When chef Philip Krajeck was contemplating opening his own restaurant in Nashville, the Florida expat found inspiration in an unlikely source: Imogene + Willie, a heritage denim brand that had set up shop inside an old service station. "They were super successful by being positive, community-focused, minimal in their content... people just gravitated towards it," Krajeck says. "It was my first visit [to Nashville] and I thought, 'This is the right town for us to be able to do what we want to do restaurant-wise.' They were the first — like a beacon — to open up new ideas there."
Krajeck's neighborhood restaurant Rolf and Daughters debuted in late 2012, with the goal of serving dishes highlighting whole-animal butchery, seasonal produce, and rustic pastas. "It was never our goal to be nationally recognized," Krajeck says now. But just nine months later, Bon Appetit was in town, declaring that Krajeck was simply "put on earth to make pasta": The magazine named R&D its #3 Best New Restaurant of 2013. More recently, the restaurant garnered a rave review from Eater’s own Bill Addison, who called the food "soothing, country-cool cooking."
But this summer saw the start of a second chapter for R&D: In July, Krajeck unveiled a new menu format of small to large plates, with a separate section for the now-famous pastas like squid-ink canesti, nduja, and clams. By August, chef Owen Clark, most recently of New York City's once-celebrated, now-shuttered Gwynnett St., moved to Nashville and joined Krajeck's team as chef de cuisine. And later this year, Krajeck will bring his "modern peasant food" to Stockholm, Sweden, for a multi-day pop-up that will "bring a piece of Nashville" to Europe. For Krajeck, each step in Rolf's evolution is a natural result of his philosophy: to "keep having fun and progressing [as chefs]," he says. "It's constantly tweaking and evolving." Here, he reflects on the restaurant's — and Nashville's — growth, the cult of "chefdom," and why the most important part of his job is to create good cooks.
How would you describe the restaurant scene in Nashville?
The raw ingredient aspect of Nashville is insane. It's growing exponentially. So many restaurants are opening up. There's still a lot of room for growth, a lot of room to fill out the gamut of different styles of cooking. It's really exciting for us, because we're at this moment where farmers are trusting us and we're able to steer the direction of what people are growing, what animals people are raising, or what the breeds are. There's a lot of really good energy with agriculture right now. The raw ingredient aspect of it is insane. The potential — and being a part of that process of developing it and working with the farmers — it's the most exciting thing about what I do. Restaurant-wise, Husk and City House and the Catbird Seat are, to me, the core aspect of the Nashville scene, as far as being "cheffy." Trevor [Moran, named executive chef of the Catbird Seat in January 2014], who was at Noma in Copenhagen for four years, is cooking with his own perspective, but through the training that he's had, in a city like Nashville. And at a tasting menu only restaurant that's only $100 per person? It's pretty rad.
How do you feel about Nashville's food scene constantly being labeled as up-and-coming?
I don't think it's a negative. I think it's trying to put a label on, or describe the momentum that the city has. I've only been here four years. It's growing exponentially, the construction, the development. We have a lot of people relocating to Nashville from New York, from LA. There's tons of creative people. There are so many small and independent businesses opening up, which is really great for the South, because we've had a strip-mall culture for a long time. We're breaking from that and starting to get the energy that's been happening all over the country: re-purposing, reusing, and opening small businesses. But with its own identity. Nashville businesses, the city, and the culture has its own vibe, which is chill and friendly and Southern, but not overly so. It's great.
What made the timing right for you to open up Rolf in 2012?
I'd been cooking for a really long time and always wanted to own my own restaurant. I looked for four years for a location, and the location we're at right now is this old boiler building from a late Industrial Revolution-era factory. It's super rad. I looked at that, but someone else signed a [letter of intent] on it and I couldn't get the space. A year-and-a-half later, it became available. It was really serendipitous. The timing was perfect for us. We opened up and we tried to open pretty quietly and gradually.
It was never our goal to be nationally recognized.
And yet pretty quickly you got recognized, for example the Bon Appetit Hot 10 nod.
It's amazing. It still blows my mind, because fundamentally, our goal was to be a really good neighborhood restaurant where we're just cooking, pushing ourselves, learning, and challenging ourselves. It's super simple. And the fact that we received any recognition, it's crazy... [Now], we're baking our own bread; we make levant and felone in-house every morning. We're breaking down whole animals. We're making everything in this tiny little kitchen. We have four people that come in at six in the morning and are prepping, even though we're only open for dinner, just so we can get it all done. To be at that point [already] — versus where I thought we would have been when I [first] wrote a business plan — that's the really mind-blowing part. I feel like we're just now really hitting our stride.
With bringing on someone like Owen, how does that change your day-to-day?
