Chef 101 with Rock Harper of Ben’s Next Door

Previous culinary experience — Before Next Door, I graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Norfolk [Va.] in 1996. Then I had a few odd line jobs: Planet Hollywood, Bet on Jazz. Then B. Smith’s in Union Station. I was there for a majority of my career — sous chef, assistant general manager, then executive chef. Then I went on the show “Hell’s Kitchen.” I won. Then I went to Terra Verde restaurant in Las Vegas, where I was head chef. Now I’m here.

When I’m not eating my own food — Right now, I’m eating at Ben’s Chili Bowl a lot because I practically live there. There’s nowhere specific. I just like jeans-and-T-shirts kinds of places. I might hit up Acadiana or DC Coast or Lauriol Plaza. I love Matchbox; Crème Cafe is close, I really like that. I don’t really get out much right now, unfortunately. I’d like to.

Born and raised — I was born in San Diego, but I was raised in Alexandria. I’ve been there pretty much all my life.

Food I cannot stand — I’m not a big “odd food” person. I don’t know if there’s anything specific, but stuff like tripe I’m not a fan of; cow tongue I’m not really a big fan of. If it doesn’t taste good … I know about expanding your palate and all that jazz, but I’m not a big fan of stuff that just ain’t right — organs.

Greatest cooking influence
—  If it’s a person, I would like to say my grandmother, because I never tasted a bad meal from her, and I never paid for one, either. But right now, as many chefs as I love, as many restaurants as I love, Gordon Ramsay, he does so much. Really, anyone who strives for perfection every day, and they go after it, like Wolfgang Puck. He’s still in his restaurants after all these years when he could be off on a beach somewhere.

Views on cooking TV shows —  Some of them I like — I can’t say I don’t — but a lot of them I don’t. The Food Network is a powerhouse. It created the food TV game on a national level. But I tell you, food TV is, to me — you’re really buying into the personality more than what they’re doing. Many times the recipes don’t work or it’s not practical. Paula Deen, for instance, is one of my favorites because she keeps it real. Some people are fake and phony. Like “Iron Chef,” for example — it’s entertaining, but you put any three people at that judges’ table, and they’ll say different things.

Strangest cuisine I’ve tried — I try not to indulge in strange stuff. I’ve had some Asian stuff in Chinatown that’s been pretty weird. The fish is killed tableside in the acid or lemon juice. I had razor clams that just looked horrible and I couldn’t even get past the look. Chicken feet, which are not too strange; a lot of cultures eat chicken feet. I don’t like feet. My brother’s father is Jamaican, and they had fish eyes. I had them once and swore them off. I also had bull’s testicles in ceviche recently.

Must-have cooking utensil — Wooden spoon and a cast-iron skillet.

Thoughts on Washington’s food scene — It’s one of the best in the country. You have places like New York, Portland and San Francisco that are just powerhouses. In D.C. you can get such a huge range of cuisine in such a small area; that makes it quite different. You’ve got gourmet burger joints. You’ve got Jose Andres opening up a restaurant every week. You just have so many choices.

Worst kitchen disaster — I really make lemonade out of lemons all the time. But I remember Mother’s Day a few years ago at B. Smith’s, when 30 or 40 percent of my staff walked out. I guess their visas had expired, and the feds were looking for them. One of my food runners’ wives was the pastry chef, and their two kids were the bakers. They all left. But, you know, I say it was a disaster, but the doors had to open, and the doors did open. You can’t tell 1,500 to 2,000 people, that, “Sorry, my staff walked out” — they just don’t want to hear it. So I went to Costco, I got some desserts. I got some rolls. You can either go into panic mode or you can go into what-are-you-going-to-do mode. So that was pretty bad, but it worked.

Biggest pet peeve in the kitchen — I’ve got a ton. Probably just the lack of urgency. Do what you’re doing, and do it perfectly. I don’t care whether you’re serving chicken wings or Venison Wellington. Make it perfect. If it’s not, don’t send it to the guest, because that’s not fair. Every step, whether it’s cutting the chives, ladling the sauce or showing up on time properly groomed.

Three people I’d never want to see in the kitchen — The pastry chef who walked out on me and her family. Somebody dirty. Pick a slob, any slob you can imagine. And [George] W. [Bush]. He’s not welcome. No, but you know what, W. probably would be welcome, just so I could put him on the line and put some fire on his ass.

Strangest things cooked — Tripe and beef tongue, but they’re not really strange. I can’t really say that I’ve cooked strange things.


Marital status
— Wife, Tamara