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Working from a recipe that was equal parts desperation and serendipity, Callahan turned a small, empty kitchen into an unlikely home for a legion of under-employed chefs — some you may recognize from the Food Network.
Want a meal by “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen” winner Robyn Almodovar or Victor Aguilera, from the Food Network’s new cannabis-themed spinoff, “Chopped 420”? Ready to torch your tongue with a plate prepared by chefs from Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville?
You can do that at Roxanne’s, an unassuming lounge on the edge of Flagler Village that has become the best-kept secret among in-the-know noshers and chefs out to defy expectations.
Almodovar recently made an appearance as a mystery alter ego, preparing a menu of Italian favorites as Chef Graciella.
“No one knew it was me. That’s one thing I love about it — you can be whoever you want to be,” she says.
The unexpected turn of events began a few months ago when Callahan’s chef left for a job across the state and, like many in the industry, he had a hard time finding a replacement. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of beef Wellington tacos.
Callahan had helped open Roxanne’s as operating partner last fall after a stint as manager of nearby sister property Rhythm & Vine, where he organized a revolving lineup of food trucks with distinctive menus and passionate social-media followings.
Why couldn’t he park some of these same chefs in his kitchen at Roxanne’s? Callahan wondered.
A series of weekly “Tuesday Takeover” pop-ups introduced in March proved so popular, both with chefs and guests, that they became a nightly “Total Takeover” feature by April.
As word spread on the down-low, Roxanne’s was soon hosting residencies and one-offs by chefs from around the region and the country, including Almodovar and San Francisco-based Aguilera.
The circumstances of the idea — a vacant kitchen and a community of sidelined chefs eager to stay connected to their skills and diners — were an aberration made possible by COVID. But the concept is now permanent at Roxanne’s, Callahan says.
“It was taking a tough scenario and finding a way to adapt,” he says. “It’s been really cool to watch it grow. It’s a silver lining. Big time.”
If it’s possible to be hidden in a Federal Highway storefront, Roxanne’s Liquor Bar & Kitchen does a pretty good job. Callahan and downtown nightlife entrepreneur David Cardaci opened the lounge after a major remodel of a space once home to the gay dive bar called the Cubby Hole and before that, for many years, an iconic neighborhood sandwich-and-beer destination known as Lester’s Bar.
The windows facing Holiday Park are shuttered and painted black, and the entrance is through the back door on a side street. Inside the 1,800-square-foot space, the original bar is bracketed by a red-felt pool table in one corner and the small kitchen in the other.
Roxanne’s pop-up dinners are from 5 p.m. to midnight daily (some chefs stay later), with menus and prices up to the individual chef. There are no reservations and, with just 48 seats, meals are served to multiple waves of customers.
Due to the small space, Callahan doesn’t go out of his way to promote the dinners. He says the clientele, knowledgeable and adventurous, has grown through word of mouth and social media — “If you know about it, you know about it” — and diners have been respectful of the need to keep things moving.
“We might go up and say, ‘How was your meal?’ You know, ‘How WAS your meal?’ Callahan says with a laugh.
The atmosphere evolves through the evening, with low lighting and music that gathers energy as the night goes on.
“It feels a little exclusive because it is so small,” Callahan says. “So if you get in and get a seat when the good guys are here, you feel like you’ve won already.”
Callahan books chefs through personal connections, recommendations from friends and by monitoring the social media of chefs who reach out. Instagram pictures and a chef’s following, both quantity and quality, play a role.
He has no trouble finding chefs to fill what he positions as a free test kitchen.
“They can let their hair down. They can try new things, things they’ve always wanted to try. They have a room full of people who already love food, so they’re going to get some honest feedback,” he says.
Almodovar (as herself) recently prepared a comfort-food menu at Roxanne’s that included a burger between two grilled-cheese sandwiches that she called the Massacre Burger (price: $18).
