I invited myself. But who could blame me? One of our generation’s finest chefs and leading culinary minds, Chef RJ Cooper, was cooking at the James Beard House in New York City, and I wanted to attend. The prospect of seeing a chef of Cooper’s talent cook in a venue like the Beard House kitchen was, for me, akin to seeing a band like Social Distortion take the stage at CBGB, in that the performers on stage (or in kitchen) and venue are equally iconic. So I called Chef Cooper and asked for a seat at his table. The idea that a front-of-house industry careerist and renegade food writer like me would be hanging around his kitchen all day, peeking under pot lids, putting my fingers in the proverbial soup, pestering his cooks with questions about sourcing and technique, must have held all the allure for Chef Cooper of a trip to the dentist. But Cooper and I have worked together over the last few years (most memorably with Chef-legend Juan Marie Arzak at Cooper’s own Rogue 24) and always with great success, so he likely took pity on me and consented; I could watch his brigade prep the meal as long as I agreed to stay the fuck out of their way. So I did. I promised. But by promising, I was also lying through my teeth. I had no intention of staying out of the way. I wanted to peek behind the curtain. I wanted to see magic at work. So I lied. And up to New York I went.
To the uninitiated, and for those yet to enjoy the pleasures of Chef Cooper’s food, know that my meal at his Rogue 24 was among the greatest dining experiences of my life. It was that thrilling. And yes, it was that good. In his adopted city Washington, D.C. (he’s originally from the mean streets of Detroit), Cooper’s culinary sensibility is unique: it’s as relentlessly forward thinking as a Ferran Adria, possessing all the gentlemanly refinement of a Thomas Keller, while being ferociously fuck you and anti-establishment as side one of 7 Seconds’ seminal punk rock album, The Crew. There is also Cooper’s Beard Award, his appearance on Iron Chef (among other television shows), and an almost cult-like followership of chef-stalkers and food nerds who tweet their Rogue 24 experiences like acolytes reporting the prophecies of some oracle of gastronomy.
But for all the accolades, Cooper is also a somewhat polarizing figure in culinary Washington. In an age when a chef’s greatness is measured by his television credits and media savvy (think cookbooks, think Top Chef), and when his so-called greatness is expressed through mediums heretofore occupied by the culinary simpleton (think pizza, think sandwiches, for fuck’s sake), Cooper stands out as old school, as a culinary purist, a throwback to an age of gastronomy when each and every dish leaving the chef’s line was the apotheosis of everything he had ever learned as a cook, and everything he ever hoped to be as a chef. It wasn’t just chateaubriand on that plate; it was his heart, his soul. And if that plate leaving the line was somehow imperfect, if a line cook was simply phoning it in, and giving anything less than his very best, there would be hell to pay. There would be yelling. And yes, shit would be thrown. Chef Cooper is one of the few area chefs who still strictly employ Escoffier’s strict brigade system, that military-like chain of command that creates (re: demands) consistency in a kitchen’s production, and ensures the line will still run exactly the same way, night after night, like a Swiss time-piece, whether the chef is in-house that night, or not. It’s how Thomas Keller runs his bi-coastal enterprises, California’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se, and it’s how Cooper runs D.C.’s Rogue 24 and his soon-to-open-in-Virginia, Gypsy Soul. Yelpers (the lowliest of all social media life-forms) have mocked the kitchen patois of Cooper’s kitchen, wherein all subordinate cooks are required to rejoin Cooper’s directives by saying “yes, chef,” and nothing more. The term Chef means leader, of course, and while Cooper is friendly in his work, he’s not working just to be your friend. His mission is to lead his brigade on a quest that endeavors to redefine American gastronomy as we know it, and nothing less. That ambition far outclasses and outpaces the prevailing chef-world zeitgeist of get famous by any means necessary, especially when local chef celebrity’s are reduced to pimping pizza for a living. To misunderstand how Cooper runs his kitchen is to misunderstand how all the great chefs ran theirs. Jacques Pepin and Marco Pierre White—these culinary titans came of age in kitchens where cooks were beaten, and where bodily harm came as result of over-salting the consommé, or breaking a sauce. That Cooper’s food has so mightily raised the bar on what chefs should be concentrating on (re: not sandwiches—though anyone familiar with my feelings on D.C.’s Jamie Stakowski or A. Litteri knows I adore a good sandwich), and how hard they should be striving in their craft has no doubt made him a target of area cooks and food writers alike, who routinely smear him with accusations of culinary overreaching, and with wielding the pretensions of “molecular gastronomy” (that now-laughable and near-meaningless term) so they, in their confusion on what Cooper is trying to achieve, might protect that time-honored tradition of dumbing down the gastronomic status quo. It’s not that each and every plate of food coming out of Cooper’s kitchen is always the best, most savory food every crafted; it’s that Cooper is trying to make it the best thing you’ve ever tasted, each plate, each bite, each and every time. For me, this unceasing quest for perfection makes RJ Cooper one of the most compelling (if controversial) figures working in American gastronomy today, and it’s the reason I wanted to travel to New York and watch him cook.
