Kitchen Q&A - Chris LaRocca
By George Mahe
Photographs by Katherine Bish
Chris LaRocca was 9 years old, washing dishes in his father’s restaurant, when he got his first raise: from 25 cents to 50 cents a day. Ecstatic with the 100-percent increase, he realized early on that restaurant guys must have to settle for percentages, rather than dollars, plus the thrill of hitting the occasional home run—which he went on to do with the Crazy Fish in Clayton. He’s stepping up to the plate again, this time with Sage, the new multistory, multipatio “urban American grill” located across the street from the hungry Anheuser-Busch. Early prediction? Heads up in the bleachers, and listen for the fireworks.
I still have the recipe for Crazy Fish’s Voodoo Pasta. Have you created any signature items for Sage?
I do believe we’ve come up with the iconic steak sandwich on ciabatta, with grilled asparagus, greens, flank steak, an intense shallot-merlot jam, then Gorgonzola, some mustard-balsamic vinaigrette and some crispy fried onions.
I’m worn out. What’s it called?
We just call it the open-face steak sandwich. It’s time we pare down all those drawn-out, recipe-book descriptions—they’ve become a distraction and a turnoff.
What’s the challenge for your kitchen?
We want the customer to taste the separate layers of flavor in every item. Not sure why some chefs think more flavor means more Thai chili sauce, but that won’t happen here.
How else will Sage be different?
Going out is no longer an event. Dinner now consists of several appetizers paired with a few glasses of wine. That half-dozen appetizers/full page of entrees menu is long gone. So Sage will offer 20 appetizers and salads, and 10 entrees, plus sandwiches.
And Anheuser-Busch is right across the street. So do you dare serve a non–A-B beer?
Since they now produce or distribute over 140 beers—mainstreams, boutiques, seasonals—there’s little reason to go anyplace else. I can’t rule out a stray dog, but beer sales will be over 99 percent A-B.
You’ve got a unique and inexpensive take on desserts.
The table is presented with a palette of “sweet shots”: four-bite tastes in shooter glasses. A great finale. Dessert-on-demand. No waiting—and $2 apiece.
Is it time for a postmortem on the Westfield Crazy Fish?
Unfortunate, but no sour grapes. After extensive research of similar restaurants in similar malls, Crazy Fish should have been the perfect fit. The lack of major tenants, combined with 9/11, resulted in a young, female demographic—which nobody expected. Unfortunately, it was also not our customer.
You’ve been doing this for 40 years—any good stories you want to share?
When I was 18, serving pilsner glasses of beer to a tight banquet table, I dumped the entire tray onto one man. Fortunately, I had a spare shirt, which I lent him, while I secretly had his cleaned and pressed at the mini-laundry next door. Before dessert was served, I presented his shirt—starched and on a hanger, looking better than it did originally. He excused himself, changed shirts again, returned to an applauding table, then shook my hand.
That’s a great story. It’s not over.
As I served the table their final round of beers, I did it again—same guy.
And you’ve been serving bottled beer ever since?
No, but stand clear if I’m behind that tray.