A rosy crystal sugar dome, coffee caviar, a clear potato chip—these are a few of the culinary creations made in the home kitchen of Adrian Rogers, a current junior in Princeton University’s Economics Department.
On campus, Rogers wears many hats—economics student by day, Taekwondo blackbelt and violinist by night. But when the pandemic brought campus life as students knew it to a screeching halt, Rogers found himself with the time to further develop what had already been a long-standing interest of his: cooking, though perhaps in the most (delightfully) unconventional sense, as many of Rogers’s creations look almost too extravagant to eat.
I virtually sat down with Rogers to gain a bit of insight into his creative process and what inspired him to explore the culinary arts.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Hannah Su: Could you walk me through your process when it comes to creating these dishes? Is there a general process that you go through for every dish or does it vary between each dish?
Adrian Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. So, the process definitely does vary dish to dish. But usually, I start off with one main idea or concept that I want to execute. Things that I try to look out for are different concepts or techniques or narratives that I want to convey based on experiences that I’ve had, art that I’ve seen, and trying to translate these moments, these kinds of stories that I want to tell, onto a plate. And so, I’ll start with some kind of central concept to the dish, and then work my way backwards. It’s often easy, though, to get caught up in a lot of bells and whistles.
HS: Interesting. Could you elaborate on this idea of working your way backwards?
AR: I think that the best way to explain this would be to talk about the last dessert I made.
The main idea behind that was the blown isomalt sugar dome—I really wanted to do something with that. I just watched Arcane, the show on Netflix. I was inspired by the aesthetics, and I wanted to do something with that kind of crystal structure. Once I have that main concept, I work backward with the flavors. If you have something like an isomalt dome, it’s gonna be really sweet and sickly on your tongue. So, it’s finding ways to balance that out—both textures and flavors—to make something that is still engaging with your palate. For me, I felt like a really good way to counteract a lot of the sugar that was in this dessert was with alcohol. So, everything else has some alcoholic component: wine poached pear, blackberry mascarpone mousse, which also has a little bit of red wine in it—that bitterness, that kind of dryness on your palate kind of helps, I think, mitigate some of the sweetness. You can also think about things that are going to have a crunchy texture—the sugar crackles in your mouth. But if everything else is crunchy, then you’re just going to have one kind of texture, and you don’t want that. How can we make things that have a more smooth or soft texture? That’s why I went with the wine poached pears…it balances things out texturally.
After that, it’s about the presentation. With the sugar dome, it’s really easy, because that’s obviously the most eye-catching, impressive thing to look at. Then you just kind of put everything in the sugar dome in a neat and clean way, and the dish basically kind of plates itself.
HS: How in the world do you keep track of all of this?
AR: I have a little notebook and a sketchbook where I write all these things down. I write every single component that I want in a dish. If something clashes with the other things, I’ll cross it out and write something new.
HS: Yep. I always underestimate how productive just getting all my scrambled thoughts down on a page can be—but it almost always helps.
So, I have to wonder, did you go to culinary school or have any sort of training along the way?
AR: No, I am completely self-taught.
HS: Oh wow, I see.
AR: Food has always been something that I’ve really wanted to engage with even when I was a little kid watching the chefs on TV. Obviously, it’s really dangerous to let a third grader cook unsupervised, and I’ve definitely injured myself multiple times. I think just learning the basics was one of the steepest hills to climb.
It took a long time to learn not only how to do fancy things like blowing sugar or whatever, but also learn how to construct a dish. It takes a lot of practice… I’ve been fortunate enough to have the time to really sit down and work through a lot of things.
HS: It sounds like when you say, “construct a dish,” you aren’t using a recipe book?
AR: One of the things I really don’t like and try to do as little as possible is use a recipe because I feel like they don’t teach you the concepts behind food and the reasons we do things the way they are. They just say “okay, you need 800 grams of flour and blah, blah, blah.” For pastry, I still rely on recipes because that stuff is very specific; measurements really do matter there. But other than that, I think it’s good to kind of learn the reasons behind the wheel…
And there have been so many things that I’ve made that just taste awful–they don’t work. And that’s all part of the learning experience. I think that more than anything else, I should apply this mentality to more things—taking something that I didn’t like, going back to the drawing board and saying, “Okay, what was wrong with that? How can I make it better?” I think that’s almost the most valuable thing you can learn.
HS: Yeah, absolutely; I think that being able to generate your own feedback is such a helpful skill to have when it comes to learning something—although I can imagine that this relentless trial and error process can’t be fun sometimes, so kudos for sticking it out.
This might be too abrupt to ask, but do you have any food-related plans on the horizon? Plans to go to culinary school, maybe? Start a completely new career in cuisine?
AR: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Um, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen before. It’s a very different environment. Just the way that things operate is definitely different from toying around with things in my own home. I literally spent three hours yesterday blowing sugar. I cannot do that in a professional kitchen—fired.
But I think that as long as I keep learning and keep pushing myself to do more interesting and engaging things, anything is possible.