Doug Rodrigues | Sacrifices Made, Fake Drama & Fine Dining in Boston
Doug Rodrigues came up in cooking the hard way. He worked his way up under tough chefs that taught him the skills and discipline needed to succeed. Rodrigues started working in restaurants at 14 in order to pay for his skateboards. At the time, he had aspirations to make the trip to California and become a pro skater. By 19, he had graduated from high school and the California dream had faded. Doug had his eyes on not only become a chef, but outdoing every chef that he’s worked under. He made his way to Boston’s Clio, and under Ken Oringer’s tutelage, worked his way up to executive chef. He then had an unfortunate freak accident that involved stabbing a pastry chef at a bar. He’s now the Executive Chef of Liquid Art House. He’s also got his sights on expanding and opening his own restaurant in the near future. Doug’s mentality is something that everyone could learn from, he’s definitely Boston strong.
Start out with your age and where you’re from originally. I’m 34, and I’m from a town called Scituate, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes south of Boston.
How did you first get interested in cooking? My parents made me get a job when I was 14 cause they didn’t want to buy my skateboards anymore.
Where were you working and in what capacity? I started working mainly to pay for the skateboards, but it was at a restaurant—I started at a restaurant on the South Shore called the Atlantica. I was probably working 80 hours a week, and going to school at the same time.
How did you transition from being focused on skating to being more focused on cooking? It was probably around the time that I was 19. A friend of mine that skates pro, I was supposed to move out to California with him. The idea was to make the Cali trip and go pro. I had promised my parents that I would graduate high school first. So, I did that. By the time I had graduated, I was just sort of embedded in cooking. I was making good money, and the Cali trip just didn’t seem as intriguing to me. Because of work, I had tapered off of skateboarding. I was still skating, and on flow for a couple of companies, and I was sponsored by the local shop. My boss at the time saw potential in me, and offered to help me out to become a better chef. I had never actually considered cooking as a profession until that point.
After high school, what was the trajectory to working your way up to becoming an executive chef? I had worked for two chefs up until then, both of them had either done their internship or worked for Ken Oringer, who owns Clio and Coppa / Toro. He’s sort of the big dog over here. So that was the idea. I’ve always had high goals, and sort of set goals. My goal at that point was to ultimately get better than them, and work Ken Oringer himself. And, I did. It kind of took me awhile, and I kind of got sucked into the money phase of things. I took position over experience. Then, when I was 25, I kind of dumped it all, moved into Boston, and started working with Ken Oringer.
I started with Ken, and my main goal was to be better than him—it’s always to one-up somebody. He asked me why make seven dollars an hour and work 100 hours a week, and my answer was, “I’m gonna take everything you have before I leave.” He thought it was funny. I was serious, and I just worked my ass off. I worked, performed, and built the discipline to the point where I was better than everybody else—or at least on par with the best guys to come in and out of that kitchen. He gave me a sous chef position, then chef de cuisine, and then executive chef. That’s sort of put me on Boston’s forefront as far as notoriety. Becoming the executive chef for Ken Oringer is no easy feat. I’m also the only person that he’s ever given the title to.
After that, I had a pretty impressive falling out with him. I had gotten arrested for what the media had labeled a stabbing.
I was going to ask you about that if you feel like telling the story. That was an accident at a bar, correct? Yeah, Eater Boston, Boston Magazine, they all sort of copy and pasted the police report. We were at a bar, a bunch of friends, it was actually the whole Clio crew back then. I had a pocket knife, and the assistant pastry chef, I didn’t realize, was standing right next to me. When I turned, I accidentally poked the knife into his leg, cutting his femoral artery. So, it was sort of some Final Destination shit, but completely accidental. It was two-and-a-half years of trial. Even the kid that got cut stood on the stand and looked the DA in the face and said, “This is a joke, I’ve got work to do. This was an accident, he’s a friend of mine. Can I go now?” Even the arresting officers were like, “guys, this is a joke.” But, when the DA needs experience hours so that she can get a promotion, everybody with a case hanging over their head is a guinea pig. And, I was an expensive one.
