I entered Blagden Alley looking for food. What I found, instead, was revolution.
Before revolutions come confessions, however. And this:
I am not supposed to write about Rogue 24. The purpose of this blog is to celebrate the efforts of journeymen cooks and streetfood purveyors who serve truly delicious, often remarkable food easily within the financial reach of men and women of the American proletariat working class. Haute cuisine establishments peddling so-called “molecular gastronomy” to affluent eaters with far, far more sophisticated palates than my own have strictly been off limits since I started this little binary enterprise in food writing a year ago, however often I might work with their chefs, or patronize them myself as eater and enthusiast extraordinaire. The chance encounter with culinary excellence at a roadside diner whose smoking grill cook is ashing his Pall Mall into the homefries holds far more excitement and, in my opinion, is vastly more deserving of celebration than, say, the gastronomy of a three Michelin star establishment whose excellence is expected and is, after all, a matter of course.
So why Rogue 24? Why now? After all the ink that’s been spilt on the restaurant and its Chef/Operator RJ Cooper, why lift my own pen and add to the fray? Because I think RJ’s detractors have gotten him all wrong. I think there has been a fundamental misreading of Cooper’s personality, his culinary aesthetic, and what Rogue 24 sets out to achieve every time Cooper and his team suit up in their whites. RJ could have dumbed it down. He could have opened a pizzeria. He could have opened a barbeque joint. With the street cred surrounding his James Beard Award and all the celebrity chef buzz following his remarkable appearance on Food Network’s Iron Chef, RJ could have opened a cupcake stand and made a killing. But he didn’t. Instead, he built one of the finest, most challenging restaurants in Washington and in one of the most unlikely places. Cooper clearly endeavored to reinvent the restaurant experience for Washington eaters, transforming it into a journey, a thrill ride, while all the time, and with his usual brash, two-fisted swagger, attempting to create a cuisine that Washingtonians had never before seen. He tried, as is still trying, to reinvent the wheel. My meal at Rogue 24 last year was easily the greatest single meal of my life. Do I say that of Cooper and Rogue 24 simply because I’m just a culinary simpleton from Missouri farm stock too easily impressed by the dazzle and flash of big-city gastronomy and the cult of chef celebrity? Maybe. Or do I now sing Rogue’s praises because I’m a food careerist with over twelve years in the business and maybe, just maybe, I know what I fuck I’m talking about? Maybe, just maybe, I’ve put in the hard time to know when chef like Cooper is putting his soul into his work and leading with his heart. What I experienced at Rogue 24 was, truly, nothing short of transcendent. More than just a meal; it was an experience, and its why we pay chefs like RJ Cooper to cook for us, because when they cook as well as RJ does, the journey can be transformative, and we leave a restaurant like Rogue totally stuffed, more than a little drunk, and forever changed. Because RJ shows his patrons what new possibilities in American gastronomy lie in wait, and how thrilling a restaurant experience can be if the patrons are willing to let go, chill out, and enjoy the trip.
Chef RJ Cooper. I know the man. I have worked with him several times over the last few years at fine events in and around the Washington area. This, however, is not to suggest we were destined to be pals. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. It means we were initially disposed to hating each other’s guts in the deep and abiding way dogs hate cats. He was the celebrity chef with the Beard Award, the awesome motorcycle and the great hair. I was the front-of-house guy only very briefly famous for a spread done on me in the Washington Post, and whose waiters were going to find a way to fuck RJ’s shit up. RJ and I have had several successes together, and maybe, just maybe, RJ has, over the years, found something to like in me. Our luncheon for a Spanish/Japanese interest with world-famous chef and three Michelin star, Basque mac daddy, Juan Marie Arzac, (which I most certainly did not fuck up) comes to mind. But while I have found much to admire in Cooper, liking the guy does not make me his apologist. I’m not shilling for RJ here to generate covers for his restaurant, and I’m most certainly not his bitch. RJ can take care of himself. He’s good-looking enough to break hearts, and big enough to break jaws. But I believe that beneath all those tattoos and Harley Davidson smoke and caustic, in-your-face swagger, beats the heart of a poet, a truly nice guy who just wants to cook for a living and, while at it, change the face of American gastronomy one perfect bite at a time.
The first element of Rogue’s genius lies in the idea of removing choice from the restaurant experience. Instead of being handed a leather-bound menu thick as the Los Angeles phone book, and later in the meal, an equally daunting wine list by a smirking sommelier, you are, at Rogue, asked to make two choices and two choices only. They are these: how many courses do you want to eat (a 16-course progression, or the 24-course full monty), and are you drinking alcohol? That’s it. That’s all you’re asked to decide. And with those decisions made, you are then invited to relax, sit back and enjoy the magical carpet ride that will, for the next three hours, take you into a culinary wonderland of startling textures and flavor pairings so daring that before you know it, dinner at Rogue has become a rush. It’s as if adrenaline is the magical, secret ingredient of RJ’s cooking, and it builds, incrementally, throughout the night, until dinner at Rogue is suddenly more fun than that time you stole your father’s red convertible to satisfy the pure and simple wonder of discovering how fast you could go. Eating at Rogue is exactly like that. You don’t exactly know where you’re going, and you don’t know what’s around the next corner, but you can’t wait to find out what lies ahead.
