OCHRE MAGAZINE

A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.

Small Restaurant, Big Dreams

At Tallulah on Thames, chef Jake Rojas is making food an art.

Texas native Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames. Reprinted with the permission of the Newport Mercury.

Texas native Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames. Reprinted with the permission of the Newport Mercury.

BY JORDAN KING

 

T hree roasted pork bellies sizzle on the fryer in the small kitchen of Tallulah on Thames on a crowded Saturday night. Jake Rojas, 30, reaches for another order of kurobuta pork from the counter that overlooks the restaurant. “Pork at 7:07,” says Rojas to a cook in the far corner of the kitchen. The cook unravels a fresh piece of pork in plastic wrap from a nearby cooler saying, “You got it, chef.” From above, the digital clock glares into the kitchen as a constant reminder of the cook’s limited time.

Rojas smiles to his fellow cooks and jokes “Come on ladies, let’s pick up the pace” to a kitchen full of men. One man smiles and shakes his head as if he’s heard the joke before. While heating up the frying pan, the man utters a few Spanish words and Rojas laughs.

Rojas may joke with his chefs, but when it comes to the food he’s 100 percent serious. “I said three [minutes]. It’s been three and a half,” he reminds the chef preparing the pork. With a swift nod, Rojas returns his focus to the empty plate in front of him that will be transformed into an array of colors and textures in just a few short moments.

Looking at the plate, Rojas is in his element. He lives and breathes cooking. The words “vivir para cocinar, cocinar para vivir” (live to cook, cook to live) are even tattooed on his forearms. To Rojas, cooking is more than just a passion: It is an art form.

Rojas inches his face close to the plate without touching the food and places each apple slice and beet chunk in a specific spot on the dish. Confident all is perfect and he can move forward, Rojas then carefully squeezes red wine vinaigrette over the dish to be used as a type of glue for the hazelnuts and fresh herbs. Throughout the entire process Rojas gently places each component with neat precision. Satisfied with his results, Rojas takes one last look and moves the roasted beet salad to the counter with the dishes ready to be served.

Since opening Tallulah in Newport, R.I., with his then-fiancé (now wife) and partner, Kelly Ann, eight years ago, Rojas has seen nothing but success with his restaurant. Twice when the economy faltered, Kelly Ann and Rojas managed to adapt to the changing economy while still managing their costs during the off-season of winter.

Rojas envisioned a quaint and classically French-inspired restaurant for anyone who wished to dine. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they have to be in a certain tax bracket to come here,” Rojas says. Although the small menu charges from $14 to $15 for appetizers, $33 to $37 for entrees and $14 for desserts, Rojas cares more about the fresh quality of the food than the type of audience eating at his restaurant. However, he does offer lower-priced options such as the taco lunch on Thursday through Saturday ($3.75-$15) and a fixed menu for $35 on Sunday nights (which includes wine). Rojas is dedicated to his menu and wants to share his creations with others.

“He is a perfectionist,” Kelly Ann says. But that’s almost an understatement. Every Wednesday-Sunday morning Rojas arrives at the kitchen at 9 a.m. along with his staff and local farmers. After the farmers deliver their fresh meat, herbs, and vegetables, the staff determines the menu by 11 a.m. with at least one new item that they have chosen either the day before or earlier in the week. The chefs cook, test new variations and prep until about 3:30 p.m. After a 40-minute break (and some discussion of new dishes and wine pairings), the cooks go back to the kitchen to clean and prep until the restaurant’s doors open at 5:30 p.m.

Kitchen service is open for patrons from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., but it isn’t over then. After the customers leave, the staff cleans until midnight and Rojas does some finishing touches until 1 or 2 in the morning. For Rojas, that means working between 16 and 18 hours a day, five days a week.

“If you’re not going to do your best, then you’re not going to make it with him,” Kelly Ann says of Rojas, who admits his expectations are high.

“I do expect people to give 110 percent at whatever they do,” Rojas says. “I’m like that, so I expect that.” When people have as much passion as Rojas does for cooking, they want their specialty or talent to be the best. For example, Rojas’ approach to a visually appealing meal is artistic and unique.

“People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths,” Rojas says. “I want the food to look very natural. I want it to look as if the food has grown out of the plate.” The simple placement of each drop of cream or slice of beef or Vidalia onion can separate one cook from another. Each chef has a unique approach to food presentation, and Rojas’s has really paid off.

