Interview with Chef RJ Cooper of Vidalia – Washington, D.C.

December 13

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
RJ Cooper: I was 10 or 11 years old when I started cooking. I learned by playing in the kitchen with my mom and Sicilian grandmother who made everything from scratch. I grew up in Detroit where The Golden Mushroom was a famous restaurant whose chef was on TV! I had a fantasy of myself as a “rock star chef!”

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 them?
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 staff.

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 be.

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 to take.

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 Table.

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.

AB: Where 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.