Even more central to Rogue’s genius, perhaps, is the idea for design of the restaurant itself: heighten the Rogue experience by putting an open kitchen in the middle of the dining room and having RJ and his team of cooks serve the tables themselves. Waiters fuck off, who needs them. If what Food Network peddles is correlative to food porn, then what Rogue is selling is the chance for patrons to lube up, put on a jimmy, and join in on the fun. It’s also the area where RJ shines more brightly than any chef I’ve ever worked with, for without the Food Network lights and cameras and makeup, there around the kitchen of Rogue, you see how fucking hard it is to be a chef. You get a real and palpable sense of how demanding it is to forever be on your feet, in the unrelenting heat of a working kitchen, and how taxing it is to concentrate that long, that hard, on each and every plate that leaves your line, night after night after night, year after year. Putting a chef, any chef (especially a raging perfectionist like RJ), in the middle of a dining room is an act of daring, a recipe for sure-fire disaster akin to burning down a fat one while pumping gas; bad things are sure to happen. Except at Rogue. Twice in my meal at Rogue, RJ spotted two things that raised his famous ire. The first was that my napkin had fallen to the floor and none among his staff had provided me with a new one. Second was the fact that my plate, for one of the courses, had not received enough fois gras (his estimation, not mine), so over came RJ himself to remedy his sous chef’s error. I realize these service gaffs may seem like piddly shit to you, inconsequential, undeserving of a chef’s attention. But to me it meant the world. This is what I fucking do for a living. I shape the experience of clients by paying attention to the shit you wouldn’t think matters. You can’t fake paying attention like this. So to have a chef of Cooper’s stature noticing napkins on floors and insufficient fois gras amounts on plates tells me (as it should you) that this guy Cooper isn’t phoning it in. It tells me RJ is the real deal. It tells me that cooking, for RJ, is much like a street fight, that the dude is always ready to rumble, and that ten-to-one suckers, I betting RJ’s going to drop his man.
The third and final component in Rogue’s mad trinity of culinary genius is, of course, the food itself. But I’m not going to write about RJ’s food because I’m not qualified. I haven’t spent the last twenty years trying to redefine American cuisine by taking it apart and putting it back together again the way you dismantle and reassemble a favorite uncle’s Dodge Charger (only to find that it now runs faster). For critiques of RJ’s cooking, I send you to Yelp, where every douchebag out there working in a cubicle, wearing khakis, and carrying a wallet deigns himself qualified to publically criticize the life’s work of truly great chef’s just because he doesn’t understand what he’s eating or what the restaurant is all about. Suffice it to say that when RJ appears tableside with instructions on how best to consume the next course (“inhale the smoke first” or “chug it like a beer”), you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, and that the dish before you in no way resembles anything served at grandma’s house, and that culinary revelation is waiting for you at the end of your fork.
I’ve followed the press on Rogue for a year now the way a baseball fan follows news of a favorite team. In none of the coverage, however, have I ever sensed that any critic “gets” Rogue 24. Why, for instance, has no critic explored RJ’s motives in locating his restaurant in an alley, for fuck’s sake, in one of the most violent (until recently) neighborhoods in DC? Why has no critic considered RJ’s place of birth (Detroit) and how that might inform the way he approaches gastronomy? Why has no critic “read” RJ’s own personal aesthetic and decoded the lack of bullshit in his tattoos, his Harley, his taste in music? That ain’t trendy, people; that’s real.
My theory, posited for your approval, in the form of an equation:
RJ Cooper + Rogue 24 = the culinary equivalent of punk rock. And not just any punk rock. I’m talking Iggy and the Stooges rolling naked in broken glass and peanut butter, Detroit style.
RJ and I are from the same place. Not the same city, mind you (he’s from Detroit; I’m from D.C. via Missouri), but the same mindset. We are both from happy, white, middle class families. We were both, as children, fed and loved. But somehow we both decided to say fuck it to our families for the far more dubious pleasure of inhabiting the punk/post-punk club scenes of our native cities. And while I was being kicked in the face by the bare-footed Henry Rollins at the original 9:30 Club on F Street, RJ was being stabbed (three times!) in the chest at a 7 Seconds show in Detroit. And just how tough was Detroit back in the day (as if it’s not now)? When I first visited Detroit (think early-90s), I was touring with an awesome rockabilly band, Three Blue Teardrops. I was filling in for my friend Rick on bass. The minute I first stepped onto a Detroit sidewalk, a man walked up to me and said this: I’m going to kill you. Three songs into our first set, someone threw a beer bottle at me, shattering it across my bass. Tough city. Such is RJ’s pedigree.
When I look at Rogue, I see perhaps the only haute cuisine restaurant in America that truly and purely embodies the punk rock ethos unique to our generation. When I look at the place in Blagden Alley, I see a restaurant that says, fuck off, you’re not cool enough to eat here. But when I consider RJ’s cooking, I see a culinary effort that strives for purity, and that is trying to change the world. And that’s punk rock in a nutshell, folks. It’s about brutal honesty. It’s about trying to change the world by tearing it down and searching for the essential truth therein. Why no food critic has yet drawn the comparison between Rogue 24 and punk rock is beyond me.
And just to get it off my chest, I’ll conclude with this: “molecular gastronomy” happens every time you poach an egg, so let’s move on and look more deeply at what RJ (among others) is really doing with food.
And yes, Rogue 24, is expensive, to be sure. But you should eat there. At least once in your lifetime. Because RJ is easily one of the best cooks of our generation. And if you care anything about the course of American gastronomy, you’ll want to have something to tell the kids.