Most people subscribe to the tenet that it is better to give than to receive. Whether it be a kind gesture to a stranger in need or a contribution of one’s talent, such patronage touches lives and sparks inspiration. It’s a philosophy to which Chef Rock Harper faithfully adheres.
Now, with his latest role as chef de cuisine at the Chatham Wine Bar and Restaurant, Harper is seizing a new opportunity to use the medium he knows best to conduct the message he holds dear.
Harper’s foray into cooking took root in the earlier years of his life, spent primarily in and around Alexandria, Va., where he remembers making simple meals for his older sisters and their friends.
“I was young, maybe 10, and I’d cook Oodles of Noodles or even scrambled eggs for everyone, and I liked it. I loved entertaining through food, even if I couldn’t say that at 10 years old.” One standout recollection is from Harper’s eighth grade home economics class, where he made a lasagna and received much praise.
“I couldn’t believe something like this came from me. People loved it, I took it home, and I knew right then, I want to do this for a living.” After earning a degree at Johnson and Wales in culinary arts and chef training, Harper would go on to achieve several career highlights, chief among them a teaching position at Stratford University, as well as several coveted positions at establishments in and around the Washington, D.C. area.
More recently Harper has applied both his culinary aptitude and his desire to give back through non-profit work to the D.C. Central Kitchen and Central Union Mission, also located in Washington. Through his involvement with these programs, Harper works with almost entirely donated food to reduce waste, promote efficiency in the kitchen, and perhaps most dear to his heart, teach the homeless and underprivileged a wealth of culinary skills that they may eventually apply in the job market.
He’s served as the March of Dimes Celebrity Chef. In 2010, Harper published “44 Things Parents Should Know About Healthy Cooking for Kids.” Then there’s his podcast, “The Chef Rock Xperiment,” an after-hours talk show aptly titled “Shift Drink,” a strong presence on Instagram and Facebook, and his own company, RockSolid Creative Food Group.
Perhaps his best-known feat, though, was a chance tryout (and eventual win) on the third season of “Hell’s Kitchen” with Gordon Ramsay, where Harper says he cultivated a deeper understanding of his capabilities. About his time on the show, Harper offers a genuine realization.
“I shouldn’t say anything is possible – everything is possible, if I commit to it.” Harper’s victory on the show granted him the opportunity to spearhead the Terra Vere Restaurant at the Green Valley Ranch Resort and Spa in Nevada, where he stayed for a year before moving on.
Harper’s already dynamic career was punctuated shortly after “Hell’s Kitchen” by his introduction to Chatham Wine Bar and Restaurant owner Jeff Ippoliti and his brother Jim, who reached out to Harper to cook for The Celebration Exotic Car Festival in central Florida. The annual fundraiser supports various national children’s charities, and Harper was happy to oblige. The philanthropic collaboration eventually brought Harper to the 359 Main St. location during the off-season, where he cooked a handful of dinners and admits that he “fell in love with [Chatham].”
An appeal from Ippoliti to relocate to the Chatham Wine Bar and Restaurant was met with approval and Harper accepted his current gig as chef de cuisine, welcomed by Executive Chef Regina Castellano and others on the Wine Bar’s self-described “Culinary Dream Team.” The kitchen is in the process of expanding to twice its current size, and the new patio off the Wine Bar will double the amount of seats.
Harper says he is excited to continue growing the Inn’s menu, and anticipates some leeway in the winter months to play with flavor profiles and innovative techniques.
“If there's no one here but the locals and they don’t necessarily go out to eat a lot, then that’s time as a chef to get extremely creative. Then, in the spring and summer when people come back and the produce comes back, you can pull forward with all these creative ideas…you want to take risks. You want the reaction to be, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Harper does note, however, that it’s vital to incorporate local history and culture into his food. He went to the library, visited local restaurants, perused menus and talked to various people in an effort to better understand Chatham.
“It’s very important you understand the people [you’re cooking for] and know what's important to them. You can be as great a cook as you want; if you don’t understand the people, you can really isolate yourself.”
For Harper, giving back is not just the occasional obligation, it’s the prerequisite to everything he does. “You have to be a conduit,” he states. When he moved to Chatham, he began writing a list of goals. Unsurprisingly, at the top of the list was volunteer work. But Harper believes it’s what he does behind kitchen doors that can touch people directly, every day.
“We can give our craft, we can give our passion, our time. I just feel it’s important to use my blessings to enrich the lives of others. And it’s easy, when it’s something I love to do.”