Every year the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington puts on an annual awards show. The Rammys, as they’re known, is a night to celebrate the best in DMV dining. It will be a night to celebrate the best in DMV dining. The big names will be there, the food will be good, the drinks will flow. Every year the award show has countless sponsors and this year is no different. They are some big names at the top of the list: the governments of Chile, Spain, and Australia are all involved. And then there’s one near the top you might not recognize. American Summits. You may not have heard of American Summits, but Philip Lajaunie is trying to change that. The man behind Brasserie Les Halles (home of Anthony Bourdain) has turned his attention to the world of glass-bottled water. But let’s be clear this isn’t Les Halles’ or Tony’s (as Philip refers to him), or No Reservations’ water. This is high end glass bottle American made water.
And that’s a rarity. “American production is extremely limited.” Save Saratoga and Mountain Valley, the game is dominated by Europeans. Evian, San Pellegrino, Voss, among countless others are all staples of white tablecloth dining. “It it’s still it will be Evian, if it’s sparkling it will be Pellegrino.” Philip is looking to change the game. “We are importing shiploads and shiploads of water from Europe, which makes no sense. After making the observation years and years ago that all this water was imported from Europe, I decided to look for a spring in the States that would have the same qualities or even be superior to ones from Europe.”
Philip set off on a years long quest to find a spring, ultimately setting on Beartooth Mountain Range in Wyoming. He had specific requirements. “I did not want a spring that was artesian water [from a groundwater well]. I wanted water that was fed from a mountaintop. It had to be away from a big city. I wanted a spring that was protected as possible by being near or within a national park or some state forest. I wanted a certain mineral content. For example, I wanted good minerals like potassium and calcium and I did not want bad minerals like sodium. I wanted it to have an interesting taste. I didn’t want it to be too neutral or too heavy. I wanted to be able to build a bottling facility that would be green and sustainable.”
Bottled water doesn’t typically bring to mind sustainable and renewable. But according to Philip, maybe we’re looking at it wrong. “My first priority was to find a spring that would be sustainable because it was being recharged. And I did not want to have surface water because that water will have been in contact with the atmosphere…The spring has been recharged and will continue to be recharged because there is a lag of about 1,000 years.” Unlike a finite resource like oil, water continues to be recycled naturally, and that according to Philip is the key difference. Mountain spring water is renewable and sustainable, and glass instead of plastic bottles make for a much more environmentally friendly operation.
The water itself is good. It has a hint of sweetness without an overly mineral taste. It’s not bitter, and this is Philip’s goal. “This is water and the only quality is that it has to please your palate.” This is an obvious point, but one that is often missed. This water is good without needing ice. I drank it chilled from the fridge. Philip enlightened me that ice is often used to mask bad water. “The reason why Americans put so much ice in their water is to anesthetize your taste buds. If there was no ice you would say it tastes awful.” American Summits needs no ice. It may seem strange, but American Summits tastes better than most water I’ve had (and believe me I’m no snob or connoisseur). “What I like about this water is that it has a very interesting mineral composition and it has certain pleasant tastes without being devoid of taste or too heavy on minerals.” Water is supposed to taste like nothing, something you can just drink and forget about. But stop for a second and taste your water, really let it linger. There’s something there and you’ll begin to notice that some water just tastes flat out bad.
After much thinking, Philip decided that DC would be the launching point for American Summits. This was a calculated move. He already had ties to DC through Les Halles DC, and decided that he would return to the Capital rather than New York. “As a city DC has developed an incredible restaurant scene and is extremely sophisticated. At the same time it was not too large and too diluted like New York or Los Angeles would be. So for me this was a city that was diverse with very sophisticated palates in a somewhat concentrated area. I found that it was the perfect stage to launch Summits.”
Even in it’s infancy, Philip has big plans for American Summits. Ultimately he would like to have three springs. He has one in Wyoming, but wants to add similar facilities in Maine and California. The goal of this would be to further reduce the carbon footprint associated with transporting the water. But Philip see American Summits going beyond our borders. “I would love to have a spring in Canada and I would love to follow the Rockies all the way down to Chile and Argentina. The markets may be smaller, but the reach can be much wider.” Even now, Philip is thinking 10 years down the road and is thinking internationally. “There is an enormous need for water in China. China’s consumption of product is expanding exponentially. In Japan and Singapore it’s the same thing.”
Finally, while I had him, I had to ask the man who launched Anthony Bourdain’s cooking career at Les Halles about his famous chef (Again let’s be clear his association with Les Halles and American Summits are completely separate). “Anthony was a wonderful guy to work with. If there’s one thing that you can see as Tony’s trademark on the show is that it’s not about the food. It’s really about the people behind the food who create the food that you’re eating. The materials, the building blocks are always the same. A piece of meat, a piece of fish, vegetables, and couple of spices. However, it’s the people, their minds, their hearts, their souls that will combine different ingredients and cook them at different speeds or in different combinations to — in fact — create food that is totally different and representative of a people, a nation, a tribe. And I found that’s what’s remarkable in Tony’s show. He goes to the people and he makes them talk. You watch any other show and it’s about the food. Tony talks about the people who actually create the food, and that to me is what’s unique, and and where his heart is. He’s a great guy, I really like him.”
So next time you’re out to eat, ask your waiter if they have American Summits. If they’ve never heard of American Summits kindly teach them the merits of this American made product. Be a part of ending Europe’s domination in the glass bottled water arena. You can help bring American waters to American restaurants. And the water’s not half bad either.