Todd Rogers is the loftily titled director of culinary operations at the Pearl Hotel in Rosemary Beach, Florida. But he’s the real deal as a chef and lights up with excitement when he’s in the kitchen. He’s classically trained—usually the necessary foundation, it seems, to be a complete maverick. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and wound up crisscrossing the South, cooking and leading crack kitchen crews in several of the region’s top resorts.
“I’m originally from West Virginia. My grandparents had a farm and I got into food early,” Rogers says. “My dad participated in FFA [Future Farmers of America], so I did too. As a kid I grew up working with my grandpa, and cooking with my grandma, making jams and jellies and getting the eggs out of the chicken coops. Grandpa harvested the honey without a bee suit—I always stayed away from that. But it was an incredible way to grow up, very close to the earth. I knew that food didn’t come from the grocery store, it didn’t come out of a box, it came from the farm.”
At only 29, he became executive chef at the Houston Ritz-Carlton, additionally remarkable because “they only hired French and German chefs. They were very snobbish about thinking that Americans didn’t know how to cook.”
Rogers loves what he does, with an infectious enthusiasm. “I still get excited about going to see the farmer, going to visit the people who raise the cattle and cut the steaks, learning about the harvest of stone crabs from the fisherman.”
And he’s mindful of where he is in life and what he can impart to the next generation of cooks. “At 60 now, I’m helping to develop the next level of chefs. There are little tricks and techniques I was taught, and I like to them pass along. At the end of the day, if you can go home and know that you made a difference, that’s a good day.”
His favorite place to eat is the Armature Works in Tampa, Florida. “I could stay there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They serve an impressive selection of foods from around the world and provide great music and a wonderful atmosphere.”
Overall, his favorite cuisine is Italian. “They taught the French how to cook!” (Something the French generally hate being reminded of.)
What’s most necessary to be a great chef, I ask, studiously.
“There is no one thing that makes a great chef. It takes passion, pride, humility and sacrifice. You must love competition, have a great respect for the craft, and know your basics well,” he replies. “You cannot fake the culinary arts, so nowhere is the axiom ‘knowledge is power’ more true. You must have a desire for a never-ending journey in the pursuit of learning and achieving consistent excellence.” He stops, considers, then adds: “Lastly, you must take care of yourself and your family and find a balance in the personal and professional life.”
These are his five favorite meals. Prepare to get very hungry.
Cooking with Paul Bocuse
Paul Bocuse was a French chef who many thought the greatest in the world. He was touring the U.S. in the early ‘90s, and I had the opportunity, with some of the top chefs in the area, to be a part of a stop near my restaurant. We all worked basically for free just to be able to cook with Bocuse. It was the epitome of the best food and atmosphere and people and talent that I’ve ever been part of, and I was just so glad I was there. Chef Bocuse’s duck à l’orange is probably the best there’s ever been. Other people try to emulate it, but his orange sauce was reduced perfectly, the skin was perfectly crisp, the duck was perfectly moist—it was just the best. His coquilles Saint-Jacques was the best I’ve ever had, and that’s one of my favorite dishes. He did foie gras with port wine gelee, Dover sole with brie and mushrooms, escargot bourguignon, and it was just incredible. That whole dinner exemplified culinary harmony in how it was created by everyone there. There was no ego in that kitchen, and everyone was so proud that it was inspirational.
Chaine des Rotisseurs Dinner
This was a guest chef dinner, a collaboration between George Perrier, Jean Banchet, Gerard Vullien and me. We were preparing a meal for the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a food and wine gastronomy society. We each picked a course or two to present or prep. We were all really proud to work together and we each wanted to put our best food forward and show off a little—in a good way. The dinner was awesome, but my experience—and the pleasure of it—was that I got to spend three days with these guys, and not just in the kitchen. The next day we went out on a pontoon boat and had lunch—just a simple Caesar salad, with chicken salad with tarragon, pears, pistachios, apples and walnuts. Perrier was known to saber his Champagne bottles—opening the bottles with a saber, or heavy knife—so we had Veuve Clicquot Champagne with lunch on the boat with friends and wives.
