If you’ve found yourself in the dining doldrums, do not dismay, simply turn left onto Seward Street and stop at the Rookery Café, especially during the dinner hours. The menu changes daily, offering seasonal ingredients and daring flavor profiles meant to pique the palate. Or, for the fullest experience, snag a ticket to one of the specialty dinners featuring a themed tasting menu, so the masterminds behind the menu can serve you something really wild.
When Travis Smith and Jason Shima opened the Rookery Café Nov. 1, 2010, they knew their limited menu of coffee, pastries, pizza and calzones was just a starting place — today, the café is a go-to spot for anything from a perfectly pulled espresso, to a burger, to candlelit dining. Smith said they had a goal of perfecting something, then adding to the repertoire, sometimes replacing items with those that prove more popular, always evolving.
Smith said they “wanted to do it all” with the Rookery, they had always intended to expand into serving dinner once they were ready.
Smith is young, just 33, but he has a long history in food service and coffee, having risen through the ranks at Heritage Coffee from bus boy to cook to barista to vice president of wholesale operations before departing to pursue his own opportunities.
From the start, Smith was hands-on, nearly always to be found at the Rookery, and often in the kitchen before bringing Beau Schooler on as head chef and a business partner this year, which is when the Rookery expanded to offer its bistro dinner menu.
Smith said he had heard that Schooler had left his last job and was looking for a new opportunity, and Smith was interested in Schooler — not just for his menu, but because Schooler was looking for a partnership.
Like Smith, 28-year-old Schooler got to where he is today by working his way up from the bottom. He started working in kitchens at age 14 and got his first job at a “real restaurant, not just burger shops or non-chain pizzerias” at age 17
Originally from Anchorage, he has also spent time working in kitchens in Homer, Portland, Ore., and, of course, Juneau. The only job he’s held outside of a kitchen was a brief stint as a bartender between working at the Baranof and Zephyr.
Buzz really started about Schooler’s kitchen creations while he was at Zephyr, and with the other restaurants he helped to start, including pizzeria Sprazzo. But it was time for Schooler to move on. Schooler and Smith met not long after and it took little time for the two to see they had compatible visions.
“We met at 3 p.m. on a Sunday and talked for about two and a half hours about his vision and what he was capable of,” Smith said, “Beau returned Wednesday morning and we opened for dinner six days later.”
Smith said he was confident in saying, “The kitchen is yours,” to Schooler, but both were quick to add that it’s a team effort up there.
“There are nights that Beau’s not cooking,” Smith said. “But if you’re not up there (in the kitchen), you wouldn’t know that.”
Schooler said that a lot of people picture him touching every dish, but as a part owner, he has “a lot of responsibilities not behind a stove” — a comment that came only moments after a café employee asked Schooler where to find chocolate milk. It was in the café’s new off-site bakery space, where head baker Melvin Cristobal and crew will have more room for baking and a temperature that will allow the café to again offer chocolate truffles.
Schooler is in charge of ordering all the food, and Smith said Schooler has free reign, as long as they can pay the bills.
“Our goal is just to continue providing the highest quality, whatever it is, at the best price,” Smith said.
And that is brings up what Schooler presented as a unique philosophy at the Rookery — Schooler said his goal is to charge the bare minimum for their offerings — offerings which include the highest quality ingredients, from Hudson Farms foie gras to locally harvested mushrooms and vegetables.
The dinner menu at the Rookery changes daily, in part because the menu will change with the seasonal offerings and available ingredients, but also because Schooler said Juneau has few restaurants and he wants to have new options every time.
Schooler said he and his core kitchen team, including Travis Hotch, Rachel Barril and Jose Torres, will send text messages late into the night, discussing potential dishes.
Often a dish will start as some crazy idea, Schooler said, which may eventually get toned down. Other times, a dish will start as something simple but work its way up to being something deemed worthy of serving. Schooler has a goal of offering “out-there food combos you wouldn’t expect.”
