Vidalia | Washington
As a ten year old growing up in Detroit, Michigan, RJ Cooper
imagined himself a rock star chef playing in the kitchen with his
mother and Sicilian grandmother who made everything from scratch.
His first stint in the professional kitchen was as a high school
student when he took an apprenticeship at a local bakery. Knowing
right away that the culinary world was his calling, Cooper decided
to further his education by attending The Culinary School at Kendall
College in Illinois where he had the opportunity to work with chefs
including Jean Joho, Tony Mantuano and Jean Banchet.
After graduation Cooper moved to Atlanta to work
with Daniel Schaffhauser at The Ritz Carlton, Atlanta, Guenter Seeger
at The Buckhead Ritz Carlton , and Gilbert LeCoze at
Brasserie LeCoze. From here, Cooper went on to work with Eric
Ripert at Le Bernardin. The time was invaluable for Cooper,
teaching him how to get down and dirty with his staff in true Ripert
style. During a three year move to Anchorage, Alaska, Cooper continued
on his culinary development by taking the helm of the Crow’s
Nest Restaurant in The Captain Cook Hotel. With the intent
to bring the restaurant back to its former four star-four diamond
quality, Cooper headed up the kitchen and revamped the menu, boosting
staff morale and impressing locals.
In the late 1990’s, Cooper moved to Washington
D.C., working at New Heights and Toka Café
before joining Vidalia in 2004 as chef de cuisine. Jeffrey
Buben took on the role as mentor for Cooper, teaching him the fundamentals
of running a business and keeping systems in place. Cooper’s
Modern American philosophy shines through in dishes like Truffled
Heirloom Potatoes with Garlic Cream, Crispy Pork Belly and Juniper-Infused
Sea Salt, where Cooper uses a delicate hand to transform ordinary
potatoes and pork belly into a composed and elegant dish. While
keeping things fresh and modern with a flavored salt, it’s
clear from the juniper-scented salt, reminiscent of a classic French
cure, and the smooth-as-silk garlic cream, that Cooper’s schooling
is grounded in the fundamentals of classic French cooking.
AB: Did you attend culinary
school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring
chefs today? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
RJC: I went to Kendall College
in 1991. I would absolutely recommend culinary school. It teaches
you about food costs, labor costs and managing people. But I do
hire cooks with and without culinary backgrounds.
AB: Who are your mentors? What
are some of the most important things you’ve learned from
RJC: Jeffrey Buben taught me
about running a business, corporate structure, and keeping systems
in place -- things that make you successful. Eric Ripert was also
a huge influence, teaching me how to get down and dirty with my
AB: What is
your philosophy on food and dining?
RJC: Keep the food simple,
not fussy! The guest must always leave happy. I try to foster a
family environment between the staff and guests.
AB: Are there any ingredients
that you especially like?
RJC: I like Blue Plums from
Toigo Orchard. The flavor is sweet and intense, the way a plum should
AB: What flavor combinations
do you favor?
RJC: Huckleberry and horseradish
which is sweet and spicy. I also like plum and mustard and fall
fruit with spice.
AB: What is
your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
RJC: I have thirty of them
and they are my staff. Without them, even the best equipment in
the world would fall flat. Also a good spoon because without a good
spoon you cannot taste.
AB: Is there
a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual
way? Please describe.
RJC: I make onion glass with
caramelized onions, glucose, and sherry vinegar pureed, passed through
a chinois and chilled, then baked at 200 F.
AB: What is
your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential
new ling cook?
RJC: Which chef do you want
to influence you the most? I want to know the path this person plans
AB: What tips
would you offer young chefs just getting started?
RJC: I would tell them to be
patient, that success does not come overnight.
AB: What are
you favorite cookbooks?
RJC: The one that’s not
out yet. Food knowledge is already out there, but we’re always
learning more. I like Frank Stitt’s Southern
AB: What are you favorite restaurants
–off the beaten path—in your city?
RJC: I love Ben’s
Chili Bowl; it’s this total dive where everything has
chili and grease. You can get a really nice glass of wine and great
pizza at Sonoma on the Hill. The best pizza and hoagies
are at Italian Stone.
AB: What trends
do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
RJC: I see more emphasis on
local, as opposed to regional, ingredients. Farm fresh farmers markets
are booming in DC.
do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
RJC: I think I’ll be
preparing the same kind of food – big flavors, simply prepared.
I see myself still in DC with a very small restaurant, maybe forty-five
seats, open Wednesday to Sunday.
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