Chef Ed Rogers flourishes in unexpected niche in Italian cuisine His Piece of the Pie

March 29, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

He started in the kitchen as a dishwasher, when he was 14. At 15, he became a cook, and at 16 a restaurant manager. At 25 or so, he began to think of himself as a chef. Now, at 45, he is an accomplished chef who is soon to be a restaurateur. You could say he did everything the old-fashioned way, but Ed Rogers would probably just call it his way.

Sitting in the intimate dining room at Raphael's in Little Italy on a crisp spring day, he reminisced about the early days in his career, and about his plans for the near future, which include a new restaurant venture in Mount Vernon.

"I'm from North Carolina," he said. "I came to Baltimore when I was 13 years old," following the footsteps of his mother, who had moved north and gotten a job at Goucher College. "I came from a family that didn't have a lot . . ." Mr. Rogers said, and he wanted more out of life: "You want your own little piece of the pie."

He laughs when he recalls how he graduated from dishwasher to chef at the International House of Pancakes on Reisterstown Road. "It's one of those stories people don't believe," he said. "One day the cook walked out, and I'm the cook. Suddenly, at the age of 15, I'm learning how to cook pancakes."

That was the beginning of a career in which Mr. Rogers has made stops at the old Chesapeake Restaurant on Charles Street, at the Pimlico on Park Heights Avenue and at the Belvedere, at Peter Angelos' Shane's, at the Market Restaurant (which later became Dominique's), at Classic Catering, and at Ethel's Place. Those were the places where he got his education as a chef. "I was lucky," he said, "I found chefs who were willing to teach me."

He also found employers who appreciated what he learned. "The man's a genius," said Louis Battistone, a local architect who, with his wife, owned the Market Restaurant in 1987 and 1988. "Give him some sticks, bark, mud, and a few spices and he can come up some wonderful dish. One day he was walking around our restaurant and he was carrying an octopus so long it was dragging on the ground. I said, 'What are you going to do with that?' And he said, 'I don't know, but I had to have it.' " The giant octopus became part of a delicious salad.

However, it was during his stint at Gianni's, the former upscale Italian eatery in the Pratt Street Pavilion of Harborplace, that Mr. Rogers got what he called his tag as an Italian chef.

"I got that label, I don't even try to get rid of it now," he said. And he laughs again. "It amazes people, they want to meet the chef who cooked their dinner, and a black guy comes out of the kitchen!"

He concedes that race has sometimes been an issue in his career, but he says he never let it bother him. "When you're working your way up, you find out one of the reasons you're not going to be a chef [at a particular place] is because of your color." Mr. Rogers' solution was to go someplace else.

He and Raphael's owners, Michele and Rob Spector and Debbie and Luigi DiFalco (grandchildren and their spouses of original owner Raphael Nini) faced a certain amount of skepticism when they were opening the restaurant on South High Street two years ago. "You open up a small restaurant and already you're behind the eight ball," Mr. Rogers said. "People are saying, 'It won't work, a black chef at this Italian restaurant.' Well, guess what? It worked very well."

It's worked so well, in fact, that some nights Mr. Rogers and his crew turn out 100 meals -- not bad for a restaurant that has only 10 tables in the dining room. (There are four more in the bar downstairs.)

"There probably aren't six people in the city who'd have done what he did for this place," said Rob Spector. "He hung out here for 10 months before we opened, he worked in that too-small kitchen, he put up with me, who didn't know anything about the restaurant business." Mr. Spector joked that Mr. Rogers even taught him "some things I didn't want to know. He taught me I had to be firm with my employees and not allow them to get the upper hand."

"Firm but fair," Mr. Rogers interjected, before heading into the kitchen to complete the "prep" work for the evening. "Firm but fair."

In the tiny kitchen at Raphael's, where there's barely room for two people to pass between the huge old Vulcan 10-burner stove and the prep tables, Mr. Rogers works with a dishwasher and his two chief assistants, Shirley Jones, 30, a South Carolina native, and Tina Mansfield, 25, who is from Baltimore. "When they came here, neither had any skills that they could market -- so they learned."

That's one aspect of Mr. Rogers people may not realize at first, said Mr. Battistone. "The man's a teacher. He's always teaching."

"If you see someone who's hungry, and they want to learn, why not teach them?" Mr. Rogers said.

When Mr. Rogers asked another assistant, Theresa White, "Do you want to learn to cook?" she initially said no, "because you're going to holler at me just like you do the others."

That's right, he told her: "I'm not going to treat you any differently."

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