the gospel according to rocco

Next up for the Q&A is Chef Rocco Whalen of Tremont’s Fahrenheit. Whalen, who spent several years cooking with Wolfgang Puck at three of his restaurants, is just 30. That’s a lot to accomplish at such a young age. It will be interesting to watch him continue to grow and develop.

In my short chat with Rocco, which took place during Fahrenheit’s happy hour, you can’t help but get the feeling like you’ve known him forever. Maybe that’s because he is a local. He graduated in 1995 from Mentor and apparently still big into high school sports (he took a lot of enjoyment in telling me that his high school beat the Solon Comets last week, which is where I graduated from a year before him). He’s interesting. On one hand he’s the type of guy you’d love to have at a dinner party because he is so knowledgeable and clearly likes the finer things in life; on the other, I can easily picture him in the stands of his alma mater drinking cheap beer and cheering on his team. I liked him. He talks fast, very fast. I do too. I appreciate this quality in people. Maybe that’s why I felt like I knew him.

Top 5 spices: curry, Chinese five spice (which he affectionately refers to as his deodorant), coriander, fennel and sesame seeds.

If you could cook for one person: Oprah. If she loves you, you’re in. Getting the thumbs up from her is like winning the lottery.

Most famous person you have ever cooked for: David Spade and George Clooney (who apparently will rent out an entire restaurant for his friends, is known for his generosity and truly is as cool and down-to-earth as the magazines portray). He said when you work for Wolfgang , you cook for all the celebs and has pretty much seen them all. But this didn’t seem like a big deal to him (I on the other hand was stuck on George Clooney – that IS winning the lottery). He said he’s not particular about who he cooks for, he just loves to cook.

Hidden gem Clevelanders have yet to discover: Steve’s Hotdogs on 60th and Loraine. Apparently they do one hell of a chilidog with cheese. He said this is the go to place for many chefs after-hours. He also mentioned the dim sum at C&Y and drinks at Literary Café (only open Friday and Saturday nights).

Restaurant he misses: Parker’s (me too)

Favorite restaurant in Cleveland: He has several. Flying Fig, Lola, Baricelli Inn, Downtown 140 and the Velvet Tango Room. He says the VTR makes the best bananas foster and drinks. They have a true mixologist on hand and you know you are getting a quality drink.

Favorite and least favorite thing about Cleveland: The people. I’m a hometown guy, this is my city. Least favorite is the decreased population. You have to fight harder and harder everyday.

On business and Tremont:
Business is good, really good. We’re consistently busy. We’re even thinking about adding on a patio in the spring. Tremont is the place to eat. All the demographics are covered. You can go to Lola for a burger, seafood at Parallax, sandwich at Lucky’s, here for pizza. You can spend a lot or a little. We are all successful because we’re all friendly and in this together – it’s not competitive, that’s why it works. Mike (Symon) is my best buddy. And I appreciate guys like Zack (Bruell) and Paul (Minnillo). They have helped me along the way and I have definitely learned from them.

There is no place like Tremont. I have a lot of love and passion for this place (this is obvious by talking to him). It’s like Lincoln Park or Tribeca without the fluff. The guys here, we have a cooperative marriage with the neighborhood. We look out for the residents and for each other. Things like making sure the streets are safe and maintained (he hires extra security on the weekends).

On happy hour: Happy hour has been great. Business was light between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.; this gets people in the door. It’s a good deal. Take the pizza. We make the dough and cure the pepperoni. All of these happy hours around here are a good thing. We make it so the neighborhood does well.

New HH menu – Rocco shared the new menu that will be unveiled next week. It includes:
· Truffle French fries w/ tomato garlic aioli
· Chicken satay tempura with ginger glaze
· Sweet n’ sour salmon springrolls
· Sausage, parm, stewed tomato pizza
· Kobe beef burger
· Ohio city ravioli (changes daily)
· Rocco taco, marinated fish, napa slaw, pico de gallo
· All priced between $4 – $6.

On chains and getting more people downtown: Chains affect my business, absolutely. You have a couple in Westlake that can go to Houlihan’s or Chi Chi’s and have a full meal for $20. Or you could come here, and not only get a better quality product, but other little adjustments that our clientele likes. I’m here cooking for them, talking to them – and I care. To know this place it to know the owner. When you walk in here, you know me. I’m not going to serve you iceberg lettuce. You go to The Cheesecake Factory and that’s what you’ll get, along with something that resembles cheese. And if that’s what you like, great. I’m not going to stop you. I’m just not going to serve you that type of food here, we’re above that. It’s not going to make or break my day; stay at Applebee’s, see if I care (which he did confess his girlfriend likes – poor guy). Or you can grow some balls and come downtown. I guess people do what they have to do.

Future plans: He’s currently talking to Wolstein about possibly doing something on the east bank of the Flats. And don’t be surprised if you see a Rocco Taco stand someday.

James and I stayed to check out the current happy hour menu. We had several glasses of the Westerland cabernet. Good but not great. But after a very long day at work, enough to do the trick. James had the pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Thin, crispy and right out of the oven. The pepperoni even had a bit of heat to it and the local mushrooms were full of flavor. All James could utter was, “oh man is that good.” After, he had that look on his face, the kind of look you see after a Thanksgiving meal. I think he enjoyed it. I had the open-faced chicken springrolls with Hong Kong dipping sauce and seared scallops with buckwheat soba noodles, peanuts and teriyaki. Fabulous, every bite. I could have been served a big bowl of the soba noodles and been the happiest person in the place. And I really enjoyed the curry in the springrolls. Considering I tried unsuccessfully to go out for Indian several nights this week, this satisfied my craving. I think our bill was around $40, half of which was alcohol. I can’t understand why anyone would rather go to a chain – I really can’t.


  1. rockandroller
    Posted September 15, 2007 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    This is one of those places we’ve just never gotten to because when we go to Tremont, we almost always go to Lolita. I also had a perception they were way expensive, which is apparently wrong. Thx for setting us straight.

    We did the unthinkable in Suburbia last night – came all the way home, changed out of work clothes and then drove “all the way back” to downtown to have a wonderful dinner at Wonder Bar. Around the corner from our home when we left, people were waiting OUTSIDE to get into the Olive Garden. I do. Not. Understand. This.

  2. Allison M.
    Posted September 15, 2007 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I really liked their mediterranean pizza and the spring rolls. I always order meals with the dessert – how can you not? It’s the best damn part of it. I loved the lemongrass creme brulee — wasn’t watery or too thick like some other places– just the right consistency with a hint of lemon.

  3. michelle v
    Posted September 19, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Definitely check it out. The prices are consistent w/ everyone else and you can’t beat the HH deal. This one goes to 7 p.m., which makes it nice to have the extra time.

    I didn’t see that dessert, but it sounds awesome.