Neil Rogers and his sous chef once ordered twenty-four George’s Coney Island hot dogs all the way or “up” with cheese and ate them over the course of a day. This is not a model for his latest venture: executive chef at The Test Kitchen, Worcester’s Niche Hospitality Group’s latest venture.
Well, maybe not a model. Who knows? Right now The Test Kitchen has no set boundaries, just possibilities, and that’s what Rogers loves about it. He’ll be more than a chef for his own kitchen but executive chef de cuisine for all of Niche.
We really don’t have any rules for it yet,” says Rogers. “We can sit in managers’ meetings and say, ‘We really want to try this…’ and The Test Kitchen can do it with the chefs or try it out for them. We are building a community within our group. One night, we might make paella or have a ramen night and have the teams come in. We might create a couple of different versions of dishes we are considering for the restaurants and then let diners vote on them. If the people are going to eat it, why not let them have a say? It’s all limitless.”
Rogers and The Test Kitchen team will explore these limitless possibilities for the public when they start hosting monthly events for 25 to 30 people by reservation only starting in April 2015. (The space will also be available for private events.) Plans for the first dinner—celebrating Worcester Foodies‘ 50th restaurant visit—are centered on a whole pig with individual courses made to showcase a taste of what each Niche restaurant represents. Guests will enjoy an ever-changing menu cooked and plated in front of them as they sit communally at long steel prep tables in the open and bright stripped down space of the kitchen. It promises to be an exciting, intimate, and interactive experience in Worcester. Most importantly to Rogers, it will be “totally fun.”
As much fun to Rogers are the collaborative possibilities The Test Kitchen offers to work with other chefs: It will act as a sort of “think tank” for Niche’s eight restaurants, which include Mezcal (which is next door to The Test Kitchen on Major Taylor Boulevard), three Bocado locations, Rye & Thyme, The People’s Kitchen, and The Fix Burger Bar. Niche chefs will be able to come in and work with Rogers to try something different, get together to work on specific items like French Fries, or plan menus without being bogged down in their own kitchens, something Rogers understands:
“Sometimes you try and do these things in your kitchen and you are not only working alone but against the work of the restaurant. As a result, something that should take an hour takes days. If they come here, we can just play with ideas and do it. We can plan courses for and even prep them for events. We can refine recipes and make them better, making the food at the restaurants better overall. Making incredible food and working with and learning from these chefs and all our group’s personalities on a daily basis? It’s fantastic.”
That collaborative spirit extends to sourcing too. To that end, Rogers just introduced shrimp from Tasty Harvest, an aquaculture farm in West Boylston, into a dinner at The People’s Kitchen. While Niche and Rogers are devoted to local ingredients, The Test Kitchen will help them do more of this sourcing and create locally driven specials starting this summer.
Clearly Rogers loves that the change around him requires him to seek inspiration constantly. That said, he believes strongly in classic techniques and rails against chefs who think they can incorporate crazy flavors and go into molecular gastronomy without actually learning how to cook. “If you don’t have good technique,” he argues, “if you can’t sauté or dice or chop something properly then you can’t make the best use of great ingredients.”
Rogers, who has no formal training, devotes himself to understanding all he can about technique, citing Jacques Pepin as inspiration. He waxes rhapsodic about his amazing, rare, and ridiculously sharp Shibata Kotetsu knife and gives a nod to Marc Vetri’s acclaimed cooking in Philadelphia. Rogers interned with Vetri in 2014 to learn firsthand how to “bring refinement up to a level that is attainable and approachable for everybody using spectacular ingredients.” On the day we spoke, Rogers had been on a cookbook-buying spree and was grooving on the recipes of London-based Yotam Ottolenghi, pulling ideas for more vegetarian and vegetable-based dishes as spring approaches.
“Not everything needs to be a starch and vegetable and a protein on every plate,” says Rogers. “You can pare it down, use better and different ingredients, and let them shine without being clouded by the standard meat, potato, veg combination.”
Even in Worcester where tradition can rule the day? “Location doesn’t matter!” adds Rogers. “People take location to heart too much. Why not here? We are the second largest city in New England. Why can’t we have the fantastic and different? The city works hard, and a new generation is trying to make it even better by making a difference with forward thinking and doing – building from the ground up instead of just talking. They and we deserve this!”