For the dinner, two dishes stuck out the most: Perrier produced a spice-rubbed oven roasted foie gras with grilled pineapple. Most chefs sear and sauté foie gras, but roasted whole, spice-rubbed and then sliced? That was the first time I’ve seen that. And then he had grilled pineapple, which is kind of a stretch for a foie gras complement, but it went fabulously together. It was just unbelievable, flavors of sweet and tart. Banchet did a squab, which a lot of people haven’t had, but it’s a great, red meat bird. It was perfectly done with a truffle sauce that he prepared, and the leg was done confit style—in this case was cooked in duck fat, so it’s not fried, but poached and braised in the duck fat, which made for the moistest meat you could ever have. It was a beautiful dish. And those were just two of the eight courses served that night!
Les Amis d’Escoffier Society
This was a collaborative dinner for Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, a food and wine society mostly made up of chefs. When you’re cooking for chefs, you’re extra nervous. The chefs for this event were Fritz Gitschner, Master Chef Mark Cox, Charles Carroll and me. The dishes were subtly changed to pair with the wine courses, there were five or six different appetizers, cold and hot. It was a formal event for these connoisseurs of food and wine, and a big deal. I went to a place called Broken Arrow Ranch to source the venison, and they have a very humane method of raising and harvesting the deer, so that there’s no fear-caused adrenalin in the deer when it’s taken, and then the deer is quickly field dressed on the spot in a mobile kitchen. So, the meat was the best you could ever have.
I did a roasted venison loin. Because it’s so lean, I added braised veal cheeks to add a fat component and served that with sweet potato puree and glazed celery root. Then I added a natural venison demi-glace that was fortified with Bordeaux and finished with butter. It was beautiful. The venison is very lean but has a nice mouthfeel and chew. It’s served medium-rare and has a sweet, nutty flavor because of what it’s fed. Usually, you’ll note some currants or blackberries, and I did add some blackberries to the demi-glace. The veal cheeks added the fat content that it needed, and the sweet potatoes supplied a nice earthy flavor. The roasted celery roots added to the natural flavor. All those tasting notes on one fork played a symphony in the way they combined.
In 2004, I was one of the chefs preparing meals for the G8 Summit, serving world leaders as well as the staff and journalists covering the event. I served the president of the United States, which was challenging because you never really knew their schedule ahead of time, for security reasons. Even the menu was top secret. It kept me on my toes to say the least. But my favorite dish out of that was a pan-fried pecan-crusted soft-shell crab. It was during the spring, so we were able to get fresh soft-shell crab, which is particularly seasonal. What we were creating is a very Southern dish, using molasses and brown butter sauce, served on lemon grits (using Anson Mills grits, which I use to this day) with sugar snap peas and a sweet corn relish with a bacon aioli. There were a lot of good meals served over the four days of the G8 summit, but that one was a standout.
Dinner for Queen Elizabeth II
In 1991, my team and I served dinner for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. This was my first executive chef job, so I was nervous to say the least. To make things trickier, there was no kitchen in the museum and no open flames allowed in the building. We had to build a kitchen for the event on the loading dock, with a refrigerated truck backed up to it. And the job was to feed the 80 plus dignitaries and celebrities attending the event. There were a lot of obstacles to face.
We served hors d’oeuvres, including caviar, crab cakes, lobster medallions and individual beef wellingtons, then the first course, an asparagus mousse with poivre rouge sauce. Following that, mille-feuille salmon. For this event we were required to do French service—serving each guest from the platter to their plate. We served foie gras-stuffed quail with a port wine sauce, and a bouquetiere of vegetables, and the dessert was chocolate mousse. It was what I would describe as classical cuisine. The “mille-feuille” are the layers of puff pastry in between the smoked salmon and herb-cream cheese, and I worked a little bit of Boursin cheese between it. So, it has a crunch, it has the smoked salmon fat, it has fat cheese flavor, big, bold flavors.
We served everyone a stuffed quail—they’re not too big—from a local farm that raises them. Foie gras is such an awesome flavor, you don’t need much of it, so the quail was stuffed with sweet corn and a little bit of foie gras and quail farcie (a puree). At the end of the dinner, I got to meet the Queen and she seemed very pleased and asked how I was able to prepare a meal like that without a kitchen. I told her, “Well, it was just like gourmet camping, I guess!”
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.