The Rogue Gentlemen’s dogged pursuit of perfection

Why two chefs decided to go rogue.

  • Who: Owner John Maher and Chef Aaron Hoskins
  • What: Cocktail bar and old-school French restaurant
  • When: Opened January 2014
  • Where: 618 N. 1st Street in Jackson Ward
  • Why: To give Richmond a proper cocktail bar and unique menu.
  • Dishes: Roasted Foie Gras with pickled sour cherries, pistachio, frisee, pearl onion ($15); Pan Seared Stripped Bass with early summer succotash, gremolata, radish, scallion, herbs ($18); Chicken Liver Pâté with arugula, roasted beets, herbs, vin cotto ($6).
  • Drinks: Metexa with espolon blanco tequila, Swedish punsch, lillet blanc ($10); Farmer Collins with crema de mezcal, ginger-lime cordial, smoked jalapeño ($13); The Stanhope with bombay dry gin, apricot liqueur, passóa, orange juice, peach bitters, and grenadine ($12).

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“I wanted a cleaver when I was nine-years-old, and my parents were like, No,” said John Maher, owner of The Rogue Gentlemen. “So they gave me a wok instead.”

Maher’s parents were accustomed to their son’s culinary interests. “I remember coming home from school and watching Yan Can Cook,” Maher said. “It was my favorite TV show in the world when I was a kid.” The host of the show, Martin Yan, ended each episode by saying to his audience: “If Yan can cook, so can you!” Maher believed him.

But it wouldn’t be until several years later that Maher got a job in the food industry, went to culinary school, and started cooking for a living. Along the way, old-school chefs burned into Maher old-school ways, the ways that later connected Maher and The Rogue Gentlemen’s head chef, Aaron Hoskins. Together the two young men, set in their old-school ways, have created Richmond’s first true cocktail bar and restaurant.

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Maher’s first food industry job was in Brooklyn post-high school at Mike and Tony’s. “It was a dirtbag Italian place, mafia run-and-owned kind of thing,” he said. “I was fired because they said I had an attitude problem. I was 19.”

In 2005, he graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island where he studied culinary arts. But his real education took place in his last year in California during his externship at The French Laundry, a Michelin three-star restaurant.

“As soon as I got into The Laundry, I relearned everything,” Maher said. “The way I cook now, the way I think now, the way I do things now in the kitchen is the same way I did it at the French Laundry…how they taught me.”

Maher learned even more under the wings of traditional chefs, who were more like generals that demanded perfection and commanded respect. “[It’s a] level of intensity where there are only three things you say to your chef: ‘Yes, chef’; ‘No, chef’, or ‘I’m sorry, chef,'” Maher said. “If I did something wrong, he’d throw a pan at me. He used to burn me for fun. He’d come up behind me with a hot pan.”

While sometimes cruel, the old-school teachings made cooks seek perfection on every plate. “I served a bad mussel once. It ruined the bowl and it smelled like shit,” Maher said. “But I’ve only done it once because [the chef] just berated me to tears because I was ruining his name and his reputation. And I’ve never done it again.”

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In 2009, while Maher had become Executive Chef at San Francisco’s now defunct Aqua, Aaron Hoskins had just moved to Richmond. His friend, a bartender at Mojo’s, got him a job at the VCU-area bar. In time, Hoskins began working at Secco, which was overseen by head chef Tim Bereika.

“Tim is a really intelligent and passionate guy. His passion and creativity, and the way he showed me the whole other side of food,” Hoskins said. “That flipped the switch for me where I really want to do this at that level. That’s when things fell by the wayside: friends, relationships, everything else.”

Hoskins later met Jason Alley, the chef behind Comfort and Pasture. “I’ve never met anyone who works that hard and keeps that kind of attitude, and pushes you and loves you at the same time,” he said. Working under both Bereika and Alley jammed into Hoskins an unrelenting pursuit of perfection. “You push yourself because you know it’s not good enough.” It’s never good enough. That’s why you’re always improving, reaching for the carrot that’s always just beyond reach, never noticing how far you’ve come.

Hoskins and Maher met in 2011 when Maher moved to Richmond. After consulting for 2113 Bistro, Maher hired Hoskins as chef. “We cook really similarly. We think along the same vein as far as cooking goes,” Maher said. “That’s when we started to really work off each other and throw ideas off each other about what we felt was lacking in the restaurant community, and how we could feel the void.”

