The foster care system, gangs or gun violence didn’t deter one chef from betting on himself, eventually landing him the honor of Best Restaurant in Prince George’s County 2016.
Donnell Long, chef and owner of local favorite Olde Towne Inn (OTI) opened his third location over a year ago with the ambition of building the county’s culinary scene.
“OTI is your neighborhood restaurant where you’re going to meet a few folks, and enjoy yourself with a great intimate atmosphere,” Long said. “It’s great for everything from meetings to a wedding reception. Everyone meets at the OTI.”
An extension of a hotel in Largo, Md., OTI’s cuisine combines coastal and southern influences with their 90 percent scratch made dishes such as fan favorites like the crab stuffed salmon, crab cakes, Hawaiian barbecue ribeye and shrimp pomodoro.
“The inspiration for OTI was like a play off of my history,” Long said. “I was an original owner of Stonefish Grill when I brought it to [Prince George’s County].
“I came up with the menu by taking regional favorites,” he said. “It’s not Southern but it’s Southern-influenced. It’s good food for everyone, not overly intimidating but still great dining fare that you can get at places downtown like McCormick and Schmick’s or Great American.”
All of OTI’s locations in Anne Arundel, Upper Marlboro and Largo have a full-service bar, offers lunch, dinner, brunch on Sundays and has live music on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
However, before embarking on a career path that included being honored as Business Roundtable’s 2013 Businessman of the Year, he first had to navigate D.C.’s foster care system in the 1980s.
“I was raised in the foster care system and the perception is that we go from welfare to welfare,” Long said. “I hated everything about welfare. I never liked the welfare system or anything about it, so when I had the opportunity to step away at 18, I did.
“I was in D.C. at the height of the gun thing where people were getting shot left and right,” he said. “My last foster mother had the foresight to move me from D.C. schools because I was in a gang, fighting every day. And then I actually found a passion that I liked and could apply myself to.
“I knew instantaneously that this restaurant thing was something I was really passionate about and what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do with my career,” he said.
Right out of high school, Long went to the Washington Culinary Institute, finished in 1991 and quickly moved up the ranks.
“I got my first job with Silver Diner, and I wasn’t that good at first, but the chef still took care of me and kept me employed,” he said. “I went and did my dues throughout the industry, and landed around.”
With 20 years in the business, Long wants kids in the foster care system to look at him and his story as inspiration.
“Don’t get trapped into the same system,” he said. “It’s easy to start having kids at 15, 16 and get trapped. Break the cycle. Don’t fall for it. Persevere and find something that you love and do it.”
Long backs up his words by hiring teenage boys on the path he once went down.
“I feel like anyone that has been uplifted by the community has a duty to give back to the community,” he said. “I do it in a myriad of ways. I have teenage guys cooking for me, I show them you maybe in the drug game but you don’t make as much money as me. I change their trajectory.
“They told me as a foster kid I couldn’t do anything but stay in foster care, they told me as a black man I couldn’t own a restaurant, that as a black man I couldn’t have food priced beyond a certain point and folks come out,” Long said. “I used it as fuel, and I defied the odds.”
He concedes that though he has seen success in the food industry, black people in the business have a considerably harder time than their white counterparts.
“There are challenges that we know we face,” he said. “One of the issues I’ve encountered is of course access to capital and a talent pool.”
Long asserted that while a culinary institute can’t teach students everything about the restaurant business, there are valuable cooking skills that chef hopefuls should know.
“A school cant teach you how to deal with customers, but it does teach you the importance of knife cuts and certain techniques,” he said. “We can’t underestimate the importance of education.”
Long said most of the training you need to be successful chef happens on the job.
“I get my clients from my community,” he said. “A great restaurant will make a great first date and close a business deal. I can get you from first to third base.”