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Pinoys Behind the Plate: Chef Patrice Cleary and her culinary journey in Washington, D.C.

With a warm smile and open arms, Chef Patrice Cleary welcomes guests as they walk through the doors of her Filipino American restaurant, Purple Patch, in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

“Nothing happens overnight,” Cleary said. “My transition into the restaurant industry was a combination of things that came together.”

Cleary’s culinary journey began with her Bicolano mother and Lebanese uncle, chefs she learned to cook from at an early age. When her mother wasn’t cooking, Cleary was. Cooking Filipino cuisine was a passion she had cultivated and shared with her family and friends.

“Filipino food is a form of art, and when I’m cooking it, it’s art,” Cleary said. “I can smell, I can hear, I can see, I can taste food that reminds me of my mom growing up. There’s without a doubt no other food that I would rather cook than my mom’s.”

Before opening Purple Patch, Cleary worked in the Marine Corps and a Venture Capital firm. Several years after switching professions, she delved into the restaurant industry and, from 2003 to 2011, worked alongside the owners of Purple Patch’s property predecessor, Tonic Mt. Pleasant.

Patrice Cleary, chef and owner of Purple Patch, poses for a photo in Washington, D.C., on July 14, 2022. Photo: Alix Hess

In 2014, the building owner, who previously rented to Tonic, asked if Cleary would be interested in opening a restaurant. She initially said no, having been away from the food industry for a while as a stay-at-home mother. But the gears of her becoming a restaurateur down the line began to turn.

After nearly five years, Cleary returned to the restaurant industry but found herself in a lane, all on her own. She reached out for support and received guidance from the relationships she had formed during her previous Mount Pleasant days, relied on her instincts, and made plenty of sacrifices. Purple Patch was a leap of faith and opened in 2015.

Like her mother, Cleary holds onto her identity through cooking. She is unapologetically Filipino American, and Purple Patch’s menu showcases just that. From coconut-braised short rib adobo and red snapper relleno to ginataang butternut squash and green beans and biko, Purple Patch welcomes the meat-eater with peanut allergies and the vegan on a gluten-free diet, consciously paying homage to different Filipino tastes.

“My source of inspiration at the most rudimentary level comes from my mother. At the same time, I have my own artistic approach to food,” Cleary said. “I don’t put myself in a box or feel like I have to do something to be Filipina or to own a Filipino restaurant.”

A purple patch in sports means to be in a place of success or good luck, and Cleary’s restaurant has truly been a purple patch. Over the past seven years, Cleary and Purple Patch have gained an outpouring of love and support from community members and organizations across Washington, D.C.

“It’s almost like you walk into a room, and you feel like you’ve known that person forever, but you really don’t know them. You feel this connection, and I think that’s what my restaurant has — this connection, this comradery, this family,” Cleary said.

The Filipino community in D.C. exists, though dispersed. According to Cleary, before Purple Patch, there were no Filipino restaurants or eateries in the nation’s capital where Filipinos could gather and connect.

“It was disappointing on so many different levels because, as a culture, we love to celebrate and come together through food,” Cleary said.

The thought of the nation’s capital without a Filipino restaurant or community space weighed on her mind during the pandemic. But the restaurant tenant turned property owner wants Filipinos in the area to know that Purple Patch will always be their home. Cleary purchased the building in March 2022 to ensure that the space will always be available as a Filipino restaurant.

“We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere,” Cleary said.

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