A young man from a small village near Valencia hitchhikes to England with a guitar, a backpack with a paella pan, bomba rice, saffron, pimento, and a technicolor dream of becoming a punk rocker. To make ends meet he would walk into restaurants and offer to cook paella in a note translated into English with the help of a Spanish to English dictionary. If the bemused restaurant owner acquiesced and provided some stock and a place to prep he would cook up a paella. In return all he wanted was some money to buy a ticket to Cambridge, Liverpool, Bath or someplace else since all he wanted was to travel and play music. The young musician, fortuitously for him, could cook because growing up above his grandfather’s restaurant back home he had been around cooking and the kitchen for most of his young life. If that didn’t work out then he would be handing out flyers or playing the guitar in tube stations to survive. His love for Indian food can probably be attributed to the free meals at the Hare Krishna temple where he would sometimes “exchange” his worn-out shoes.
Flash forward twenty or so years later to an elegant restaurant serving Pacific Northwest cuisine with Valencian roots in a suburb of Seattle to much acclaim and recognition. It is fortunate that the rocker wannabe realized his true calling because he is one of the most talented chefs in the region. He makes an amazing paella, though I was requested not to elaborate on it since he does not want to be another Spanish chef known for paella. Even if it won him a lot of praise in LA during his time there from none other than the late Jonathan Gold of LA Times. He once questioned Gold as to why paella was mentioned in his review and was told that every chef needs to be known for a special dish to be recognized by and Rocher’s was paella just like Wolfgang Puck and his pizza with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. At his restaurant though it’s only served at the Sunday brunch while at dinner at the ten-seat counter under the glass terrariums suspended from the ceiling, the menu is sophisticated with elegant plating and impeccable service. Rocher’s cuisine just like his personality pushes the envelope forward by leaps and bounds, each incredible bite thoughtfully conceived with attention to texture, flavor and taste. The lovely Alia Zaine, spouse, partner, and General Manager, orchestrates the food and wine service and introduces each course while Rocher and his team cook over the wood fire roaring in the open hearth. Alia is an integral part of the whole experience and it’s beautiful to watch them both communicate and work in perfect harmony. It takes this team of two with a skeleton staff to offer an exceptional dining experience based on the chef’s skills honed in some top kitchens of the world. Rocher has a big personality and a honesty and it comes through in any interaction with him and in his food.
My conversation with Chef Perfecte Rocher:
Your journey is unique with so many twists and turns. Can you share some of the highlights?
I grew up in a family in the restaurant business as my grandfather had a restaurant but I never wanted to be a chef. My parents were separated and I used to live with my grandparents above the restaurant and I hated it. I realized I was always different from everyone else around me and music was the only thing that grounded me.
I decided to move to England when I was seventeen because I wanted to be a punk rocker and pursue my passion. The only job I could get since I didn’t have any cooking skills was as a dish washer. I first started at the Manor House Hotel in Castle Combe in Chippenham outside London.
It was my luck that I started in a one Michelin-star and gradually I started to like the atmosphere. It was very different from what I had seen back home where my grandfather cooked traditional food. In England the kitchen was very “Frenchy” with different stations and positions, a Chef de Parti, Garde Manger, Boucher, and all that and I thought that’s cool and maybe I want to be part of it.
Yet the music bug was too entrenched in me and I still wanted to be a rocker. Soon I was moved from dishwashing to prep because they saw potential in me as I could use a knife and so I stayed on. The next two or three years I was very conflicted till I was about twenty-one and I came across a French chef in London and I started to work with him. He told me that he didn’t know how good I was as a musician but I was capable in cooking and a quick learner and fast. I was prone to calling in sick for time off for music or to play with my band so frustrated he gave me a week off to figure out what I really wanted to do.
At that point did you decide to give up the music and concentrate on your paying career?
Actually I panicked because I needed to work to pay my rent and survive. In fact I recorded an album during this time in London named “Ulcer”. (laughing) I have a huge collection of vinyl records, punk rock, rock n roll, Jazz, blues and one time it was up to 3000 plus records especially when I lived in London. After a week and having given it a lot of thought I went back and said I wanted to work. Truthfully it was not because I had changed my mind but because I was broke. Gradually I started to like being in the kitchen and decided to stop the music and focus on cooking. Then my life changed and I started to work in Michelin starred restaurants till I arrived in San Francisco where nobody had any stars because Michelin had not arrived there yet in 2005. That time the most famous restaurant was Gary Danko and I started working part time there.
Even though I was working in the kitchen these 4/5 years the dream of becoming a musician was still alive but I began to get serious about cooking. I returned to Spain to stage with Martin Berasategui, work with Ricard Camarena in his first restaurant in a small village near Valencia. I was there when we got our first star with only three or four people in the kitchen and we were overjoyed. From then on, I realized that this was the way for me even though I had spent all my life in the restaurant atmosphere, never liking it and wanting to stay away from it. It was also the long working hours late nights till 3:00 am or so and I didn’t want to live that life.
Did you contemplate staying in Spain?
No, I returned to San Francisco again and joined Manresa in Los Gatos and that was the time David Kinch got the second Michelin star. After working with him I came back to Spain again to stage at elBulli for one month, and also in Madrid, Barcelona. At that time, I got a call from Campton Place in San Francisco where there was an opening for a sous chef and I joined them and stayed there for three and half years. I moved up from junior sous chef to secondary sous chef and then managing banquets, room service, fine dining, late night bar and it was a crazy time.
I had applied to Eric Ripert for Le Bernardin in NYC, Daniel, Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel, and went for interviews but while there I figured that I like California much better. One of my friends suggested LA and I said I don’t like LA but he said the Michelin just came back to LA for one year, it was 2010.
