where they met in 2007. The pair decided to open up their first restaurant that same year.
“I’ll be honest. We were too young and naïve to think through the risk. Our friends told us there were too many Italian restaurants in New York City,” Thompson said. “We kind of looked at it like Italian food with an American twist or American food with an Italian twist.”
What started as one restaurant became four within three years. On top of that, Thompson became pregnant with her first child in 2010, motivating the couple to move back to Northern Virginia.
After spending the first few years in Northern Virginia as a stay-at-home mom while her husband worked, the Thompsons opened Thompson Italian in Falls Church in August of 2019 after feeling she found the right space to re-launch herself.
While the City of Falls Church has phased in outdoor and indoor seating, the Thompsons remain cautious about opening. After hearing about a restaurateur friend in Austin who suffered half his staff getting sick, they decided they didn’t want to put their staff or customers at risk. Additionally, the Thompsons’ children regularly hang out at the restaurant.
“It’s scary because we don’t know when things will go back to some semblance of normal,” said Gabe. “There’s been ups and downs with business. We’re doing less business, but we don’t have the same amount of people working and the electricity and water bill has gone down.”
During the Covid-19 quarantine period, Thompson Italian (which reopened in April) offers curbside service from Wednesday to Sunday from 4 – 8 p.m. The restaurant is located at 124 N. Washington Street.
To watch the RAMMY’s online, visit therammys.org/#rammys20live.