Clio’s Douglas Rodrigues Now Behind the Stove at the Tip Tap Room
In his first interview since being fired from Clio, the chef discusses the incident’s aftermath, his clandestine return to the kitchen, and his hope to eventually open his own place.
The photos on Brian Poe’s Twitter feed are impressive: a salad of pickled green strawberries, goat cheese, bee pollen, and shards of crystallized black pepper honey. Then there’s the roasted monktail entrée with radiant chanterelles, scallop ceviche studded with purple radish blossoms, and a grilled soft-shell crab crowned with fiddleheads and a laurel of lovage. Each photo is more salivating than the next. But these photos raise one question: what inspired the Tip Tap Room—a casual bistro specializing in steak tips, fried calamari, and burgers—to start featuring beef tendon or goat milk risotto with confit frog legs?
Brian Poe is undoubtedly a talented chef, but these pictures seem to be a dramatic departure from the game, beef, and beer that made his Cambridge Street spot such a beloved hangout. With more digging, it soon became apparent that the Tip Tap Room has some additional help in the back of the house.
It turns out, the food featured in those photos is the work of Douglas Rodrigues, former executive chef of Clio. In 2013, Ken Oringer’s protege was considered one of the most promising gastronomic talents in the city, a Scituate native who was shaped under the tutelage of one of Boston’s best. That was before the night of the stabbing on February 17, 2013, at the Crossroads Irish Pub on Beacon Street.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the case, or you’ve simply forgotten the unintentionally ill-timed Phoenix cover, Rodrigues decided to demonstrate how to open a folding knife and make a stabbing motion, resulting in a wounded coworker who was stabbed in the thigh just above the knee, according to the police report. Rodrigues was arrested on assault and battery charges and subsequently fired from Clio almost immediately. He’s pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial, which starts later this summer.
Rodrigues hasn’t spoken publicly for more than a year, but we tracked him down to discuss, among many things, his clandestine return to the kitchen, his new role as executive chef of the Tip Tap Room, and how he dealt with being ostracized by the city’s culinary community after that calamitous night. Here is what Rodrigues had to say:
How long have you been at the Tip Tap Room?
Not long. I think I just hit the three month mark.
How did this all come about? Were you just friends with Brian Poe?
I’ve known him for a while. … He basically reached out to me because he needed help running the Tip Tap Room. He pitched what he wanted. It really wasn’t my scene coming from a fine dining background at Clio. But he was a frequent regular at Clio. He knew my style of food. He liked the playful plating and the sort of modern American approach I brought. It was something he wanted to incorporate into the Tip Tap Room. It’s been a fun concept with an incentive on opening a place of my own. With the owners, Gordon Wilcox and Brian Poe, they said, ‘if you revamp the menu and hit certain numbers—which is kind of tough to do because this place is extremely successful already—we’ll possibly go into investing in your place.’ It’s a work in progress, but hopefully by the end of it, I’ll have my own restaurant.
If you opened your own place, it would be in collaboration with the Wilcox Hospitality Group?
I believe so. We haven’t gotten there yet. My main goal is to hit the numbers and put my food on the menu. … Here, why I haven’t put anything out is because my pride comes into play. When I get the menu evolved into what I do and enough of it has my stamp of approval, then I’ll say, ‘yeah, I’m ready to rock, let’s do this.’ A lot of people know that I’m here, and I talk freely about it.
So when the menu meets your high standards, the Tip Tap Room will make more of a public announcement that you’re in the kitchen?
I’m assuming so. That was the idea. I’ve had other media outlets contact me and say ‘I hear you’re doing this.’ But I didn’t want anybody blasting any articles. What I didn’t want was anything about the firing and the stabbing to be glorified. It happened a year ago. I’m over it. It did happen, so at some point I’m going to have to touch base on it. But I’m over it, I’m back in Boston. I didn’t run out of Boston scared. I just had some free time finally. Working at Clio was a 90-hour a week commitment. So I took some time off and kicked it. I literally did nothing for a summer and it was fucking awesome.
After a chef is fired or leaves a restaurant where they’ve dedicated a significant amount time, there always seems to be a subsequent period of introspection and decompression. Did you do some traveling? How did you spend that time off?
I’m going to go into this carefully because this incident was huge to me. I got arrested because it was a stabbing. Now, everyone in the city made it seem like I killed the guy. Right after being promoted to executive chef, the whirlwind of it took me by surprise. If I hadn’t been the executive chef of Clio, nobody would have given a shit. I busted my ass for 10 years just to get into Clio, then I worked for another seven years, from the ground up, just to get that title [executive chef]. It was one of the set goals I had for myself. Once I got there I had a whole other game plan. To be fired for that is completely understandable. I don’t have any qualms against Ken [Oringer]. I couldn’t debate that decision, this shit just happened. As a business decision, I have to respect that. But for me, it was getting to the pinnacle point of my career—something I’d worked my fucking ass off for over a number of years—to have that be ripped out from under me for such a stupid reason. The whole thing was an accident.
