Chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames: A Texas-Born Chef Gets Local in Li’l Rhody
On the rare occasion he has the opportunity to escape from behind the line at the widely acclaimed Tallulah on Thames in Newport, Chef Jake Rojas is the first to explain that his farm-to-fork philosophy is old news—very old, in fact.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he concedes. “We’re just going back to tradition—and trying to keep these small farms alive too. It’s nothing new: farming the land and then eating what comes from the farm—whatever season it may be.”
His back-to-the-earth ethos, however ancient, is translating into carefully orchestrated dishes known to resonate on the palate and win the loyalty of a notoriously skeptical local dining public. When Jake and partner Kelly Ann Maurice opened the cozy eatery on bustling Thames Street less than a year and a half ago, the pair made a covenant to stay true to their commitment to locally sourced sustainable food despite the challenges—financial and otherwise—that a pledge of that magnitude can invite.
“We’re trying to bring local, honest food back to the table,” Jake explains with an earnest sincerity. Making that happen, he says, means late nights on the laptop searching for the bounty of small, sustainable farms and building relationships with area farmers. “At least if I am buying from them, I can say I am putting that stamp of approval on it … whereas 90% of the rest of the stuff that is out there, even the buyer couldn’t tell you where it came from.
“Just like everyone else, we need to survive and be profitable, but if we can do it by sourcing sustainably and locally and consciously, then why not?”
Jake arrived in Rhode Island on short notice with an enviable resume. The former West Coast–based chef had visited the Ocean State just once before a fateful phone call redirected his career path.
In 2009 a house with a restaurant attached, located in downtown Newport, appeared on Craigslist and instantly caught Kelly Ann’s attention—she had hoped to someday return to Newport. The two applied for an SBA loan that was approved, in theory, but the couple was quickly told the agency’s budget was depleted. Eight days before the New Year, President Obama approved funding for new businesses, which prompted Jake and Kelly Ann to call the moving company right away. Within three months, Tallulah on Thames, inspired by a nickname Kelly Ann’s father gave her as a little girl, was welcoming customers.
“You take your whole life and you roll the dice,” is how Kelly Ann describes it. Thankfully the couple also found encouragement along the way. “We came across Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s website and I thought, ‘OK, there are people who are actually doing farm-to-table-style food here,’” recalls Jake.
One of the couple’s earliest outings was to the Farm Fresh Rhode Island Local Food Forum, where Jake met and instantly connected with other local chefs who shared similar principles. “Matt Jennings and Matt Gennuso, Derek Wagner, Beau Vestal, Jon at Castle Hill, Rick at Tucker’s, Champe at Persimmon, this small fraternity of individuals—and there are so many others that I missed,” he says. “We have a tight bond.”
The bond is strengthened when they work together with farmers and fishmongers to split orders on an animal or daily catch. “The majority of the other places I’ve [worked], it’s been more, ‘fend for yourself.’ Nobody was giving you the secrets of the best farms,” says Jake. “Here, before we even opened, I learned, ‘These are the people you should buy from. You want beef? Here’s a name.’ It was so welcoming.”
Today, Jake sources from more than 25 local farms to compose the ever-changing menu at Tallulah on Thames. Experiencing the restaurant has become multi-sensory too, where educating and enlightening the diners is as important as nourishing them. “We want you to know the where, why and what of the food on the table,” he says.
“We don’t offer specials; we add [and subtract] to the daily menu. [We might have] one half of a lamb from Hopkins Farm, or one strip loin from Blackbird Farm because Anne Marie’s only processing once or twice in that month.” Jake continues, “When [diners] come to me and ask ‘Where did this chicken come from?’ I can tell them exactly where it came from, which day it was processed, who the farmer is and where they can go buy it.”
Sourcing from small, local farms, he admits unequivocally, costs more, which is reflected in the restaurant’s prices. The food itself is artfully crafted by a line chef who practices precision, complete with a set of surgical-like tweezers that are used to place each leaf and morsel in proper position before a plate goes to the front of the house. Dining on several courses is an evening’s experience where the beautifully presented and flavorful food should be enjoyed slowly and thoughtfully.
This summer, Jake and Kelly Ann take on a new addition—a taco cart serving traditional Mexican tacos at Coastal Growers’ and Wednesday Aquidneck Growers’ Markets. In homage to his heritage, Jake says “Tallulah’s Tacos” is inspired by his family’s home cooking savored throughout his childhood in El Paso, Texas. “In every state or every city I ever lived in, the first thing I search out is the good Mexican food—a good taco place—because it’s what brings me back home. … Our idea is just bringing a traditional experience that I’ve had and offering it … as a farm-to-taco experience.”
As if there were any doubt of Jake’s enduring passion for the craft of sustainable cooking, the chef wears his heart not on his sleeve but on his arms: on one, an elbow-to-wrist tattoo of a knife with “Vivir Para Cocinar” (Live to Cook) inked above it; and on the other, a spoon with the legend “Cocinar Para Vivir” (Cook to Live).
Tallulah on Thames
464 Thames St., Newport, RI