That sounds like a nightmare. So, you parted ways with Clio, and then you were going through this trial. What was the timeline to get to Liquid Art House, where you’re currently the executive chef? It was awhile. I took a bunch of time off. I was making a good amount of money on unemployment. Spending 18 years working 100 hours a week is a pretty long grind. There were minimal vacations, so I took a year-and-a-half off. Then, I got a call from a chef named Bryan Poe in Boston. I needed a job at the time, and he offered. He needed a chef at the time, and he offered me a position flipping burgers with the promise that he was going to invest in my own restaurant. So, I pretty much dumped the fine dining for awhile, for about a year. And, basically cooked wild game and flipped burgers and steak tips hoping to get my investment, which never came. So, I left that. I got a call out of the blue from the owner of Liquid Art House. The pastry chef, last executive chef, and the owner all called me randomly separately. They all had the same pitch, and I was like, “You know, you guys have all called me today. Just get together, figure out what you want, and let me know if you want me to come in.” So, I sat down with the owner and she said that for the concept here, which is fairly art driven, and my background was mainly Clio. She had been a regular at Clio, knew my food, and had talked to a lot of chefs in the city. Apparently my name was the top name on the list for a recommendation to take over this concept. It was my style of food that I like to took, and I guess my ability to make food look good on a plate.
Tell us a little bit about your style of cuisine and expertise since it applies directly to the concept at Liquid Art House. I really just like to be able to cook whatever I want. To throw a name on it, I hate it because I don’t like putting a label on it. I’m fairly eclectically trained. I’ve trained at Italian restaurants, classic and modern French, but any inspiration from walking through Chinatown, to coming home from Portugal, or traveling to Mexico. You always get inspired to do different things. I call it modern American, because modern American is basically a bastardization of the world’s cuisine. It gives me the ability to do whatever I want. But, I like just making the best food that I can. And, making it visually beautiful.
When you started at Liquid Art House was there an existing menu, or did you build a new menu? I ripped the whole menu apart. The last menu was trash. It was going through sort of some weird changes. The chef was leaving to open her own spot. The management team had flipped over a couple of times. It was just sort of going stagnant, and the second I walked in—it was a busy time of year, it was November / December of last year—there were three buyouts a week, and there was four banquets on top of that a week. So, it took a couple of months to change it over. I think in January, I had just dumped the menu. I brought in a good friend of mine, who’s a chef also, and the ability to collaborate together—it’s strong. We went from a 30-item menu to 52. I like a lot of asian ingredients. I use a lot of asian stuff as nuances. My current menu actually reads pretty asian, but when you actually get the food and see the dishes—besides the dumplings, which are directly Chinese—I just use them as flavor enhancers. When I met our PR person for the first time, I had to specify that I don’t cook Chinese food. I use a lot of Japanese ingredients, I use a lot of Southeast Asian influence, but it’s not asian food. Then, we developed this menu, and the original menu had a strong dumpling section. I love dumplings, so I had no problem expanding on that. I went from four to 16 dumplings and raviolis. So yeah, it’s a very eclectic menu. And now, the Spring menu, which I’m releasing on Tuesday, is 73 items. I can’t slow down for some reason.
