Self-proclaimed old man John Maher is back in the kitchen after a six-year hiatus from cooking.
"I'm 36," Maher says. "That's like 50 in chef years."
Standing on a hard floor for 16-hour days makes his feet ache, but Maher's eyes light up when he talks about running the kitchen at Rogue, the restaurant he and his parents opened as the Rogue Gentlemen in 2014.
Maher grew up in Powhatan, and briefly considered studying architecture before realizing he didn't want to sit behind a desk all day.
He embraced his culinary career with serious panache. After earning a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, Maher took his first cooking job under chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California. The famed Michelin three-starred restaurant has trained top chefs the world over, including Grant Achatz, Richard Blais and Rene Redzepi.
In 2005, Maher and a few other Laundry alumni left to help open a nearby Sonoma restaurant. For the next few years he bounced around the globe in typical chef fashion, cooking at renowned restaurants in Germany and San Francisco, plus others in New York, Washington and a tropical resort in St. Vincent. He returned to Richmond in 2012 to settle down and open Rogue.
Maher never intended to cook in his own restaurant.
"I wanted that ownership role," he says. "I wanted the restaurant to succeed with a greater vision than just me being the chef."
In San Francisco, Maher had developed an appreciation for the emerging mixology trend of bringing a chef's sense of flavors to cocktail blending. He opened Rogue partly to introduce Richmond to the concept, and promptly won an Elby award for best cocktail program in the city.
With powerhouse Will Longoria running the kitchen at Rogue, Maher focused on management, which included launching and cooking at the short-lived Japanese restaurant Yaki. Maher cooked a single pop-up night at Rogue late last year, offering the classic French food he was trained to cook.
When Longoria gave notice this spring, Maher was confident that Rogue's brand was solidly established and decided the time was right to get back to the stove. He returned July 6.
"I was really excited to cook again," he says. "I can introduce my modern French food to the city."
Like most chefs, Maher has deeply held beliefs about how certain dishes should be prepared. The cooking rules have, sometimes literally, been beaten into the heads of every chef who has worked in a serious kitchen. Maher is particularly passionate about the technique behind his pâtés, foie gras mousse and roasted meats.
"Classic French is ingrained in my soul," Maher says.
He means not only French technique, but the training. Maher is now the mentor, teaching his novice crew the way he was taught at the French Laundry. He is supported in the kitchen by sous chef Tyler Cartwright.
"Teaching is the most fun part, so far, of being back in the kitchen," Maher says. "Showing Tyler techniques I know, it's neat having someone who cares and wants to learn."
Maher has come full circle. Or, as the French say: "Plus ça change. …" S