As Rogue 24 Winds Down, RJ Cooper Takes His Liquid Nitrogen Barbecue Kettle Corn to the Streets

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Photo: Courtesy of LTO

When it was announced that RJ Cooper was previewing his forthcoming D.C. restaurant Rogue 24 at LTO (the new rotating pop-up venue on the Lower Lower East Side), it seemed like a win-win: The chef gets to give his ambitious new endeavor a test run away from the prying eyes of his hometown, and downtown diners who havent seen a fresh face in a while get a taste of the James Beard Foundations Best Chef Mid-Atlantic of 2007. But when the D.C. press griped about the move before the wheels on Coopers tableside liquid nitrogen cart were even oiled, it was clear politics had come into play (oh, D.C.). We checked in with Cooper, now ten days into a stint that ends on Sunday, to find out how hes doing.

How did things go out of the gate?
It was a train wreck in the beginning, because you have 40 people that have never worked with each other. As a leader, you have to see the shortcomings and the pitfalls and thats what we did. After the first train wreck service, I sat down with them and we ironed it out. Service has been good and the food has grown leaps and bounds and were having fun.

What did you find you had to work on?
It was the timing. The fact that we still didnt have all of our product in because were in Manhattan and trying to get everything in; making sure the equipment was functional some of it wasnt; organizing the restaurant like it was ours, in order to make it function.

Was it tricky sourcing your ingredients in a new city?
Richard King, who is the chef at Hundred Acres, who was one of my tournants back in the day, handed me his whole purveyor list. We used four or five people from there, and I used other sourcing contacts around the country but theres no infrastructure of credit or ordering because its a brand-new business, so all that had to be done in rapid time. Then we had to start from scratch doing these stocks and scratches, building a menu from nothing. You usually do that in four or five days here we did it in less than 72 hours.

Was it fair for the Washingtonian to review you on your first night? And what do you think about the critics who say it was a slap in D.C.'s face to preview Rogue 24 in New York?
Some people think its a competition from city to city, but thats not what restaurants and food is about. Its about the regionality and greatness of the cooks in that region and prospering from that and promoting that region. By coming up to New York and doing this and getting away from the local press and media in D.C. and distractions from my family in order to build out the restaurant, we really honed it to the food and thats what we wanted to do. It was our spring training. I think the food was some of the best Ive produced in a long time. As for the whole Washingtonian thing being fair, its not. Why would you come in on the first day of a pop-up when people have never worked with each other and not come back to see what the changes have been? I dont think thats the spirit of journalism at all.

Obviously, though, you took some of those criticisms to heart. Whats the main issue with pacing a meal like this?
Its very simple. The problem is we overthought the balance of it the first night. We made it too simple, and we didnt really think fully through it. What we do is take 8 covers every twenty minutes, so theres 24 covers per hour. So we average sixteen people per hour and pace them at the same time, so the staff is putting up eight plates at the same time. Its a pendulum that goes from one end of the kitchen to the other so that it doesnt put anyone in the shit.

You mentioned the regional nature of some of these dishes. Are yours inspired by a certain place and time?
Theyre all very personal, starting with the snack dish of chips and salsa and chicharrones. I love cracklins and guacamole and chips on football Sunday. As for the [dish thats inspired by the] terrain of the Shenandoah, it's very personal to me because we ride on motorcycles there almost every weekend and you see the beauty of the foraged food you can get out of the locale. If you look at what Noma in Denmark does to hone into their region and elevate their food in such a modern, eclectic way, thats what were trying to do here.

Then theres the liquid nitrogen. Would you call yourself a molecular gastronomist?
Thats something the press has put on modern chefs using modern techniques to make it into a bad thing, which its not. Isnt all food molecular? People also describe this type of food as experimental if it was still experimental, a $600 cookbook wouldnt have been published this year. Its no longer experimental. What we call it is farm-to-craftsman-to-art-to-table. We believe in keeping the nuances of the flavor but elevating them on the plate. And its got to be fun.

Speaking of fun, youre going to be at the Hester Street Fair when it reopens on Saturday?
Were going to do something called smoke signal. Were doing barbecue-flavored kettle corn that we pulverize and pack into tubes and cut and dip into liquid nitrogen, and you breathe it and breathe smoke.

To the beat of mushroom jazz, I hear. Why do you like that in the dining room?
Its modern and eclectic, but still it doesnt have that hard beat of trance or techno. You can hear some great little beats and feelings, and it keeps a pace as well. I listen to a lot of jam bands like Widespread Panic, but when you get into the noodling, it gets long.

Have you had a chance to eat around in New York? Whos at the top of your list?
Not yet, but Im going to try to bail out early tonight to try to eat. I really want to go eat at Mark Forgiones restaurant because I never ate his food besides on Iron Chef. I want to see what George Mendes is doing. Thats the great thing about New York: You have everything from Daniel Humm and Paul Liebrandt (the modern finesse guys) to Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller (the old-school finesse), to George Mendes and Marc Forgione (the up-and-comers). You have a great flow of eclectic-ness here thats fantastic.

Would you open a place here yourself?
Id love to. I think New Yorkers wouldnt shut someone else out from a different city if the products right. Theres a lot of room to play in New York, and you have a huge canvas in Manhattan and its not even close to being full.