So I took the train. I went. I arrived at noon, and made my way from Penn Station to the James Beard House on 167 West 12th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, where Chef Cooper and crew were already inside, convened in the house’s kitchen, prepping the night’s dinner. Cooper welcomed me warmly, introduced me to his cooks, and invited me to look around the house. And while the Smithsonian has faithfully (evenly lovingly) reconstructed Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History, the Beard House is the only material museum to American gastronomy of which I know. It stands as a veritable culinary mecca to legions of chefs, foodies, and food writers the country over in much the same way Graceland occupies the hearts and minds of Elvis fans—it’s that one place the serious culinarian has to cook in, or eat in, before he dies. But just like Elvis’ Graceland, The Beard House also serves as an adventitious museum to the esthetic predilections of its chief occupant at the moment of his death. For just as Graceland’s “Jungle Room” for forever be doomed to occupy August of 1977, the Beard House has been remanded to forever dwell in January 1985, when the venerable James Beard shuffled off this mortal coil, and when Robert Mapplethorpe and Patrick Nagel were all the rage. For as I went from room to room (and of those there are not many as the Beard House is classic Village brownstone), I couldn’t help but notice how, in the dirty dishwater-colored, mid-day light of a snowy New York day in March, the old girl looked tired in the way no amount of paint could revive a splendor that had gone from her for good. The carpets were thin, the stair banisters sticky, the entire house smelling of bleach. Whatever I had expected to discover at the Beard House, whatever ocular grandeur I had conflated through long-held fantasies of dining where all the greats had supped, this wasn’t it. This bummed me out. Profoundly. So I returned to the kitchen to photograph Cooper’s team, only to find them battling the same kind of ennui that precedes every big performance, and that necessarily attends every hurry-up-and-wait moment before a potentially career-defining night.
There was nothing to say. Nothing to do. So I excused myself and left. The editor-in-chief for the food blog of the “most trusted name in news” had recommended I try a restaurant on 7th Avenue in Chelsea called Legend, rightly promising it would challenge, perhaps even defeat, my long-held assumptions about Chinese food (almost none of them favorable). So I lunched on pig intestine sautéed in red chili, Dan-Dan noodles offered Chen-Du style, and a dish called “Red Rabbit,” whose method of preparation—as far as I could gather—consisted of chopped rabbit bones, sans rabbit meat, in a Szechuan pepper sauce, which, measured in Scoville units, might weigh in somewhere between paint thinner and gasoline. It was good, really good. And yes, Chinese food had, for me, for the moment, been redeemed. But for all the fat-content and fire of my lunch, I was still hungry. So I visited Eddie Huang’s Baohaus on East 14th Street (at 2nd Avenue), for his Chairman Bao (pork belly), and his Birdhaus Bao (fried chicken). I could write a book on Eddie Huang as fat as the Los Angeles phonebook—what he means to American gastronomy, what he means to the American immigrant experience—but for our purposes today, let’s suffice it to say Eddie’s bao was deeply, even remarkably, delicious, yo, yo, yo.
