We Have a World-Class Chef in Our Midst!
Walking into this cozy, unpretentious restaurant in this suburban setting inside of a shopping center, one would have no idea the experience they were about to relish.
After being greeted at the door, we were escorted into a patio area that included a living wall of succulents inside of its enclosure. It was a cool night, but the various fire-pit seating areas and patio heaters were inviting and comfortable. The smell in the air was intoxicating. Darting in and out of the kitchen rather often and quickly, was a man in a white chef’s jacket. It was this chef, Robert Rose, that drew my party here. We’d just learned Chef Rose had been dubbed second in the world for his cooking. Tasting some of his dishes was going to be a treat, and we were ready to dig in!
We were handed an extensive wine list. After all, the name of this restaurant Vin Alegro translated from Italian means “merry wine,” and this was a wine bar first, prior to housing a renowned chef. We chose the bubbly house champagne named Eloise, to kick off the night. One of our diners also indulged in a deep red malbec and said it was delicious and hearty. Printed on the back of the wine list was this Friday evening’s menu. There were about six main entrees and many appetizers to select from; we started with the burrata caprese and charcuterie cheese board. The mound of creamy burrata came to us laced with a pesto sauce and surrounded by balsamic-touched, sliced cherry tomatoes. We devoured it with a thinly sliced French baguette and blanketed our tongues in creamy, basil-drenched goodness. Then came the mounds of fine Italian meats–mortadella and capicola coupled with a red wine-soaked sheep’s milk cheese from Italy, displayed on an acacia serving round with mixed nuts, grapes, and pickled vegetables as garnish. We couldn’t eat fast enough. As we came up for air long enough to have a bit of conversation with the chef making his way to our table, we discovered that what we were eating tasted as spectacular as it did for one simple reason, it was the freshest it could be.
“In a town in Naples, Italy, where I grew up, we had a refrigerator the size you’d see in a Motel 6. We didn’t have a supermarket, whatever you were making for dinner needed gathered from the local street vendors selling their fresh tomatoes and vegetables. Or you would go down to the docks and buy fresh fish or to the local butcher to get quality meat.” Chef Rose has opted to change up his menu on nearly a daily basis, something quite unconventional in the restaurant business. “I live in Concord. As I drive in through the fields and vineyards, I gain inspiration for my dishes. I locally source ingredients from four farms in the area. I have one fish purveyor, and I make my menu from whatever I’m feeling that day. I really don’t understand why a menu should stay the same, or why conventional restaurants choose to do that? I call it frozen confusion. These are items that are coming out of the freezer, reheated, and served. I do not even have a freezer in my restaurant.”
He said, “I’m going to cook.”
When Chef Rose took over the wine bar and met with the health department, they asked him what he was going to do in the somewhat compact space that is inside. He said, “I’m going to cook.” He was met with surprised stares. But he installed a hood inside of a closet and works his magic with two burners, one oven, and a steam table. The dishes rolling out of the kitchen on the night we were there were nothing short of jaw dropping. A glistening red stuffed lobster the size of a small child went past us, the buttery smells lingering just long enough to make your mouth water. Chef Rose explained that he hadn’t thought about what to serve that night, but then some fresh lobsters showed up on his doorstep from Maine that afternoon and voilà. One of the dishes our table ordered was swordfish. When it arrived, it had just the right amount of crisp to the skin and was perfectly accented with braised garbanzo beans. Delicious! We were given a bit of a show when the chef wheeled in a cart with a burner and on top of it a huge, gorgeous pan bursting with clams, rice, and peppers. It was a paella fit for four, or maybe six. This dish wasn’t even on the menu, but there it was with all its glorious colors, juices popping and bubbling in that huge pan just waiting for someone to love it up.
Then we got to try the Mediterranean chicken. When Chef Rose stopped by to ask how we liked it, I had to share with him the memory that flooded over me the moment that chicken graced the table. Certain scents can take you back to special moments, and for a split second, I was transported to my own Sicilian Nana’s kitchen. It felt very much like the scene in “Ratatouille” when the food critic tasted the beloved dish from his childhood.
My curiosity piqued and my whistle whetted, I decided I must come back for a different meal to try more. On Sunday morning for brunch, I had just the opportunity I was looking for–another shot at cleaning a plate served by the lovely Emerald, our server, and created by Chef Rose. Classic offerings of eggs and potatoes with fruit or toast abound, but there was one dish that was circulating that looked like a piece of art rather than food. There were fluffy white clouds placed delicately onto a glazed donut with what appeared to be bacon peeking out from beneath the blanket of white. It was the most specialized form of eggs Benedict I had ever seen. I decided to sample a creamy concoction of honey-drizzled goat cheese on a baguette with a sprinkling of bee pollen. My ultimate selection of a Greek scramble with feta cheese and Kalamata olives was accompanied by the mandatory brunch mimosa. All in all, it was a magnificent breakfast and a beautiful way to start the day!
Chef Rose recently took his talents on the road and competed in the World Food Championships “Final Table: Indy” event this year in Indianapolis. On Oct. 3, he was part of a culinary team made up of himself, the “Bacon Babe” of Altadena, Jodi Taffel, and Richard Hanna. They took second place, narrowly missing out on the $100,000 first prize. Although he has competed in several cooking competitions nationwide, this one was a huge honor. Over 450 teams from 14 countries were vying for recognition, working through three elimination rounds challenged with various tasks of revolving ingredients and recipes, all to see who would shine brightest. Although his team barely lost the title of reigning number one in the world, Rose feels quite victorious and loves the rush competitions provide. “I fly into Nashville and the news is there to interview me. If I go to Philadelphia, people want to know what I’m doing next. I have made a name for myself everywhere, but I really love being here cooking for the people in this area.”
“I fly into Nashville and the news is there to interview me. If I go to Philadelphia, people want to know what I’m doing next.
During the restaurant closures of the COVID-19 lockdown, Chef Rose created 15-20 take-and-bake menu items each day to keep his restaurant alive. “My old partner, Glenn, asked me, ‘How are you doing this, turning over that many menu items, it’s just not done?’ I told him it’s all I can do. It’s hard to explain, but certain objects and colors speak to me, they give me the inspiration I need to create these dishes. The fact is, I have dyslexia. I can’t read well, or write well, but what I can do really well is cook. So, I do.”
Rose has a nine-year-old son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps when he grows older. He, too, suffers from dyslexia but attends a special school in Concord called the Hope Academy. It’s this school that will keep this world-class, self-taught chef in our midst for years to come. Vin Alegro may be a cozy, albeit elegant, bistro set in the middle of a small town, but what is most evident is the mastery housed within that quant kitchen. It’s noticeable from before you walk in the door as the aromas waft toward you. When sitting in your chair waiting for your dish to come to your table, the parade of incredible delicacies that go by is something to behold. You won’t see anything like it outside of Vegas, Paris, or New York, yet it’s just in our back yard waiting for you to indulge.
Photos by Casey Quist