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The clearest neglect, in their minds, was the lack of a consistent cocktail bar. “I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to any restaurant in town, even the locally famous ones, and asked for a Rye Manhattan, which is usually what I drink,” Maher said. “And they’ll either use the wrong spirit, they’ll add cherries and oranges, load it with sugar, and shake it and serve it wrong.”

The two wanted a Richmond bar that embraced the cocktail’s history. “We like the period of time before Prohibition. That was the Golden Age of cocktails,” Maher said. “We took a lot of inspiration from that as far as our cocktails go and our techniques.”1

The two eventually found a location in a booming Jackson Ward and opened in January 2014.

Maher said many confuse the meaning of the restaurant’s name: The Rogue Gentlemen. “People think that its because we want to do something different than everybody else, or we want to be special, or be loud and cynical. But it’s not,” he said.

If you look at the resumes of both Maher and Hoskins, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that each job inched them closer to opening their own fine-dining bistro. “Just because that’s how we cook doesn’t mean that’s who we are,” Maher said.

Hoskins said The Rogue Gentlemen represents what the two are inspired to do. “We’re doing what we wanted to do, and not what we were ‘expected’ to do,” he said.

What they wanted to do was curate a cocktail menu of classic and unique drinks. One of the menu options is the Dealer’s Choice ($12). You simply tell the bartender what ingredients and flavors you like and don’t like. “Then we take those things and make you a drink,” Maher said. It’s a gamble, but one customers seem excited to take. “The response [to them] has been phenomenal,” he said.

The Rogue Gentlemen have done the same thing with dinner. The Chef’s Tasting Menu item is either a five-course ($38) or seven-course ($50) mystery meal that Hoskins creates each day.

Some Richmond restaurants offer dealer’s choice drinks and tasting menus. However those are often hush-hush and shared only between bartenders and chefs. “We’re the only ones putting it on the menu and putting it in the guest’s face,” Maher said.

It’s what’s going on the menu that’s unlike other Richmond restaurants. “A lot of times, a restaurant will open and it’s ‘Southern inspired’ or something to do with the South…and that seemed to be what was only opening,” Maher said. “I love my fried chicken and grits, but that’s not what we cook.”

Hoskins said the menu represents what Maher and he enjoy. “It’s a little bit of everything. It’s what we love,” he said. “We take little bits and pieces here and there and try to make it our own.”

Items like the Moulard Duck Breast ($22), Butter and Thyme Basted Beef Coulotte ($21), and Roasted Foie Gras ($15) typify the two’s culinary upbringing. “Primarily, it’s old-school French in a lot of the technique, flavors, the use of butter, fat, braises, and wine,” Hoskins said.

Maher and Hoskins learned to cook under the mantra that nothing they make is ever as perfect as it can be. The Rogue Gentlemen operates under the presumption. “We make ourselves feel not good enough for the guests each day, and that’s helping us get better,” Hoskins said.

Maher said the restaurant abides in restlessness. “We’re not comfortable being comfortable,” he said. “When you’re comfortable then you’re stagnant.”

The two will often flex their bulky self-criticism muscles on the city itself. “Both of us are very opinionated and critical about our profession, and our career, and ourselves,” Maher said. “And there are a lot of things we don’t agree with that we’ve made apparent.”

“That’s come across as us being assholes and not playing nice in the sandbox. [People have] taken us being critical as us talking shit,” Maher said. “That’s not what we’re doing.” Just as they’re critical of themselves to foster personal and professional growth, they say they’re just as critical of the city’s restaurant scene.

“If everything is all rainbows and unicorns at all times, nothing is going to get better. This town will never get better,” Maher said. “If no one is critical about what we’re doing, then you’re stagnant. You’re never going to grow.”

Hoskins said the only way he and Maher know how to grow is by doing things the hard way. “We all lose sleep. We all are sore all the time. We’re all tired all the time. We all don’t see our significant others enough, or friends. But it’s rewarding,” he said. “It’s easier to be working your ass off when you’re proud of what you’re doing.”

The Rogue Gentlemen is located at 618 1st Street.

photo by Kieran Wagner

  1. For example, The Rogue Gentlemen doesn’t carry vodka, as it took root in America post-Prohibition. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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