What’s the food scene like in Boston, and what’s your take on it? It’s up and down. Before the economy dropped, you could see this surge of fine dining restaurants, the white tablecloths were still relevant, and people were spending a ton of money. Post the economy dropping, you see people trending in different directions. A lot of farm to table, even Clio, which was on of the top fine dining restaurants, we changed concept to make it more rustic. You didn’t see people striving for the molecular stuff anymore. It started trending toward being more vegetable driven. Now I think it’s stabilizing where a lot of chefs are popping up doing their own thing, and developing their own style. I’m still relevant doing a lot of artistic things. I can’t stand using the word artistic, because I’m a chef at heart. In my mind, the food was always supposed to look good. You eat with your eyes. French cooking back in the day, which everything is based off of, everything may have looked different, but every chef tried to make their food look perfect. I think a lot of people have their own style with that now in Boston—a lot of younger guys coming up. I think it’s less competitive, there’s a lot of camaraderie around Boston. Boston is kind of a city that sticks to their own. It’s a tough city, very judgmental. When Batali and Daniel opened up in Boston, they got slammed. And that’s Mario Batali and Daniel Bouloud for Christ sake. They don’t do bad food. It’s not just because they’re celebrity chefs that they got this new image, their food is really good. They got their accolades because it’s really good. Then it’s like a Boston chef opening up in New York, I think Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette got lucky. They’ve got a lot of friends, and they’ve got the accolades to stand behind opening up in New York.
You said earlier that an investment didn’t work out to open your own restaurant. Is that something that you still have aspirations to do in the future? Yeah, 100 percent, I’m actually working on a couple of things. Currently at Liquid Art House, my contract is a percentage partner. So, next month I’ll be signing papers to be co-owner of this place. And, the idea is to expand. I’ve got a great team that makes it possible to not have to babysit and look over their shoulders every single fucking minute. They’re very strong, some of these guys have 15 or 20 years of experience. My sous chef, chef de cuisine, and cooks, they’ve got a lot of experience in the kitchen. So, I’ve got a lot of investment looking forward. I’m trying to do a two-in-one spot, but I can’t drop names. But, it’s on the South Shore, right on the beach. It’s a 300-seat restaurant, where I’m trying to turn one restaurant into a group, and expand. I wanna make some money off of this at some point.
How did you first connect with True Cooks? I just saw the hashtags. You see it pop up everywhere on Instagram. I got Chad’s number through a friend of mine, PaulieCooks. I did an event with him, and he linked me up with Chad. I did some research watching all of the True Cooks hashtags. I came up through this the hard way—the hundred-plus hour weeks, getting screamed at by a chef, getting shit thrown at you. I started seeing all of this humility, dedication and sacrifice in these hashtags, and while I liked it I also kind of wanted to call out the owner like – ”Who the fuck is this guy?!” I started doing some more research, and I realized we both came up the “hard / real way” and he is a skateboarder too. Then, I finally spoke with him (Chad) and I was all about TC.
You just mentioned coming up in this the hard way, and the 100-hour work weeks. I think that’s really similar to skateboarding with the time and dedication it takes to learn it. I don’t know if you draw any comparisons in those two things for yourself, but it’s interesting since you did grow up skateboarding. When I was a kid, I started skating at nine, and I’d be at the park. I didn’t like anybody else, I hated the kids at school, so I’d just be at the park. And, I just beat the shit out of myself until I landed tricks. It’s that dedication. Anyone that’s spent time on a skateboard knows that don’t stop ’til you land it drive – no matter what’s inflicted on you. It’s the desire to want to be better. That goes into cooking and kitchens as well. My desire at the skate park was always to go bigger, higher, or do a sicker trick than anybody—the older kids, the sponsored kids, or to get sponsored, and how hard you gotta work to get there. It’s the same as in the kitchen. You want to become a sous chef, a chef de cuisine, an executive chef. I wanted to be the best. I’m not there yet, and I’m not gonna stop. Everyday that I wake up, it’s that same drive. It’s not so much recognition, it’s more of the respect. That kind of goes hand-in-hand. But, getting screamed at by a chef, then turning around and saying, “oui chef,” and doing it better than you did the last time—it’s self discipline.
As someone that’s made it to the executive chef level, has become a partner in a restaurant, with aspirations to open his own restaurant in the future. What advice would you give to chefs aspiring to reach the level that you’ve gotten to? That’s a tough one. Everyone sort of handles kitchens differently, and everyone is different in their personalities. One common thread as a cook coming up is put your head down, shut the fuck up, and if you’re going to open your mouth just ask the right questions. Don’t be stupid. Common sense is such a hard-to-find trait these days. Just put the work in.