At this time however I once again decided to go back to Spain because I heard elBulli was closing and it had always been my dream to work there. During that time, I staged at various places in and around Barcelona and then I approached Albert Adria and asked to work with him. I went to work at his Inopia tapas bar in Barcelona simply because I was looking for an opportunity to speak with Ferran Adria about working at elBulli. I was persistent and told him repeatedly that the only reason I was working at Inopia was for an opportunity to work with him but he said no. So I decided to leave for the US and just my luck as three days after I made the decision I get a call from him to come to elBulli and then when I got the chance I had waited all my life for to work at elBulli my visa was expiring in a month and I had to come back to the US for my green card. To this day I regret that but maybe it was not meant to be. I never really explained the situation to them as after bothering them for so many years I never joined there. In fact, I met Julie Soler before he died and when he heard my name he said nobody had sent more emails to elBulli than me and everyone knew my name because of that.
So off to LA I went, but there were no jobs so I decided call up Mr. Radha Arora, the president at that time of the Four Seasons company and left a message that if you want to have a great restaurant in LA, call me. The next day I get a call and after interviews and few tastings got a job at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and went straight to doing almost thousand covers a day. It was not an easy time but it was my opportunity to be a chef and also find investors during the year that I was there.
What came next?
After pop ups in LA at the Test Kitchen with Walter Manzke from Republique, Michael Voltaggio, and other LA chefs, I met some investors who wanted to open a restaurant with me. I always wanted to open a fine dining place but in LA there is not much interest in that in 2011. I did casual dining concept at Lazy Ox and then Smoke.Oil.Salt and then a few more investors were interested in opening in NYC. It was not what I wanted to do and had enough of casual dining so I declined.
During this time I met my wife Alia and seeing my frustration she suggested that if I don’t want to do casual anymore then it was time to do fine dining on my own. She came from the business having worked as a butcher at Belcampo Meat Co. and restaurants like MB Post and Bestia in LA. Alia also staged in farms and abattoirs in Ireland, England and Spain. She wanted to specialize in cheese making and butchery and also trained with Dario Cecchini in Italy and her education in marine biology and zoology are valuable in our work. We have traveled together all over the wine country of Spain to learn all we could about the wines. The wine program at our restaurant is curated by her with a little input from me, so she is a huge part of what we do here and my rock.
What brought you to Seattle?
In 2016 we came to Seattle to realize our dream of owning a fine dining restaurant. We took a license to cook on the street and rented a commissary kitchen to prep and started doing pop ups. Breakfast pop up, night time pop-ups in restaurants including the one where Tarsan i Jane is now. We asked the Korean owner if we could do a pop up and he agreed. We left our resume with him and the next day he asked to meet and offered the restaurant for sale. We scraped together everything we had along with a loan from the bank and bought the business. We began with $550,000 and then remodeled once last year and then again this year. There were sixty seats when we started and we were serving five courses and a la carte. After the first week we decided to do tasting menu only and after three months seven courses and after eight months we changed to 7/9 courses and after almost a year to 9 to 11. At the end of the year it was 12 courses and we invested all that we made in the restaurant, adding a patio and taking out twenty seats and every few months a couple more seats out because our dream was to have ten seats and a private dining room. This year we finally did that and though it’s still ongoing, we have achieved a lot in two and a half years. When you have a dream, you have to do whatever it takes to achieve it.
What is the cuisine at Tarsan i Jane?
It is difficult to define it since we use ingredients from the Pacific North West but a lot of inspiration from Valencia. I think to put a label limits your cuisine and if you say Spanish you are limited in what you can do. It is the influence of the world though the roots are Valencian. What is specifically from Valencia is the bomba rice, saffron, olive oil and pimenton at Tarsan i Jane. The rest 95% is from the region around here. If an American chef opens a French restaurant it’s called a French restaurant and the same for Italian but if a Spanish guy opens a Pacific North west restaurant it’s called a Spanish restaurant. I like cuisines from around the world and am influenced by many cultures. I have traveled and worked everywhere including Middle East and China, where I went to open an Italian restaurant after I left Lazy Dog. After that I traveled from Beijing to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau. It was an amazing time before I joined Smoke.Oil.Salt in LA.
On their days off the couple are combing the region for the best produce they can find and have established relationships with small producers and suppliers such as the Willowood, Tonnemakers, Alvarez, and Valley farms. The medicinal garden at the University of Washington is a source of herbs and flora picked daily for service while Rocher has access to the lab on site for testing out his new finds. There is an amply stocked fermentation locker in a corner of the landscaped patio put to good use in the kitchen. The fermented kimchi will soon end up in a new dish soon, pureed, centrifuged, some of it distilled while the rest will go in a gel to be served with blanched cabbage. Distilled habaneros, wild dandelion greens, and watercress are in the R&D kitchen for Fall. Rustic new dishes recently arrived from Darby Gnome potter on Townsend island, designed with the chefs input off course to present the ever-changing menu. The interior with its wood paneling, subdued tones, lounge area and private dining room is the perfect setting for the modernist cuisine.
The restaurant recently earned four stars in a review in the Seattle Times and has become a fixture in the culinary firmament of the city. The couple have settled into their new home and are soon expecting an addition to their family. It’s the story of years of struggle and hard work that most guests don’t realize when they visit restaurants or comment on social media. Its someone’s dream you are experiencing so go with open hearts and minds and be amazed. The story of the rabbit on the sign is simply that while Tarsan is a nod to his grandfather’s name and Jane to Alia the sign is a replica of the one hanging out front of his family restaurant back home in Villalonga, Valencia.
Tarsan i Jane is an exceptional restaurant with real story in every plate and worth a detour to the Emerald City from any part of the world.