It didn’t quite work out the way Harper expected, nor did the next two gigs after that Sin City fizzle, but the chef believes he’s found the perfect job for him for the time being: director of kitchen operations for D.C. Central Kitchen, the non-profit that feeds, educates and strives to save thousands from chronic homelessness, poverty and crime.
“I love challenges, and I love doing things that are sort of not necessarily the normal things, or not what everybody else is doing,” says Harper, a 34-year-old Alexandria native who had to step down from the DCCK board to take the new job. (Incidentally, long-time DCCK employee Marianne Ali used to hold down the kitchen, among other responsibilities, but she’s now focused exclusively the Culinary Job Training Program and outreach.)
“I love the kitchen and what they’ve done over the past 21, 22 years,” continues Harper. “And for me to be able to see where I can take it, to build on what’s already been done, to me is truly exciting. It’s a unique opportunity for me to take this thing to another level, which what is that? It’s not a restaurant level. It’s not going to end up on the front of some foodie magazines.”
“He’s only been in charge for a couple weeks, but I’m already seeing exactly what I was hoping for,” notes Michael Curtin, CEO of DCCK. “We are always looking for creative ways to be more efficient and more effective. Sometimes a new pair of eyes goes a long way. There is ‘thinking out of the box’ on one hand, but the box we have, this kitchen, is the box we have. What I am asking Rock to do is help us build a better box.”
Harper’s experience in restaurants — among other spots, he’s served as chef at B. Smith’s, Ben’s Next Door and, for a brief sneeze, at the Carlyle Club — has honed his skill at spotting waste and inefficiencies in the kitchen, even one as large as DCCK’s. Harper offers an example: A cook was transferring food from a large kitchen kettle to storage containers on a table, two containers at a time, requiring many trips back and forth.
“Instead of filling two pans, move everything off of the table and fill 15 pans at a time,” Harper says. “It’s basic common production line stuff. That’s something I changed immediately. What it does, it helps our end user, our guest, our client, get a better product that isn’t dropping below [an unsafe] temperature.”
Harper will be the first to tell you that he’s a restaurant guy at heart. He says he likes “people coming in the doors and serving them and seeing them smile on the way out. That’s who I am.” But he believes he can find satisfaction in the new job by, perhaps, serving restaurants in another way — by selling them stocks, sauces and other items produced at DCCK’s kitchen.
It’s a plan that Curtin has been cooking up.
DCCK “could be a source for a consistent stock or diced vegetables for different restaurants or food service operators around the city or close to us,” Harper says.
The idea has its roots in a problem that bothers Curtin: DCCK occasionally has to order vegetables when local farms are still disposing of hundreds of pounds of unused veggies. “So maybe in the summer, if we want mixed vegetables, why can’t we take 800 pounds, 1,000 pounds of green beans, 800 pounds of carrots and dice ’em up ourselves? Shuck the corn ourselves? Shuck the peas and make our own bags of vegetables? We should never buy them,” Harper says.
That application could then be expanded to cater to restaurants, the DCCK team believes.
“Tomatoes, we can get them by the ton, so we should be making our own tomato sauce and stockpiling it over the winter,” Harper says. “What opportunities that leads to in the future, who knows? That’s part of [Curtin’s] vision, and I strongly believe that I can do that in a very short amount of time.”
Harper’s path to DCCK’s doorstep has been a winding and unpredictable one. The chef was awarded a sky-high, one-year contract of $250,000 to essentially be a celebrity-chef beacon, drawing diners to the Italian-themed Terra Verde at Green Valley Ranch in Henderson, Nev. His title was “head chef,” but he didn’t spend much time in the kitchen.
“It was probably one of the most frustrating moments of my career,” Harper says of his year at Terra Verde.
“The producers had a conversation with myself and a couple of others, and they said, ‘This is what you make it.’ They didn’t warn us, but they said, ‘Hey, just to let you know, you have to structure this so it’s for your benefit.’ Now, did I know what that meant? At the time, I had no ...clue that, hey, maybe I should write in the contract that I get to produce half the menu. I just assumed.”
Harper has no hard feelings these days about the experience; in fact, he says he has a good relationship with the producers and Fox. “We’re cool. I’ve been back since, and everything’s cool,” he says.
The chef chalks up his short stints at Next Door and the Carlyle Club to, essentially, improper fits: He had high expectations for operations that already had set their visions. “I wanted scratch, good, home-style [food]. I’m a Southern, home-style cook. I wanted that in a bar setting,” Harper says of his time at Next Door. “It didn’t match their original vision.” (Co-owner Nizam Ali agrees that Harper raised the bar at Next Door, but believes the U Street operation continues to maintain those standards.)
Given his affection for the restaurant world, Harper admits that he eventually plans to jump back in it — just not anytime soon.
“We’re working on a couple of concepts, one in particular, to launch within, I want to say, a few years,” Harper says. “The opportunities are there. The one thing I have is patience, and I’m not in a rush.”
“I’m focused on this solely. I know there are things that I can learn here,” Harper says about the DCCK gig. “Look at my guests. Who are my guests now? I have two guests: My staff, they’re always my guests, but my guests are shelters and they’re on the streets. Right? What’s my comment card look like? What’s my guest survey look like? How do I judge whether I’m serving my guests appropriately? ... If I can please them, I don’t [care] what restaurant I open up, I’m going to be successful at it.”