Cara Peterson discovered her passion for cooking years ago when she took a part-time job at a restaurant.
Her eagerness to learn and her skills took her to Zahave Restaurant in Philadelphia, the James Beard Award-winning Shaya in New Orleans and, later, the top chef's job at Saba Restaurant in the Crescent City.
Born in a military family, Peterson moved around a lot growing up, and now she's found a place in Baton Rouge as the new executive chef at Rocca Pizzeria on Government Street.
She started her new job in early May and is still commuting from her home in New Orleans. We caught up with Peterson to find out her thoughts about the pandemic, the local food scene and that long daily drive. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Was it difficult to make this change during the pandemic when restaurants could offer only takeout and delivery?
It was a very easy decision to make, honestly. I had the most fun — which, truth be told, no one says while opening a restaurant — with everyone while helping to consult in the opening of Rocca under Pomegranate Hospitality in January 2018. (Owner) Ozzie Fernandez and the whole team had always been genuine, friendly and dedicated.
It was no different when joining the team mid-pandemic. While scaling and necessary supplies were obviously skewed due to the take-out business, the Baton Rouge clientele have responded so positively to new dishes and the ever-changing business model.
Collective brainstorming sessions have definitely been our biggest tool as we’ve had to redesign and restructure the restaurant during this time. Following successful, and not so successful, nights as a management team, we all sat down and discussed what was working and what wasn’t. We found that focusing on solutions helped us move quickly and adapt. Even now, as dine-in business is increasing, we’re constantly learning.
Have you had a chance to explore the local food scene?
While I haven’t had the chance to visit any restaurants yet, I’ve made my way over to both of the Red Stick Farmers Markets, where I’ve been beyond amazed by not only the selection but the quality of the produce and meats. Some of the most colorful mushrooms from Maggie’s Mushrooms to the juiciest peaches from Plantation Pecan have easily steered the menu development. Not to mention all of the delectable meats we get from Iverstine weekly. I’m truly blown away by the terrific offerings I’ve already seen and it’s only been a month.
What are your plans for Rocca?
One thing is certain, the team at Rocca makes great pizza from start to finish. I want to continue to showcase the amazing pizza through offering a more rotating selection of seasonal pizzas while still honoring the classics such as the Iverstine (my personal favorite!) and the prosciutto pizza.
My other biggest focus is going to be to broaden the menu selections surrounding those pizzas not only inside the restaurant but for catering as well — look to see homemade pastas, family-style proteins and a wider selection of antipasti in the coming months. Brunch and aperitivo, our version of happy hour, will be debuting soon along with an extended dessert menu. It’s been incredible getting to brainstorm with the kitchen staff during a shift and already we’ve come up with some delicious ideas.
What is your morning routine?
I currently commute from New Orleans to Baton Rouge every day. I get a shocked look from most people when I say that, but I’ve really come to enjoy the drive. It gives me time to process the day and plan the next one. I’ve got pen and paper at the ready in case a novel idea pops into my head. When I’m in New Orleans you can frequently find me bike riding on the levee or enjoying my porch in the Irish Channel with a cocktail or glass of wine.
My day always starts with a task list from the night before, an apron, two pens and a Sharpie. After that, I’d say every day is different. It’s more comfortable going into the day confident it’s not going to be like the day before and go from there: you tend to get less surprises. I always finish out my day handwriting a list for the next day organized from longest prep time to shortest, inventory and orders.
What's your description of the perfect meal?
The perfect meal hasn’t ever been one particular cuisine but more of a style of eating — I love tapas. I frequently have rather elaborate bite-sized snack boards at my house themed after different cuisines. The ability to mix-and-match to create different flavors and textures has always been my favorite.
What dish that you created are you most proud of?
I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking through dishes before testing or executing them, but I think the dish that surprised me the most was a small plate I made while working at Shaya Restaurant. It was a creative take on the classic Mediterranean watermelon and feta salad with the addition of a Yemenite serrano and cilantro-based hot sauce called zhoug and cocoa nibs. To this day, the addition of the cocoa nib shocks me but when you take it out of the context of “chocolate” the pairing is complementary and complex.
If you could be a Hollywood consultant, what advice would you give on a portrayal of a chef or restaurant?
While there are many great portrayals of chefs and restaurants out there, I do think a lot of them overlook the fact a restaurant is a business at the end of the day. There’s a lot of numerics, analysis and forecasting that exists on a daily basis to keep everything running smoothly and waste down. Everyone jokes that I can make a spreadsheet out of anything, but it’s true. You can notice weekly and daily trends to better plan for the future.