When Brian pitched you on joining the Tip Tap Room, did he want to elevate the restaurant?
It is a very successful restaurant, but he wanted to bring a different standard. He’s got this concept of wild game, whereas I gravitate more to seafood and more modern cuisine. There are some things here I would never think of putting on a menu like steak tips and burgers, which are the staple concepts of this place. I mean the ‘tip’ in the name of the restaurant refers to steak tips. So we’re keeping that quarter of the menu that pays the bills. That allows us to do whatever else we want with the other three-quarters of the menu. People are responding well to it, especially the regulars. It’s not a broken restaurant, the numbers are fucking bananas, every day this place is busy as hell. But my goal was to bring the level of food up without killing the price point. At a bar, sales are usually split between liquor and food. My goal is to bring it up to at least 60 percent food. Why I signed on is that every chef wants to get their food as to as many people as they can. I can do that here. The numbers are crazy.
Are the new dishes that you’ve implemented a preview of what’s to come with your own place?
To a degree. If I opened my own place, steak tips and burgers would not be on the menu. I don’t want to throw out what my concept would be like, but there are some places opening up in Boston that are exactly what I want: the Alden & Harlows cooking really good food, but approachable; stuff that chefs want to eat. My food might come from left field, but I want people to try it for the first time and [say] ‘holy shit! I’ve never had anything like that.’ At the same time, I’ve never wanted to go too far out of the box. I’m not Ferran Adria and can reinvent fucking food.
When you think about your ideal place, do you have an area of Massachusetts in mind?
My ideal situation has always been to go home to the South Shore and do my food. I don’t want to say it would be Clio-esque, because I do think my style has evolved. I was executive chef for about six months, but I was chef de cuisine for over two years before that, and a lot of that food was mine. Scituate needs a couple more talented chefs doing some new stuff. There is some talent down there, chefs who have been trained by Todd English. But someone needs to go down there with a pair of balls on them.
After the Clio incident, did you ever doubt yourself? In the back of your mind, did you ever question if you could bounce back and get to this point?
Yes. Like I said, I have no qualms with Ken. He has investors and I put the restaurant on blast for almost killing a kid. Nobody wants that type of PR. …The whole thing killed me. People pick sides and I became the bad guy in Boston. I heard so many rumors in Boston that were so fucked-up and untrue. It drove me nuts! Those rumors were coming from people I considered friends. In a situation like this, you really find out who your true friends are. …
It was all a mental whirlwind. But another major reason why I was fired was that I was having a lot of panic attacks in my last month at Clio. I didn’t know they were panic attacks or anxiety, so I was going to the doctor and it was reoccurring. It was a hellish couple of months. After getting fired, I lost my insurance and it was just like, ‘what the hell is going on?’ You hit a hole where you don’t know which way is up. That’s the reason I just took some time off to clear my head.
When you have a felony hanging over your head, though, people look at you differently, regardless of talent. That happened and I did question getting out of the industry. But I clearly have a passion for it. I went through a 17-year grind and got to the top at one of the best spots in Boston. I’m not going to throw that away. When I put my mind to something, nothing can stop me. That’s why when Brian asked me if I could do this thing at the Tip Tap Room, I just said, ‘get ready to open your checkbook.’ In my mind, it’s already done.
Have you conquered your anxiety attacks?
The anxiety is still there, but not knowing what it was, it just got out of hand. I had to rush myself to the hospital a couple of times. You put the pieces back together. I moved back to Boston to work in the city and do something substantial. I don’t have the money to open my own restaurant, but if I did, I’d be the guys with big balls taking that risk. I moved back to the city and got my car back, all these things that were taken away from me when all that shit was going down. Now I’m working here and trying to regain my clout. I gave everything to that restaurant [Clio]. I worked there when I was sick and on crutches. I took one day off the whole time I was there.
I know a lot of people will ask, ‘why Tip Tap?’ I’m going to flat out say it’s because I can have a lot more fun here. This place is great. I don’t have to fix anything, I’m just doing something that’s bit more me: a bit more creative and edgy. …
I’m training a crew who doesn’t know how to cook this way. I’m actually looking for a sous chef, which, when I posted that, all these cooks I worked with at Clio came running. That doesn’t happen. Every restaurant in the city is looking for cooks. All these people that were loyal to me there want to come with me and help me do what I do. I can’t hate anybody but myself. I cut a kid on accident and he came close to dying. I’ve never been more apologetic in my life.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
138 Cambridge St., Boston; 857-350-3344 or thetiptaproom.com.