Under the Toque: Roman stays on course by not cutting corners

Under the Toque: Roman stays on course by not cutting corners

Chip Roman’s love of cooking has been steady throughout his life. His love affair with working in restaurants, however, was a bit rockier. He jump-started his culinary career by working in two of Philadelphia’s highest-rated restaurants, Vetri [3] and Le Bec-Fin [4]. While working at Le Bec-Fin, he got formal culinary training and a business degree from Drexel University. However after years of toiling in the kitchen and in school, he was burned out on restaurants. That’s about when he was asked to help cater a party and was astonished at how much money a few hours of labor had earned him. He started a catering business, Charles Roman Catering, out of his home in 2004. The company soon outgrew his house, and he rented space in a friend’s restaurant in Conshohocken, Pa., outside of Philadelphia. When his friend’s place went out of business, Roman found he was ready to give restaurants another chance. He took over his friend’s lease and debuted Blackfish [5] in 2006. The fine-dining restaurant has earned rave reviews and made Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly lists in 2007 and 2008. Roman eventually opened another outpost of Blackfish in Avalon, N.J., which he is in the process of relocating a few miles away to a new spot in Stone Harbor, N.J.

How did you get into cooking?

I’ve just always done it. When I was young, I used to fish, and I wanted to know how to cook [what I caught.] My first restaurant job was at Vetri. I worked for free for a year until they had a paying position. That’s how I got into restaurants.

I went to school and also got a degree in business because my parents didn’t want me to just go to culinary school. I’m more grounded, I guess. But if I didn’t go to culinary school, I would have done the same thing. I just got the business degree to please my parents – I’m young enough that I still want to appease them.

CHEF’S TIPS

Taste everything.

Don’t take shortcuts: “Do it right or do it twice.”

Why did you get into catering?

I’ve always wanted to make extra money. I’ve always been a worker. I was at Le Bec-Fin for five years, and one time someone asked me to help host a party at their house, and I made $400. Catering was a way for me to support myself. Today we run the catering out the back door and the restaurant out of the front door.

Is it unusual to go from catering to owning a restaurant?

I don’t think it’s as common. I think most people start with a restaurant and go into catering. I was kind of burned out with restaurants, working and going to school for five years. I needed a little bit of a break, though working for myself was more work than I thought. I got married, got a mortgage, had bills to pay – I needed the money. But I missed working in restaurants. I had this spot I was already leasing, my wife gave me her blessing, and I said OK.

Tell me about the menu at Blackfish?

When I first opened, I thought Conshohocken was a meat-and-potatoes town. I wouldn’t say that anymore. Our menu is fairly expensive for the area. We have foie gras, sweetbreads, snails. The people wanted us to make it a little complex. We draw from a lot of different neighborhoods. A lot of our customers don’t have to drive to Philadelphia [for a good meal], they can come here. Even people from Philly come here.

How do you balance your restaurants, catering and family?

I just moved about four minutes away from work, so now it’s a little better. I can kind of come and go as needed. We have a shore house in Ocean City, [Md., not far from the new restaurant], so from May to September my whole family is there. I also have a really strong staff.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

Yelling. I basically oversee everything, though I still cook a lot. But I’ve got a chef for each restaurant, a general manager for each restaurant and an assistant.

What is your biggest challenge during the economic downturn?

BIOGRAPHY

Title: chef/owner, Blackfish, Conshohocken, Pa., and Stone Harbor, N.J.Birth date: May 26, 1979Hometown: PhiladelphiaEducation: Drexel University, Philadelphia, 2002Career highlights: working at Le Bec-Fin and Vetri, both in PhiladelphiaPersonal: married, with two kidsInterests: fishing

We’re not struggling by any means. I have less covers, but our check average is up. We reconfigured our menu a bit to encourage people to order more.

We used to do seven appetizers and seven entrées. Now we [divide those up and] offer five, five and five, so people are ordering more courses. People really like having a first, second, third and dessert. Seventy-five percent of people order the three courses.

What is your greatest asset?

The staff. We have extra-great service. A lot of places are cutting back and using managers to do things like bartend and serve. My response is to do the opposite. I hire more staff and take a little less for myself. A lot of people are still going to go out to eat. With restaurants cutting corners, people will start to notice. People are extra vigilant and will say something about it. I just want to make sure people know we’re still trying to give them a great product.

How is your catering business doing?

I probably get more phone calls for it now than ever before, but I’m losing interest. I close fewer deals. If people want to dumb [the food] down, I shy away from it. It’s my job to maintain the standard.

What kind of customers do you have?

We do get a lot of foodies. A lot of chefs call for weddings. I usually give those guys a deal because I know what they’re dealing with. When a chef asks you [to cater], it’s a compliment.

Do you cook at home?

I cook once in a while. Sometimes I’d rather have a cheese steak than something fancy.— [email protected] [6]