One such combination was the foie gras terrine with animal crackers; round seven at the recent eight-course duck dinner, the petite dish combined savory and sweet, high brow and, well, toddler food.
Schooler said Hotch had just returned from visiting restaurant Bouchon in the Napa Valley with a package of foie gras and, unable to wait, the two opened the package in Schooler’s car and grabbed the only thing they could find to taste the delicacy — Schooler’s daughter Nixie’s animal crackers.
“So, we ate it together and it turned out to be really delicious, so that spawned that,” Schooler said, “Just kind of necessity, I guess.”
For the duck dinner, the foie gras was processed to a light, smooth terrine and served atop a smear of a buttery animal cracker spread, with cracker crumbles to add texture.
Many of the café’s menu items feature elements of Asian cuisine, something Schooler said he got into while eating with Nixie’s mother’s family. They got him hooked on fish sauce, he said, and he admires how Asian dishes pack “a lot of flavor into small amounts of food.”
So it was no surprise to see a menu that started with duck wing confit coated in housemade lemongrass caramel and included everything from a slow-poached duck egg with housemade curry and crispy skin to vietnamese style duck sausage steam buns, and which closed out with duck fat doughnuts with port wine jelly and whipped mascarpone.
It might be important to get out of the habit of saying ‘housemade’ with everything, because it would get repetitive. Beyond making ingredients like their own curry, they recently built a curing chamber, where they have made duck prosciutto and pork guanciale. Schooler said he wants to get into making salami, as well.
Smith said partner Shima, who hasn’t been as hands-on in a lot of the day-to-day business, has been prototyping housemade sodas, including ginger beer.
In addition to bringing Juneau a wide range of housemade ingredients, Schooler is seizing an opportunity, in general, to introduce people to new things.
This is especially the case at the twice-monthly specialty dinners, sometimes paired with wines, beers or other libations.
“It’s a fun way to get people to eat stuff they normally wouldn’t order,” Schooler said.
The Rise and Fall of Piggy Stardust dinner featured the tasting menu that likely most pushed diners to try new and strange dishes.
Categorized by anatomy, the menu offerings ranged from everyone’s favorite cut — bacon — to the more adventurous pan-fried torchon of head cheese, and the limit-pushing chocolate blood pudding for dessert.
Smith said they will try to offer two specialty dinners a month, one paired with alcohol, the other without. The events are open to a limited number of diners and Smith said the events sell out, with many tickets selling before a menu is even announced.
The regular dinner menu may not offer the out-there options like chocolate blood pudding, but it’s still far from boring.
Schooler said it can sometimes be a challenge to come up with a new menu every night, but mostly it’s easy and fun. The dinner staff usually show up around 3 p.m. to get started on the night’s menu, which will often depend on what they’ve had dropped off from local Merryweather Farms or their mushroom forager, Schooler said.
“We want to make things as interesting as we can,” Schooler said, which seems to be the kitchen team’s guiding principle.
And it seems to be working. With their consistently expanding menu, and recently renovated kitchen and expanded bakery space, Smith said there is more growth on the horizon.
Over the next year, it is probably safe to expect those housemade sodas. Smith said he’s also looking into providing their housemade specialties not just on the menu, but as packaged products for purchase.
Smith and Schooler have also talked about opening a second restaurant in the more distant future, an Italian restaurant, maybe two to three years from now. Schooler studied for three months in Italy at age 20 and is hoping to return to Calabria early next year for more. Not only do Smith and Schooler see a need for a new Italian restaurant in town, Schooler said it would provide an opportunity for members of the Rookery’s kitchen team to move up.
Is Juneau really ready for all this adventurous eating? Well, the proof is in the (blood) pudding.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the year Beau Schooler joined the Rookery. He joined and the bistro dinner menu was started in early 2013.
The foie gras and ducks served at the restaurant are sourced from a farm in New York.