[Laughs] I still work station six days a week. We're all working a lot. It reached a point where I'm the owner of the restaurant, so there's so many things that distract me from being creative. Owen brought in his toolbox of knowledge and technique from his training, where mine's more rustic. He brings in creativity and together we work on dishes. We've always weaved in modern technique a little bit — nothing obnoxious, there's nothing that looks like hair gel on a plate — but the goal's always [to have the guest] eat something and think, "Why is this so much better than I'm used to?"
It's fun. Owen, myself, and our sous chef Colby [Landis] drive to the markets every Saturday morning. We get to the restaurant at 9a.m., hit three different markets, and we're picking up everything from really rad goat milk to ripe tomatoes. Those are the moments when we're talking about the menu, developing ideas, [asking], "What are we going to put up for the future? What do we want to do next year when the same ingredients come back around?" Adding that extra layer is great, and it gives me a little bit more space to breathe as well.
In terms of the specifics of the collaboration: How do you push him, and how does he push you?
I think we're both motivated by the same things in food. We like lighter food. It's not super fat-laden. We like things that are really bright. We're also into aggressive flavors that are clean. I think we see things in a similar fashion. It's been a really good smooth transition and he's just a good dude.
That's what we're really trying to do, focus on creating good cooks.
It's been really fun and positive to work on dishes together and work with our cooks. I think the goal for us is: You see chefs talking about [the difficulty of] finding good cooks. What we want to do is create cooks that can get an ingredient and look at it and know if it's ripe. Know if you need to send it back or not, and then what are five things you can do with it?... That's what we're really trying to do, focus on creating good cooks. That's why we bring guest chefs in. It's not to just hang out and pal around. It's really for our cooks, because we all learn from the perspective that someone else brings in. How do they see the same thing that we look at every day? Sometimes you have a realization in those moments where you're like, "Oh my God, I never thought of that," and you run with it.
When Owen came on board, there was a lot of buzz in Nashville suggesting that it would free you up to expand or open new concepts. Is that…
We'll see. There's definitely something else we'd like to do. When the right location or the right opportunity presents itself, I think we'll be ready to do something. But for now we're just focusing on ourselves. How do we become better every day? And how do we develop ourselves and our business and our cooking? Right now, that's the big push for us.
When you talk about developing your cooks, a lot of chefs open a new concept just to have the opportunity to promote from within: allow their people to do their own thing. Is that something you're mindful of?
Definitely. There has to be growth and opportunity, otherwise people are going to leave. That's definitely something I want to do. There's a lot of chefs opening up multiple restaurants. Some people do it really well, others are just like, "I'm going to make money." That's what they're looking at, the bottom line. We don't want to do it until we know that we're ready. I've always felt that if we're going to do another concept, it has to be: When I'm not there every day, the restaurant should be better without me. If we do anything else, we have to be that much better at what we do, because otherwise it's a disservice to our identity, to ourselves as professionals, and whatever brand we're building. I don't have a goal of world domination.
I don't have a goal of world domination.
I just want to cook food and have a good time. When I opened Rolf and Daughters, we didn't do it with a lot of money. My first contractor went bankrupt. We had all the challenges that small businesses go through. We couldn't even afford a pasta cooker. We've earned everything that we've added on. I think that's the thread we want to keep. We're never doing things that are frivolous. We just keep our core: We earn things as we do them and work towards these goals.
You're doing a pop-up in Europe soon... how did that opportunity come about?
We got connected to this woman Daniella [Illerbrand], who does Pop Up Stockholm… They asked us to come and cook in Stockholm for three days. We're doing 45 people a night and bringing what we do, from the playlist to the aprons to our repertoire of food. It's really exciting. It's going to be so much fun... We'll make pasta there and we'll break down an animal there and do the whole thing. And I'm really excited to go and eat there and check out what's going on. It's really nice to — as amazing as the last two years have been, being in the kitchen pretty much that whole time — to be able to step away and get some perspective and then come back and revisit what we're doing. It helps us to evolve faster.
So what are your goals for Rolf and Daughters moving forward?
We've switched up our menu format into the list where it really starts from smallest to largest [plates], which was a big deal for us. It was always a goal from when we opened, but people have to trust you first, being in a new market and having a new small independent restaurant... Once we really felt like people were behind us, we made the format change in July. For us, it's [about] being really seasonal, continuing to progress our technique and our repertoire of dishes. We always have projects and experiments going on.
We're in this because we just love what we do.
There's the culture right now of "chefdom," and it's weird to me. I don't pretend to understand it. I think it's great. It's so great that food is important to people and becoming more important, not just in major metro markets. Seeing these small food scenes come up — like what Nashville's going through, and it's happening all over the country — it's amazing. We just want to stay grounded in what we do every day, because that's it. The people who come into the restaurant and enjoy our food and are having a good time — the moments we are creating, that's the most important thing we do.