Chef Danny Wells sources local ingredients, global experiences

Republic founder and co-owner Danny Wells. Photo by Leigh McDonald

Danny Wells, Republic chef and partner, recalls childhood culinary memories from a trip to Portugal: peri peri chicken, fresh fried potatoes, lemon ice.

When Wells was growing up, his family took month-long vacations every summer.

In Key West, where his family rented a house every other year, Danny Wells and his father, Ross Wells, caught and cooked local seafood.

The chef’s parents, who prioritize fresh and local ingredients, avoided taking the family to chain restaurants when traveling. “They brought the philosophy of how they cooked at home, on the road,” said Danny Wells.

At home in Takoma Park, Danny Wells’ mother, Beth Baker, did the cooking.

I never had canned or frozen vegetables,” said Wells. I didn’t know what those things were until middle school.”

These values are the foundation of Wells’ culinary style. “I’m passionate about sourcing local ingredients,” Wells said.

Republic’s menu draws on ingredients from the community including chili peppers grown in the parking lot behind Takoma Park Vision Center.

Wells co-owns Republic with Jeff Black, the owner of Black Restaurant Group.

Photo by Eric Bond

From dishwasher to restaurateur

Wells got his start with Black Restaurant Group as a line-cook at Addie’s, the group’s first restaurant which is reopening in Potomac late summer or early fall.

Wells worked his way up through the Black Restaurant Group’s ranks, later opening Pearl Dive in D.C. as the executive chef.

Black traces Wells’ success from his ambition and work ethic. “You can’t instill that in somebody,” Black said. “It’s the ‘it-factor.’”

Black extended an offer to partner with Wells at Pearl Dive, but Wells wanted to open a restaurant in Takoma Park.

Wells had been working on Black about a Takoma Park restaurant for years when they finally found the right space, or spaces: the closing video store and ice cream parlor.

Wells had wanted to open his own restaurant in Takoma Park since he was a child.

On a road trip, his family fantasized about opening their own restaurant, “Sister City Café.” His mother and sister, Sarah Wells, would work front of house, and he and his father, would work in the kitchen.

His first job in the business was at Takoma Park’s Savory, now Capital City Cheesecake. He was 16-years-old when he started as a dishwasher.

When chef Patty Oakley-Audia noticed Wells was bored, she invited him to help with the prep work.

“Instead of waiting for a bowl to get dirty, she said, Why don’t you come help me make it dirty,” Wells said.

Under Oakley-Audia’s mentorship, Wells learned all jobs front and back of house. He worked at Savory through high school.

Wells graduated high school in 2000 and went straight to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island.

Wells was introduced to fine dining in his externship with Loews Hotel in South Beach, Miami. He worked for two years under chef Ted Peters.

That’s where Wells learned to cook with exotic ingredients, said Wells’ mother. “Money was no object.”

He also learned about grilling. “He has the scars to prove it,” Wells’ mother, Beth Baker said.

Wells recognizes that these mentors, Peters, Oakley-Audia and Black, shaped his culinary style and career.

“All the way through, people believed in him,” Baker said.

Wells traveled to Spain after culinary school, but had a tough time finding work because of immigration laws.

Still, his time spent in the Mediterranean further developed his cooking style and values. He cites their incorporation of local ingredients as one of his biggest inspirations.

Mediterranean is also his favorite cuisine to eat.

The chef says his cooking style is hard to describe. But if he had to, he’d call it “seasonal American.”

Republic offers Maryland oysters. Photo by Eric Bond

Republic’s summer menu offers fresh seafood including daily selections of raw oysters and Maryland rockfish prepared with sliced heirloom tomatoes, wood roasted eggplant, freekeh, Castelvetrano olives, pine nuts and pesto.

The meat entrees, wood grilled half chicken, hanger steak and a Smith Meadows Farm burger, are also popular.

The Restaurant, cognizant of the neighborhood, also offers meatless options: summer vegetable gnocchi, perhaps a gesture to Wells’ time in Italy, and a daily vegan entre.

Jeff Black said Black Group Restaurants are made “to feel of the neighborhood. “I don’t try to dictate to a neighborhood what it is.”

Photo by Eric Bond

Black and Wells call the look and feel of the restaurant “Takoma Park Style.”

The décor, like the food, is collaborative: the vintage, patterned wallpaper is from a supplier in New York, and there are hundreds of reclaimed items, including salvaged wood for the floors, from all along the East Coast and Ohio and Texas.

Wells’ personality sets the tone of the restaurant, front and back of house.

Brian Sumner, a manager at Pearl Dive, says at work, Wells is “very intense.” “He’s the quintessential chef, but without being an ass—-.”

“There’s no other way of putting it,” Sumner said.

“I’d like to think I’m focused,” Wells said.

“My wife doesn’t understand,” Wells said. “I have this work persona she’s never seen.”

A Takoma Park romance

Wells and his wife, Sarah Nash, met in Takoma Park as kids. Wells likes to think his wife had a crush on him in middle school.

When Nash returned from some time in California, and Wells, from Miami, the two were reintroduced by a friend.

For now, the couple and their three-year-old daughter, Sadie Wells, live on the Silver Spring side of Flower Ave.

They plan to move back to Takoma Park as soon as possible.

Photo by Leigh MacDonald

About the Author

Leigh McDonald
Leigh McDonald is a graduate student at the University of Maryland.