Remy Sweeney, a long-time friend and the first front-end waiter at Tallulah, has fond memories of working with Rojas. When movie director Wes Anderson and the actor Bruce Willis stayed in Newport to shoot “Moonrise Kingdom,” they both ate at Tallulah at least once a week. One night in particular, Willis approached the small window between the restaurant and kitchen and personally thanked Rojas for his excellent food. Sweeney says Rojas is “very intense about what he does, and passionate about what he does. He has a vision, and he follows through with it.”

Another moment she mentions is the time Emeril Lagasse, one of the most renowned chefs in the country, and his posse visited Tallulah. A visit from Emeril was a massive compliment. She says he ordered every item off the menu to share with his companions (12 meals) and that he really enjoyed his time at the restaurant.

Rojas may have met celebrities and appeared in magazines such as “Food & Wine” thanks to his talent, but cooking is not the only aspect to Rojas. When Rojas isn’t cooking, Kelly Ann says he “appreciates the sun rising and setting.” He is laid-back because he can finally have time to relax and appreciate life’s little wonders. Kelly Ann treasures these moments with Rojas. Working 16-hour days, “we have had our trials and tribulations working together,” she mentions. They have a golden retriever named West with whom they enjoy their time as well.

Born in 1983 in El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border, Rojas lived in a town that was rife with drugs and gang violence. By the age of 15, Rojas needed a sense of direction, one that was the opposite of a drug cartel lifestyle. Thankfully, his family had a generation of chefs that helped him recognize his talent for cooking.

For high school he decided to enroll in culinary arts at a local tech school. There he met his earliest inspiration in chef-instructor Sean Nugent who taught him the basics of classical French cooking. The first dish Nugent taught him that Rojas felt proud of was a chicken ballotine. It was a complicated dish for a teenager, but Rojas succeeded with Nugent’s instruction. “[Nugent] really inspired me that cooking could be much more than I thought it was,” Rojas says. After kindling the young man’s passion for cooking, Nugent helped Rojas obtain his first job at a local restaurant. With the added experience, Rojas was able to attend the Culinary Art Institute of Dallas on full scholarship.

Nugent told him: “If I wanted to be the best at what I did, I had to be surrounded by the best people.” After culinary school, he traveled all around the country and worked as sous chef at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas, chef de partie at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Mix in the Hotel at Mandalay, and as executive chef of The Sunset Restaurant in Malibu, Calif., where he ultimately met Kelly Ann.

To hone his skill in the kitchen, Rojas worked for whatever chef was inspiring him at the time. “I wanted to gain knowledge and tighten my skills,” Rojas says. Even though Rojas has worked in popular cities all over the country, his fondest memory is one working with a chef in Texas during college. The chef took him deer hunting and taught him how to make venison from scratch. It was an exciting day because before that any meat handed to him was already dead. It was enlightening for him to experience the process of skinning and butchering.

After traveling around the country, Rojas decided to settle down with Kelly Ann. The pair moved to her hometown of Newport and opened a restaurant name after her nickname, Tallulah. Kelly Ann organizes events for Rojas whether it’s catering for a wedding, styling a photo shoot for a magazine or scheduling the taco cart business. Rojas also spends his free time cooking new meals and updating Tallulah’s social media.

In the summer of 2013, Rojas had a day off that allowed him to enjoy time with friends. Sweeney, who is one of those friends, mentioned that people used the day as an end-of-summer-appreciation-party to play softball, eat tacos and just have fun. “[Rojas] was more able to be out of his work element,” Sweeney remembers. Even more exciting, Rojas almost had the chance to jump out of a plane that day.

Rojas describes himself as an extremist, so it’s natural that he wanted to skydive on his day off. “I got up all the way in the plane, and I was there. The door was open and we were about to jump out, but the [tandem] guy I was with called it off because there wasn’t any visibility,” Rojas remembers. Though he was quite disappointed, Rojas believes it may have happened for a reason. He was able to spend more time with his friends because of it.

Within the next 10 years, Rojas would like to expand his taco cart business that travels to farmers’ markets around Rhode Island. On the other end of the business, no longer working 18-hour days would be the equivalent to the moment he finally gets to jump out of a plane. More time means more hours to spend with Kelly Ann, playing with West or having a couple of children. Although Rojas has many wishes for the next 10 years, longer term he wants to move to Spain and try out as many extreme activities as he can along the way.

Rojas says that he is where he is today because he is confident in himself and believes in his own talent. By following his passion, Jake Rojas made a great career. It’s an achievement that is possible for anybody.

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2015 by .