Rogue 24's RJ Cooper gets by with a little help from his friends
- Bryan Voltaggio pouring some science. (Daniel Swartz, REVAMP.com)
RJ Cooper must be a likable guy. How else could he persuade 10 star chefs from around the country to step away from their successful restaurants for a week in D.C., not to tour the monuments, but to slave away in another kitchen?
But Cooper was in a bind. Only months after the James Beard Award–winning chef opened Rogue 24, earning notice for his ambitious 24-course tasting menus and bold use of avant-garde culinary technique, he learned he would need open-heart surgery for a genetic heart defect.
Initial reports had Cooper’s sous chefs alone filling the breach, possibly with help from local celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio. But it's no surprise that, given Rogue 24's aspirations, Cooper and his team landed on a flashier alternative: bringing in a different accomplished chef each week. For these Rogue Sessions, as they're called, Cooper's substitutes prepare 12 courses of their own every night, mixed in with 12 courses from the Rogue 24 team.
“When RJ called me up, I said yes right away. I was honored to take part,” said Spike Gjerde, the third visiting chef. “But when the magnitude of it set in, it was a little daunting, given the week that we were going to spend there.”
Gjerde, of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, and Voltaggio, who covered the first week in early January, had relatively short trips. Tim Byres, the second sub, flew in with his sous chef from Dallas, where he heads Smoke. On his lone day off during his week-long stint, Byres did manage to visit several museums on the Mall. “But these multi-course meals don’t leave a lot of time to slip out,” said Byres, who was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine last year. “We were in the kitchen for 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Of the three, Voltaggio likely had the easiest time, as he alone got to sleep in his own bed every night. (Even with his home in Baltimore, Gjerde elected to stay in D.C. for most of the week.) For Voltaggio, a Top Chef runner-up, the bulk of the burden fell on his staff. Already working within a “Modern American” framework and versed in running a 21-course tasting menu at Volt, he didn’t need to adjust ingredients or tinker with portion size, and he also opted to run his 12 dishes on Volt’s menu for the week.
This meant that his staff in Frederick had to prep twice as much food every day, before Voltaggio packed up a truck with a couple large coolers and headed down I-270. “Except for the fact that we got the fish delivered there, it wasn’t too different from doing a catered event,” Voltaggio said.
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