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R.J. Cooper is leaving D.C. and Rogue 24 for Charlotte

R.J. Cooper, the accomplished but controversial chef behind Rogue 24 and the late Gypsy Soul, announced Tuesday that he would be leaving Washington to become the director of culinary experiences at the Marriott City Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The James Beard Award-winning chef's last service at Rogue 24 will be on New Year's Eve, when Cooper will offer two seatings of his "journey" dinners, which feature the 24-course menus that originally defined his concept in Blagden Alley.

"The transition does not translate into me losing full creative control over the experience of Rogue 24, but instead means that I will not be managing it on a daily basis," Cooper wrote in an email distributed on Tuesday. "Daily operations will be transferred to other partner until further legal settlement and discussions are finalized regarding the future of Rogue 24."

The "other partner" is Hilda Staples, the managerial and financial muscle behind not only Rogue 24 but also restaurants operated by chefs Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella. Two years ago, Staples sued Cooper and his wife and business partner, Judith, for breach of contract over not paying an alleged $300,000 loan. Cooper countersued for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duties, among other charges.

In late October, a D.C. Superior Court judge issued a summary judgment in favor of the Coopers, saying Staples had presented no evidence the Coopers were aware of their liability for the money.

Staples could not be immediately reached for comment on Rogue 24.

While the fate of Rogue 24 remains uncertain, Cooper's future has become solidified. He'll be moving to Charlotte after the new year to assume the new position at the Marriott City Center, which is undergoing massive renovations. Cooper's hiring is part of the hotel chain's grand plans to upgrade the Charlotte property's dining services.

"It's a brand new concept. We don't know what it will look like yet," says Nina Herrera-Davila, senior director for consumer public relations for Marriott. "It's something that we really want to be different."

Cooper, 47, will be working with Marriott as soon as he lands in Charlotte in January, but the new concept is not expected to launch until the fall, Herrera-Davila says.

The chef calls the next chapter of his life “an opportunity to create and be more flexible with my life.” As lead food curator, the chef will be responsible for developing menus and hiring talent for an upscale casual restaurant, a coffee lounge, a speakeasy and a craft bar.

For the first time, says the father of two 9-year-old twin daughters, “I’m putting my family in front of my career.” (He’s also ditching his car.)

The new arrangement may serve Cooper — and Charlotte diners — well. Cooper thrived when he worked under chef and restaurateur Jeffrey Buben. In 2007, when he was chef at Buben's Vidalia on M Street NW, Cooper shared a James Beard Award with Frank Ruta who was then running Palena. Conversely, Cooper's own projects, Rogue 24 and Gypsy Soul in Merrifield, became tangled up in lawsuits.

Earlier this year, the Coopers agreed to vacate the Gypsy Soul space after the landlord sued to evict the couple over more than $270,000 in unpaid rent and other fees. The Coopers had faced a similar eviction notice from Rogue 24's landlord, Douglas Development, which claimed the chef and his wife owed $26,396 in back rent dating from Sept. 1, 2014 to March 10.

The case was dismissed on March 23 when the Coopers paid off the debt.

Despite the financial troubles, Cooper was a pioneer in the Blagden Alley neighborhood, where he opened Rogue 24 in 2011. Since then, the chef has seen his turf take on apartments and hot spots including La Colombe, the designer coffee purveyor; Lost & Found, a cocktail bar; and the Dabney, a specialist in Mid-Atlantic cuisine.

"They’re like a family to me," Cooper says of the recent arrivals.

He will leave behind that family, and others, in the new year.

"I have been in the Washington DC culinary scene for nearly 17 years and the city has given me some of the greatest moments of my life that includes winning a James Beard Award establishing wonderful relationships with chefs, restaurant workers, owners and guests in the area, and most of all, starting a family," Cooper wrote in his goodbye email.

Read more: 

R.J. Cooper to remain at Rogue 24 for ‘foreseeable future’

Landlord files suit to evict Gypsy Soul from Mosaic District

R.J. Cooper agrees to return Gypsy Soul space to landlord