R.J. Cooper has heard the rumors — that his fellow partners in Rogue 24 are looking to replace him as chef — and he wants to make sure no one misunderstands his latest piece of bad news: He’s going to be away from his debut restaurant for weeks to undergo open-heart surgery in January.
“There’s a bunch of rumors that I’m leaving. I’m not going anywhere,” Cooper told All We Can Eat late Friday afternoon. “I have to just go have this procedure done. It’s supposed to be a six-week down time. I will be back in the kitchen in two weeks in a small capacity.”
The chef says he has a genetic heart defect known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which could be life-threatening if not treated. Surgery was the best of the three options that doctors presented him, said Cooper, who said he has to lose weight and get in shape before the procedure.
Cooper, 43, says the operation is scheduled for Jan. 10 at Johns Hopkins, but he hopes to move the procedure to an earlier date. Rogue 24 already has plans to shut down for a week after New Year’s Eve, Cooper noted. The chef plans to be back in the kitchen full-time sooner than his doctors expect him to be.
“I’m like Iron Man,” Cooper said. “You can’t stop me.”
During Cooper’s absence, sous chefs Ryan Moore and Mikey Maksimowicz are scheduled to run the kitchen. The chef doesn’t expect any drop-off in quality while he’s out, although co-owner Hilda Staples thinks the young Rogue team may need a more experienced leader in the kitchen during Cooper’s absence, which could stretch longer than he thinks.
“I think open-heart surgery is a little more serious,” Staples said. “I think it’s going to be two months, honestly.”
Staples thinks that one of Cooper’s old colleagues could step in to assist or, in a pinch, celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio could lend a hand. Staples is also a partner in Voltaggio’s Volt in Frederick. “I didn’t even ask him to do it,” Staples said about Voltaggio. “He was like, ‘I’m super busy, but I’ll drop everything and do it.’ So that was nice to hear.”
Like Cooper, Staples has heard the stories about her chef’s temper and temperament at Rogue 24. She doesn’t stress out over them, even though Cooper has already lost his pastry chef and general manager since opening in late July.
Chefs are “peculiar people. They’re very, very passionate,” she said. “They’re not always the nicest guys...It’s something that makes them great chefs. It’s the way they are.”
Staples said she has no plans to replace Cooper at Rogue 24. “No, my God!” she said. “We built the whole thing around R.J. It’s like taking Mike Isabella out of Graffiato...He’s not replaceable.”
Cooper says that he has a good relationship with his staff and that his hiatus has nothing to do with taking a break. “It’s not like I’m going to rehab for cocaine addiction,” he said. “This is something that is [bleeping] serious.”