When I returned to the Beard House, there was electricity in the air; the change among the cooks was palpable. Chef Cooper’s team was quietly tweaking on adrenaline as the first dinner guests were expected then in just over an hour. They worked in that most sublime of culinary ballets wherein cooks perform at their stations, sauté and grill, simultaneously together and apart, without ever having to speak, but communicating instead through the slightest gesture, the most miniscule flick of the knife, or tip of the chin. And while a silent kitchen of cooks operating in perfect congress is rarely—if ever—shown on food TV, it is an extraordinary thing to behold in person, and not entirely dissimilar to the silence that falls over a boxing ring, when all the fighters have stopped the trash talk, silenced their boasts and threats, and have become avowedly bent on defeating that which looms before them. Chef Cooper noticed this, too. I saw him put down his knife, step off the line, and watch his cooks for a moment, before allowing himself a single nod, a single smile.
The Beard House service staff soon arrived, and began setting the dining tables upstairs (the dining room sits directly above the downstairs kitchen on the second floor) with stemware and a lost-to-the-ages pattern flatware evocative of a late-JFK/early LBJ era of faded, proto-Occidental glory for the quiet distress of its silvering and the slight bend in blades in tines. The waiters were an affable gang of good fellas from the surrounding boroughs, who were clearly juiced about serving Chef Cooper’s food (they’d met RJ before and clearly adored the man). They talked about girls, and sports, and traded neighborhood gossip, blissfully untroubled by the notion that servers, especially here in the hallowed halls of the Beard House, should likely not discuss unpaid gambling debts (there was a Jet’s game from the previous season yet in question), or revisit long-smoldering grudges about which drunk fucking mook grabbed which gumba’s girl’s ass last Friday night—conjecture that quickly devolved into threats of forced fellatio, and who, exactly, was gonna fuck who in the ass; sodomy and buggery at their New York best.
Thirty minutes before service, Chef Cooper called the waiters into the dining room to discuss what food was being served that night, which wines were being paired with which courses, and why. Cooper sat on a chair in the middle of a circle of nervous waiters and spoke about what each course contained, how it had been prepared, and from whence it had been sourced. Cooper seemed relaxed, almost philosophical in aspect and beatific about his cooking, like some culinary Buddha, or Brando-like as the actor appears at the end of Apocalypse Now, when the end is nigh, and all the bullshit—in our case, all speculation on high gastronomy—can finally be put away, because gastronomy is the last great meritocracy, after all; the chef can either cook, or he can’t; the food is either good, or it isn’t. RJ’s performance was mesmerizing. Every server in the room stood transfixed. For here was a man, infamous for his hard living, his hair-trigger temper, his motorcycle-riding swagger, speaking softly, even earnestly, about sourcing and technique, as if to suggest every waiter in that room was his partner and equal in the evening’s failure or success. Then Chef Cooper asked if any of the waiters had questions about the menu. One waiter dared raised his hand. What if a guest is vegetarian, or has a food allergy, he asked. What should we tell them? Cooper nodded, then pulled off a clog, and unrolled his sock. We give them corn, he said. My microplane will shave that forty-four-year-old corn right off that foot. RJ’s response drew applause. Waiters laughed and cheered. Because it was what every waiter in the world always wanted a chef to say about the question of vegetarians in their midst: fuck ‘em; treat ‘em like the second-class citizens we all know they fucking are, or goes every waiter’s primary response to the meatless. Chef Cooper had built an army of service professional—just like that—who were now willing to follow him to end of the earth. And who blame them? At that moment, I would have followed RJ anywhere, too.
Guests arrived at six, and were shown into the Beard House’s back room, a rather sizable, high-ceilinged, wall-of-windows modern addition, which looks out into the property’s modest back yard (it’s Manhattan, after all), and where Bryan Tetorakis, Rogue 24’s mixologist, and maestro of the potent potable, was offering two specialty cocktails: Machine Gun Blues (High West rye, Bonal, green chartreuse, apple, and celery), and Resurrection (Barr Hill gin, Cocchi Americano, combier, absinthe, cucumber, and lemon), both of which were equally—even phenomenally—tasty and, yes, ultimately detrimental to one’s own equilibrium and ability to engage in polite conversation without sounding like a tipsy Hugh Grant with a mouth full of marbles; they were that strong.
