2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames

2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames
April 2014

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Jake Rojas chose cooking over some of the rougher life paths that lay before him. Early run-ins with the law found Rojas in a grim spot as a teenager, but they also put him in a vocational school, where he was first exposed to classical French cooking. It also forced him to appreciate his own potential.

Earning a scholarship to the Culinary Institute in Dallas, Rojas moved on to work under Rick Boyer at 27 Ocean Blue in Boca Raton, as well as the Four Seasons in West Palm Beach. Progress and high temps continued as Rojas accepted positions in kitchens such as The Sunset Restaurant in Malibu, California; Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas; and Alain Ducasse’s Mix in the Hotel at Mandalay Bay. Now as head chef of Tallulah on Thames and Tallulah Tacos, Rojas is an important part of a tight culinary community in Newport, Rhode Island, nurturing a talent discovered in rockier times and pushing boundaries with aggressively flavorful, exquisitely composed dishes.

Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames – Newport, RI

Sean Kenniff: Where are you from?
Jake Rojas: I grew up in downtown El Paso—Raiders jacket, chuck tailors, starched pants and all. 

SK: How did you get your professional start?
JR: As a line cook at Café Central, the coolest fine-dining spot in El Paso, Texas. Before, I was a dropout that just got out of jail [at 16]. You’re either a drug dealer or a gangbanger in El Paso. I tried to go back to school through a dropout recovery program. I had to take a vocational course, so I took culinary basics of classic French cooking. I used to get stoned before lunch and got to come back and eat. It all just took off—I got a scholarship to Art Institute of Dallas culinary program.

SK: Do you have a mentor?
JR: Sean Nugent, [chef instructor at the Riverside High School Culinary Arts School], Chef Michael Scott, and Chef Rick Boyer [27 Ocean Blue in Boca Raton, Four Seasons in West Palm Beach].

SK: Does the seasonal nature of the business on the New England coast affect you in Newport?
JR: I changed the menu about 140 times last season. And I have an entirely new team in the kitchen this season.

SK: How is the chef community here?
JR: I’ve never worked in a city where the chefs are so tight. Matt Jennings gave me a list of all these providers as soon as I arrived. 

SK: What’s your five year plan?
JR: Tallulah is high brow, I want to do low brow, too. Build on the Tallulah Tacos concept—fast casual, traditional. Nobody is doing traditional Mexican food in a fast casual way here. But I love this, Tallulah on Thames, the multi-courses, the tweezers. 

SK: Tell us more about the taco concept?
JR: The tacos have a cult following of people who know what straightforward delicious food is. We sell 300 to 500 a day sometimes, it really took off. Tacos keep this place alive. Simple food is always better.