Kitchen Favorites

Harley-riding RJ Cooper is crazy for all things swine.

This week marks R.J. Cooper’s fourth anniversary as chef de cuisine at downtown DC’s Vidalia. Last year, he took home a James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic—the same prestigious honor that Vidalia owner Jeff Buben received back in 1999 when he was running the kitchen himself. Cooper still serves the restaurant’s signature shrimp and grits, but his creative menus have only a slight southern accent—think pâté studded with Virginia peanuts, frog’s legs with polenta and parsley butter, and a dish of braised pork cheeks wrapped in chicken skin that Cooper calls “andouillette.”

After culinary school in Illinois and cooking stints in Atlanta, New York, and Anchorage, the Detroit native moved to Washington almost a decade ago. He cooked at New Heights and Toka Café before joining the Vidalia team. Cooper’s favorite restaurant city? “DC, absolutely,” he says. “We have some of the youngest, most creative chefs in the country right now, and we’re being pummeled by international celebrity chefs. So we’re always pushing the envelope.”

When he’s not at the restaurant, Cooper can be found riding his Harley or playing in a toy kitchen at home with his two-year-old twin daughters, Ava and Bridgette. On his day off, we caught up with Cooper while the two mini-chefs “barbecued” in the background.

Favorite farmers-market pick for fall: 
“The kabocha squash is really, really sweet right now in the early fall. At Vidalia, we’re working on a dessert with it—we’re really pushing the savory-to-sweet idea. It’s a kabocha-squash custard on top of thinly sliced marshmallows that we brûlée, maple chiboust, a kabocha-chip, maple ice cream, and walnut cake.”

Favorite local chef: “I have two right now. Eric [Ziebold] and Johnny [Monis]. If I could go out to dinner for a special occasion right now, it would be at Komi or CityZen. Komi is so warm and so delicate, and over at CityZen it’s like a big family, with Eric having worked at Vidalia and everything.”

Do you have a culinary mentor? 
 “I have two. Jeff Buben, of course. He’s the most brilliant chef/restaurateur you’d ever want to meet. And then the first celebrity chef I ever worked for, Eric Ripert. Brasserie Le Coze was the first brasserie spinoff that he did, in Atlanta, and I helped him open that. When he’s in town, we have a drink at Hudson—it’s right between Vidalia and Westend Bistro.”

Favorite Food Network personality: 
“Put it this way: If and when I ever do Iron Chef, I’d want to go up against Michael Symon. He’s crazy like I am, and he’s from the Midwest.”

Grits or polenta? “My personal choice—grits. We use Anson Mills grits and make them very similar to polenta, cooked very slowly with milk and butter. We serve both at the restaurant right now, though. We do a toasted-cornmeal polenta that’s delicious—so deep and earthy.”

Surf or turf? 
“Is my doctor going to read this? I’m a swine person. I love pig.”

Fridge staples: 
“I have twins, so there’s lots of stuff in there! Seven different mustards, two kinds of organic ketchup, three gallons of whole milk—they go through a gallon of milk a day—lots of sliced deli meats, smoked bacon, and half a roasted chicken because the girls love chicken. Three pounds of macaroni and cheese, a bottle of Veuve, and a bottle of apple-cider wine that an old friend who passed away last year gave me and I still haven’t opened.”

The twins’ most requested dish: 
“Macaroni and cheese. I made it last night, and they ate half a pound of it! It’s the recipe I make at the restaurant, with goat-cheese-and-cheddar Mornay. I bake it with Ritz-cracker crumbs.”

Biggest guilty pleasure: 
“I have two of them. Our menu changed Saturday, so I stopped at Crisp & Juicy and bought chicken and plantains for the staff to get everyone jazzed up. Then there’s the Milano hoagie from the Italian Store in Arlington. It’s got two Italian hams, Genoa salami, provolone cheese, and fresh tomatoes.”

Go-to after-work snack: 
“There’s a woman at the Falls Church farmers market who makes fresh pastas, and I buy ten different pastas every few weeks. They’re awesome—she makes simple things like pumpkin ravioli or spinach-and-ricotta. At night I throw together some red chilis, garlic, and olive oil with any of her pastas. It’s spicy, cheesy, and quick.”

Favorite memory from the night you won the James Beard Award: 
“The whole thing was memorable and kind of surreal. Sitting in front of me was Thomas Keller, my wife next to me, and Sally and Jeff Buben and Eric Ziebold on the other side. I was nervous as hell. And Jeff goes, ‘I’ll bet you $100 that you win.’ I thought, ‘No way I’ll win.’ Then when they announced that I won, I stood up and Jeff said, ‘Pay up, sucker!’ ”


Read More Kitchen Favorites Interviews 

More>> Best Bites Blog | Food & Dining | Restaurant Finder