Waiters soon appeared with silver trays on which canapés had been arranged with Cooper’s signature Marcel Duchamp-meets-Jackson Pollock plating style, that deconstructive form-follows-function of often-familiar foundational ingredients (sea urchin, or foie gras, or Benton’s bacon) whose altogether unfamiliar presentation so neatly expresses the incredible concentration—even distillation—of flavors in a single bite of food.
The Beard House crowd got it. They knew what Cooper was trying to do. And they thrilled at the idea that Cooper’s cuisine was a challenge, a provocation, to really and truly engage the food they were being asked to eat. Because these Beard House waiters weren’t simply passing the obligatory figs-on-a-plate of the scarf-and-barf scene; they were serving food that demanded of its eater a moment of contemplation and study of the culinary craft the food was expressing.
I hid in the dish room. A thirteen-year industry veteran, I had no idea what to do at an event like this. I had no idea what to talk about. No idea what I should say. So I grabbed one of Tetorakis’ drinks, and chatted with the two dishwashers, scholars and gentlemen both, for sure, but who, as you plainly see, wanted nothing more at that moment than to shank me and dump my lifeless body in the Hudson. But the fear of having to make conversation with all the pretty people outside that door far, far outweighed any fear of having to take six inches of cold steel to the heart, so I hunkered down with my Machine Gun Blues and waited for dinner.
I wasn’t long in the waiting. After a few minutes, we were asked to take our seats, upstairs, at any of the five tables in the dining room. My tablemates were a delightful, and perfectly rowdy mix of middle-aged Manhattanites, some gay, some straight, all monied, and all delightfully devoid of that iPhone-quick-draw foodie/scenester/hipsterism now virtually ubiquitous in most Generation X/Y-saturated eateries across the DC area. No, these Beard House eaters were serious people truly inent on doing some serious eating. There would be no Yelping, no blogging, and no taking of pictures for fuck’s sake. They were there to celebrate a serious chef’s most serious culinary efforts, and as the first courses began to arrive, they did not talk about which new restaurant was hot (or not), or which culinary wunderkind would be the next big thing. No, these Beard House folks spoke in the present tense only, and in the now. They spoke only of what they were eating. Tastes. Textures. The thrill of eating the food of a chef clearly at the top of his game.
Needless to say, I didn’t take pictures of Chef Cooper’s food. To do so would have to debase the chef’s best efforts with bad lighting and megapixels insufficient for capturing what the food was trying—and mightily—to express. To do so, to try and sneak that quick shot, would be to devalue the gastronomic experiences of those around me while revealing myself—rightly or wrongly—as the one guy who simply cannot live in the moment, the one guy incapable of operating as a sensualist, the douchiest douche bag on the scene. So I sat back and ate Copper’s food and laughed that special kind of laughter that only a great meal can tickle from the throats of the otherwise deeply serious. Like the laughter of children. Table music. Conviviality to cacophony, then back again.
It was pure magic.
I looked around at my dining companions, all strangers to me at that first nervous sip of wine, now each and all culinary brethren, comrades in arms, secret sharers, and keepers of James Beard’s gastronomic flame. And I noticed, too, how the Beard House had suddenly changed—transmogrified by candlelight, or by the wine in our heads—from that slump-shouldered, shuffle-footed, tired old trophy of culinary glories past, to a still-vital, still-important monument to all that is great and good in American cooking.
It was among Chef RJ Cooper’s best performances yet. Like anyone truly great at what they do, Cooper brought his best when it mattered most. Course after course, Cooper showed us why he’s still among most potent culinary forces in America today. Love the man or hate his old-school ways, it matters not; the modern student of gastronomy ignores Chef Cooper at his own peril. Watch this space. You’ve been warned.