Endless Questions: Chef R.J. Cooper on Iron Chef America and Magical Food Rides
You’d think since leaving Washington’s swanky, Southern restaurant Vidalia earlier this year, Chef R.J. Cooper would have plenty of time on his hands, but he’ll tell you that’s not the case. Over the past six months Cooper has been overseeing the construction of his new restaurant, Rogue 24, working with Chefs as Parents and throwing in a little reality TV. Cooper kicks off season 9 of Food Network’s Iron Chef America, challenging the newly minted winner of The Next Iron Chef America, Marc Forgione.
I chatted with Cooper about the pressures of Iron Chef America and the magical ride that is his new venture.
Cooper couldn’t give much away about Iron Chef America, but he had been wanting to do it for a while. “When they called me and asked me to do it I was thrilled. I had just left Vidalia so I had to put a team together—that was the kicker.”
Speaking of his team, Cooper didn’t need to look much further than his longtime friend David Guas of Bayou Bakery and Rogue 24’s chef de cuisine, Harper McClure. “Except for Harper, who I worked with for five years, you’re talking about three cooks that have never worked with each other as a team before. There were really no challenges, we just figured out each others’ strengths and weaknesses very quickly,” Cooper explained.
On working in kitchen stadium, Cooper explains the pressure: “You don’t know anything. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t. Once you start, it turns into focusing on what your tasks are. It’s 60 minutes and you don’t realize how quick an hour can be until you do something like that.” He did admit, “the combination of flavors were beautiful.”
For Cooper’s first go-it-alone restaurant, Rogue 24, he explains: “It was part of a smaller script that we turned into the script. We found a location that really fit into the calling for what we’re doing and that kind of made it fall into place.”
Rogue 24, slated to open as early as March 15th, will be located on Blagden Alley in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, an area that is just starting to see restaurants and retail near the semi-new Washington Convention Center. Cooper defends the location, “It’s very raw and very urban and what we want to do is bring a sophistication to that area and develop that into a major destination for the city. There’s a lot of really cool things about being in the alley. It takes you away from the city, but keeps you in the city. It’s the most dynamic piece of land I’ve ever seen in DC because it’s very self sustained.”
For those skeptics of a 24-course tasting menu, Cooper defends his multi-course idea by making sure people taste before they talk. “You need to try it before you even have an opinion about it. If you think about it, you’re talking about 24 bites. You’re taken on a ride, a magical ride that no longer plays in DC at that level. You have [Jose Andres’] minibar and [Food & Wine Best Chefs 2007 Johnny Monis’] Komi. Minibar is 8 stools and it’s a great restaurant and a great concept but it doesn’t feed more than that. Komi is a prime example of how it works properly. You’re talking about a journey for palate, mind, body and spirit. It’s our way of leading you on a path.”
Cooper doesn’t always concentrate on food in the abstract, but also its role in feeding children. Cooper got involved with Chefs as Parents last spring after a visit to an elementary school. “We [with DC chef Cathal Armstrong] got in there and went, ‘Oh shit! What is this crap that they are feeding the children?’ There was a turkey sandwich with 65 ingredients in it. A turkey sandwich should have no more than 6 ingredients.”
“The only way to make food real,” Cooper explains, is to “bring it back to the community level.”
Iron Chef America season premiere airs on Sunday, November 28th at 10pm EST on the Food Network.
Cooper is hosting a viewing party to benefit Chefs as Parents. David Guas, Robert Weidmaier, Cathal Armstrong and Cooper will all be preparing food, while Todd Thrasher mixes drinks. Email judithmandel(at) rogue24(dot)com for party details.