As a teen growing up in suburban Detroit, Michigan, RJ Cooper imagined himself a rock star chef playing in the kitchen with his mother and Sicilian grandmother who made everything from scratch. His first stint in the professional kitchen was as a high school student when he took an apprenticeship at a local bakery. Knowing right away that the culinary world was his calling, Cooper decided to further his education by attending The Culinary School at Kendall College in Illinois where he had the opportunity to work with chefs including Jean Joho, Tony Mantuano and Jean Banchet.
After graduation Cooper moved to Atlanta to work with Daniel Schaffhauser at The Ritz Carlton, Atlanta, Guenter Seeger at The Buckhead Ritz Carlton, and Gilbert LeCoze at Brasserie LeCoze. From here, Cooper went on to work with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. The time was invaluable for Cooper, teaching him how to get down and dirty with his staff in true Ripert style. During a three year move to Anchorage, Alaska, Cooper continued on his culinary development by taking the helm of the Crow’s Nest Restaurant in The Captain Cook Hotel. With the intent to bring the restaurant back to its former four star-four diamond quality, Cooper headed up the kitchen and revamped the menu, boosting staff morale and impressing locals.
In the late 1990’s, Cooper moved to Washington D.C., working at New Heights and Toka Café before joining Vidalia in 2004 as chef de cuisine. Jeffrey Buben took on the role as mentor for Cooper, teaching him the fundamentals of running a business and keeping systems in place. Cooper’s Modern American philosophy shines through in dishes like Truffled Heirloom Potatoes with Garlic Cream, Crispy Pork Belly and Juniper-Infused Sea Salt, Smoked La Belle Farm Foie Gras with Toigo Orchard Cherry Puree and Minus 8 Vinegar, where Cooper uses a delicate hand to transform ordinary products into composed and elegant dishes. While keeping things fresh and modern with a flavored salt, it’s clear from the juniper-scented salt, reminiscent of a classic French cure, and the smooth-as-silk garlic cream, that Cooper’s schooling is grounded in the fundamentals of classic French cooking.
In 2006 he was awarded rising star chef by starchefs.com. Followed that in 2007 Chef Cooper won the prestigious Best Chef Mid Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation, nominated for Best Chef by the RAMW with restaurant nominations for Best Restaurant RAMW and won for Best Restaurant AOL.
Chef Cooper believes in philanthropy and actively participates in Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, is the Chair of Taste of the Nation’s Culinary Council and was the founder of Share Our Strength’s Chefs on Bikes; he also makes appearances at St. Jude Children’s Hospital and DC Central Kitchen’s charity events.
When Cooper is not in the kitchen, he enjoys his twin daughters, Ava and Bridgette, his Harley “The Pumpkin” and The Chefs’ Motorcycle Club, The District Hogs.