When David Foulquier asked Bryan Rojas to try out for the head chef position at his restaurant Fooq's, Rojas agreed even though he says he had no intention of leaving his job. The 27-year-old was the chef de partie at Michael Schwartz's Cypress Tavern (formerly known as the Cypress Room), where he worked alongside his mentor, chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia. However, shortly thereafter, Alcudia was let go from Cypress Tavern, and Rojas decided to give Fooq's a shot.
Nevertheless, Rojas was a bit uneasy about accepting the position mainly because of Foulquier's age. "I was like, 'You own a restaurant and you're only 25?' I was a bit sketched out and thought, I don’t know how this is gonna work," says Rojas. But that was back in October, and now the young chef is glad he agreed to the new gig. "David does well at the front of house, and the kitchen does well with me," he explains.
It also helped to have Alcudia in the kitchen with him for the first month while Fooq's was transitioning following chef Nicole Votano's sudden departure to Dirt. (Alcudia has since moved on to the top position at Mandolin Aegean Bistro.)
But despite all the changes happening at Fooq's just a couple of months in, Foulquier decided to send Rojas to New York City to stage at two leading restaurants: Daniel and Estela. "When I hired Bryan, I wanted to further his development because he's young, and the experience he’s had is great but limited," Foulquier says.
Fortunately, the restaurateur is good family friends with world-renowned chef Daniel Boulud, while Alcudia helped arrange a stage at Estela. So in January, Rojas spent three days at each restaurant. He says the experiences couldn't have been more different. Whereas at Daniel, the chef wasn't allowed to do anything except observe, at Estela, Rojas got to cook.
Of course, Daniel is an upscale three-Michelin-starred restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side, while Estela is an intimate eatery in Nolita serving approachable, Mediterranean-influenced cuisine. And while the chefs at Daniel must communicate by phone because the kitchen is so large, the chefs at Estela work in a small space that's no bigger than the kitchen at Fooq's. Rojas says the atmosphere at Daniel was quite stressful, but not so at Estela.
"The culture at Estela was nice; everyone seemed happy and like they enjoyed their job a lot. The food was immaculate, but they were enjoying themselves," Rojas says. Asked what things he has brought back to Fooq's from his experiences, Rojas' answer is "inspiration mostly." He also noticed how the chefs at Estela omit garnishes from their plates and use whole herbs versus chopped ones. The Colombian-born chef also picked up on organizational techniques from both stages.
When Fooq's opened about a year ago, the laid-back downtown eatery concentrated on farm-to-table fare with Italian and Persian influences owing to chef Votano's and Foulquier's respective heritages. But since Rojas came onboard, the restaurant has been increasingly focused on serving Persian-inspired dishes.
Now there's a seasonal vegetable dish ($26) that features tahdig, crisp Persian jeweled rice served with pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, and walnuts. Rojas has also introduced a Persian lamb shank for two ($46) that's served alongside harissa hummus, herb yogurt, zaatar, naan bread, and preserved lemon. Other dishes have more subtle Middle Eastern touches. For example, half a roasted chicken ($29) is spiced with sumac, while Rojas' bouillabaisse ($32) is enhanced with saffron.
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Interestingly enough, prior to working at Fooq's, Rojas' knowledge of Persian cooking was limited to kebabs and gyros. Yet the more he spoke with Foulquier and his family, the more he learned to appreciate and understand the cuisine, noting that it's similar to Spanish cooking in various ways.
Rojas, who attended Johnson & Wales and worked at Gigi before Cypress Tavern, says he's become more confident trying new things at Fooq's. "Now that I’m kind of established and people come here for my food, I figure I can play a little more without having to worry about people not liking the food. I’ve even done camel moussaka here," he says.
For his part, Foulquier says Rojas has evolved tremendously after his two stages and refers to him as his "little star." Both are also extremely proud of their brunch, which includes Persian fried chicken ($24), a duck and foie gras hash with Proper Sausages sausage ($19), and spaghetti carbonara ($19). And to think that several years ago, Rojas was studying medical lab technology and had little interest in running his own kitchen. How things have changed.