How did you first get into cooking?
My mother and my grandmother took me by their side when I was a small boy and heres why…I was always a pretty large kid, always got ridiculed on the playground. It was a safe haven for my mother. It just started in the kitchen with grandma and my mother, neckbones, red sauce, meat balls, sausage, scratch italian.
You mentioned the influence from your mom and your Italian roots. Where else do you draw influence from?
My formal training started at 13. I went to culinary school at 17 -Pennsylvania Culinary in Pittsburgh, which I believe is now a La Cordon Bleau. From there I took my degree and traveled west with as much money that was in my pocket and a car full of gas. My first stop was in Phoenix and a couple years with Hilton Hotels then I started my relationship with Wolfgang Puck at one of his Asian restaurants at City Center Phoenix. I spent the better part of six years with him in between Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. In 2001 I moved home and I procured my first restaurant space in Cleveland. It opened in 2002 and was called Fahrenheit.
Have you collaborated with any chefs in the city to learn more about the Charlotte community?
I opened a small restaurant two blocks from Michael Simons first restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio eleven years ago now. That really prepared me to collaborate with chefs and chef driven concepts. His advice to me was to play nice in the sandbox. Im a very proactive guy and because of that Ive already reached out to certain people in Charlotte. Ive been coming here for quite awhile and eating at some of the great restaurants here and meeting some of the chefs and restaurateurs here. Ive been to 5Church a couple times. Cool joint, love the ceiling, love the story, love the food, love the way Chef Jamie Lynch delivers. Im just a big fan of the scene and that really was what made me want to come to Charlotte. I just want a chance in this town. Collaborating is just extending that rosemary sprig.
You opened your first restaurant at 24. Were you intimidated because of your youth?
Hell yeah. I didnt know what the hell I was doing but I did make a lot of people eat some crow along the way. All the haters turned into lovers. I believe you get what you give in life and if you put energy from the top all the way down good stuff will follow. Ive been really blessed with strong people around me who understand the chefs lifestyle of wanting to be the best.
What is it specifically about the city area that appeals to you?
I really like the social vibrancy and synergy in the city. For me people develop cities and from what Ive seen, whether its BLT or 5Church or Good Food on Montford or a food truck in South End on Fridays, I want to embrace Charlotte. I have been coming here for awhile and Im just excited about what I see. Ill have a residency in Charlotte and Im looking forward to engaging the city.
I feel there is an opportunity here for me and maybe I can have a little fun along the way. From twenty stories up, the Skye is only the limit. Plus, the developers were really serious about me and they gave me the opportunities I wanted. If I said I want a rooftop garden they said how big? If I said this they said that. They understand it.
Has the experience on Food Networks Fat Chef influenced you to be more health conscious and will we see that at Fahrenheit?
You certainly will and here’s why: if you want to find out who you are, gain a bunch of weight and then take your shirt off in front of four millon people on the Food Network and go through a journey of changing your life. I really want to use my experience to give back to Charlotte as best I can.
Will you be adapting the menu for the Southern palate?
We are going to bring about 75% of what Fahrenheit in Cleveland has been known for. I dont want to come down here and do fried green tomatoes, because there are guys down here that have been doing them their entire lives and do them better. I want to add to the citys foodscape and bring my technique and flair without overstepping my bounds too much.
Do you think Johnson & Wales is an asset to your restaurant?
The school is a tremendous asset. It brings great culinary minds to the city. Were going to engage them and try to hire as many students as we can.
What advice do you have for culinary students?
I think that if you are humble and truly have a passion for food service and hospitality you can make great waves in the food industry. Not every kid will come out of culinary school being Bobby Flay or a Top Chef, and I think that you really need to understand that you are have to roll your sleeves up, work hard for a few years, if not ten.
Are you going to use local farms around Charlotte for your menu?
I want to shake farmers hands. I want to buy produce and protein locally. I feel that sustainability is all part of whatever region you are in. Whether it is Tega Hills, Grateful Growers, or Cloister Honey, Im excited!. For me, the more money you spend here locally, the more money stays here in North Carolina. Well buy local, grow our own fresh herbs, and beyond farms, Ive got six keg handles that Im going to be giving to local brewers including NODA Brewery and Olde Mecklenburg.
Are you still involved with Food Network and will you be doing any shows or events with them here in Charlotte?
I am filming right now for another Food Network show. Hopefully that will air in September or October and you can be assured that I will be giving both Cleveland and Charlotte a lot of love. The more notoriety I can bring to Cleveland and now to Charlotte the better it is for everyone in both cities.
What can people expect from Rocco Whalen the chef, and Fahrenheit Charlotte?
Im not Wolfgang Puck. Im not Emeril Lagasse. Im a kid who cooks, who chains himself to the stove, who likes to put smiles on peoples faces every night of the week. Its the first indoor/outdoor rooftop restaurant in Charlotte. Great food. Great atmosphere. Im just excited about everything thats going on the city and Im humbled to be on the ground floor.