Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
As far as second careers go, becoming a chef is a bigger change than most. A passion for food can drive a whole new lifestyle, and pursuing that love can fuel a livelihood. And any chef, not just one on his second career, would be considered fortunate to land what Danny Rojo's first job was in New York—cooking at the chef's station of Bouley.
But for Rojo, who currently serves as the head chef in South Slope mainstay Lot 2 (of killer burger fame), the position reminded him of the high-pressure corporate environment that he sought to escape in the first place. Lot 2 offered greener pastures and the chef's life he was looking for, where the job is simple: cook great food for great neighbors.
We recently spoke with Rojo about his West coast roots, cooking for a 40-seat restaurant, and his advice for aspiring chefs looking to take the leap into a culinary careers.
How did you enter the New York culinary world? I grew up in Los Angeles and lived there until I was 26. The last year I was there, I wasn't very happy at the job I was at for five years—I worked at a big syndicated radio network, and big corporate radio is no more fun than big corporate anything else. So I had to get out.
I always enjoyed cooking; I cooked with my mom a lot. My dad loved to grill and host barbecues. I was cooking at home a lot for a single twenty-something guy. I have this memory of checking my e-mail at work and just being so frustrated and seeing a little spam ad for the California School of Culinary Arts and just being like, "I'm going to click that. I want out of here and maybe this is the way out."
I was fortunate that the radio job paid well enough that I could take that last year and work there and put myself through culinary school. After an externship I moved to Oakland and I had a really great year there. I worked with an amazing chef named Saman Javid, who's at Gramercy Tavern these days. We had a little restaurant up there called B and it was awesome. By the time our year was up, I felt ready to come to New York.
New York is a hard place to make it, in any profession. What did you do when you first arrived? My first stop to drop off my resume was Per Se, and I worked my way down all the Michelin stars. I got a job at Bouley cooking fish, but it wasn't for me at all. There was too much of a disconnect between cooks, their product, and each other. It was ultra-competitive and high-stress. I love the restaurant as a whole and there were some good people there. Bouley himself was very gracious to me. But I left after a bit, and they kind of thought I was crazy because I was cooking the chef's station at a two Michelin star restaurant after a week of being in New York. So I left and laid low, doing weird food jobs like working in a sandwich shop. And when my friend Scott and some partners opened this place, they asked me to come along and cook with them. I did, and I've been here ever since. I've never looked back at Manhattan fine dining.
How do you feel about that decision? Knowing who you're cooking for and with and genuinely liking each other makes all the difference. So does having 40 seats. People make better food when they're enjoying themselves. People don't cook well when they're scared and angry. It's a lot easier to do things and feel good about them in a setting like this.
How do you like the South Slope/Sunset Park neighborhood in comparison to others you've worked in? It feels much more like a community than any place I've ever lived. I really feel like this neighborhood really appreciates us and they've taken to this spot as a true neighborhood tavern. We've had weddings here, rehearsal dinners, we've got a room full of postcards from friends and ex-employees. I see people while getting coffee and picking up my laundry, and then later I see them for dinner at the bar. We all by and large like each other and look out for each other's interests. It's a really supportive community.
How has your menu developed here at Lot 2? When we opened I worked with Scott a lot on the initial menu. The very first menu I did had pickles, olives, one salad with pickled pumpkin, a grilled cheese sandwich, a burger, a roast chicken, and I might have snuck some fish on there. But that was it. It was really small and tight and we just tried to not do anything too out there, nothing too expensive, things that people would find familiar.
It's changed a lot since then. We found that this place wanted to be something other than what we were originally trying to do here. Someone told me a long time ago that you have to cook for your space first and foremost. We found this sweet spot, selling familiar things, simple things that are made with great ingredients and great care. But we also wanted to keep it interesting for us as cooks, so we found that changing the menu a lot was actually a good thing, as long as we had those anchors, like the burger. They allow us to experiment a little. Right now we have a really nice balance of simple comfort food that's also really elegant.
Have you brought anything into the kitchen from the West Coast? All of us in the kitchen have a real appreciation for produce. It really drives what we do here and keeps things fun and inspiring. We try to let it shine for what it is. I've also brought a fondness for In-N-Out. While our burger isn't exactly like an In-N-Out burger, I think we've brought that kind of sense of silliness. Not that I want to work in a fast food restaurant, but there's nothing wrong with copping that style once in a while. There's a reason why there's so many of them—people love it.
Do you have any goals for the future for Lot 2? I would like this place to just stay here and continue to anchor the neighborhood. I would love to see us keep growing into other business ventures. We've done a little bit of catering, which has gone well. I feel like we have so many good people here; I want to keep them and see them grow. And I think you have to find more outlets for that because there's only so far you can go in a kitchen with three people and a place with 40 seats.
Any advice for wannabe chefs about to take the leap onto a second culinary career? I think it's important to take it seriously but not too seriously. It's food. It's something so basic and such a big part of everybody's life, but not everyone appreciates it the same way, and it's good to just remember that people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. I think people should take care of their coworkers and be respectful. The stereotypes of the yelling chefs and fiery, angry kitchens seem dated to me. I don't think people do their best work when they hate you or when they're scared of you. Be good to your people and learn from them as much as you're trying to teach them. I've learned so much from all the people I work with. Don't be scared to collaborate. Don't let your ego keep you from learning something from someone who you don't think is a good as a cook as you are. That would be the best advice.