Chefs get use of Roxanne’s kitchen, fresh oil, and space in the walk-in cooler and freezer. They bring everything else with them and keep 80% of the food sales.
Meanwhile, Callahan gets to provide a dynamic menu to his customers with no labor costs — and a priceless amount of buzz.
“Our real pay-off is all the new faces that come in,” he says.
Almodovar, of Pompano Beach, says the scale of Roxanne’s kitchen and the creative and logistical challenges it presents took her back to the reasons she got into cooking in the first place.
Meals are prepared in tight quarters on a small stove top, a convection oven, a tabletop fryer and two hot plates.
“I’m a culinarian. I’m a chef, but deep down I’m a line cook. All I want to do is cook. And that little kitchen kicked my butt,” Almodovar says, laughing.
“If you don’t have everything prepped properly, you can get your butt kicked in there, because once that little pop comes, it comes, and there’s like six or seven items on a check and there are multiple people ordering,” she says. “That’s the fun, challenging part, and that’s the reason I wanted to jump into it.”
The Roxanne’s gig also was an attractive contrast to her current 9-to-5 corporate gig, Almodovar says.
Shortly after the pandemic hit, Almodovar took a job as executive chef at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., a tourist mecca near Rocky Mountain National Park. A wave of COVID and wildfires soon closed the hotel and sent her back to South Florida.
Almodovar, who in early 2020 published her first cookbook, “Low and Slow Cooking: 60 Hands-Off Recipes That are Worth the Wait” (Page Street Publishing Co.), is now corporate chef for Future Foods and their plant-based protein line, PAOW!
News of who’s cooking when can be late-breaking on Callahan’s Facebook (Facebook.com/Bustabottlecap), Roxanne’s social media and those of individual chefs.
In July, Almodovar and Aguilera will return, with the former doing nights both as herself and as Graciella (check her Instagram for updates). Reps from Prince’s Hot Chicken will be there from Nashville for a two-day event July 24-25.
Fort Lauderdale’s popular rockin’ ramen chef Takeshi Kamioka of Kaminari Ramen will take over Roxanne’s on Tuesday, July 6, and first Tuesdays going forward; Hollywood-based Hawaiian food pop-up Lokal Moko will be there every Thursday in July; and Fridays will have Pieca Pizza from Delray Beach. Second Sundays will be devoted to the sushi fusion of Fort Lauderdale chef Stephanie Rodriguez.
On Monday, June 28, a monthly pop-up called Bad Girls Club will debut, a union of two rising stars in the Fort Lauderdale hospitality game, Ruby Stephan and Tamara Jovanovic, who will take over both the kitchen and the bar.
“They are powerhouses,” Callahan says, predicting a night of “sensory overload” during the Bad Girls Club nights. “You’re going to get the passion on the plate and in the cup.”
Cooking will be Stephan, director of operations at Knallhart Management, the David Cardaci firm that owns Roxanne’s, Rhythm & Vine, the Wilder, the recently opened Flagler Village rooftop pool lounge called the Easton and other properties. Jovanovic is the beverage director whose inventiveness has put these properties, especially the Wilder, on the South Florida cocktail map.
“We’ve always wanted to do something eccentric and extra and just out of this world. We’re very excited,” Stephan says.
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Stephan’s menu of elevated hand-helds will include beef Wellington tacos (filet mignon, creamed spinach prosciutto, mushroom duxelles in a puff-pastry taco shell), lobster mac-and-cheese quesadilla, pepperoni pizza pop tarts and other items.
A special cocktail menu will include Bathroom Line, an Instagram-worthy variation of an espresso martini with a black-and-white 8 ball magically layered on top.
Jovanovic says gatherings like Bad Girls Club and the other Roxanne’s takeovers are part of a grassroots healing process happening in the South Florida hospitality industry battered by COVID.
“It shows how resilient our industry is, how adaptive we are, how much the community is closer than we actually knew,” she says.