Len DePas Photography


RJ Cooper
1990 M Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 659-1990

Recipe »

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!”

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RJ Cooper
Vidalia | Washington DC

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.

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Interview Cont'd
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.



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   Published: October 2006