Photography by Todd Franson
Even in the early afternoon hours before the restaurant opens for dinner, you can feel the warmth in Rocky’s CafÃ©. Maybe it’s the earthy tones on the walls. Or perhaps the pleasantly lingering smells of the Creole and Caribbean food. Or even the tell-tale smoky aroma that records the history of the hip and happy crowds that nightly grace the narrow space.
Or, just maybe, it’s because Rocky herself is a bundle of warmth, cheer and smiles.
As the CafÃ©’s namesake, Rochelle “Rocky ” Scott opened her dream restaurant in June of 1999. With her friend and chef Paul Pelt, she’s made Rocky’s a signature stop along Adams Morgan’s bustling strips of restaurants and nightclubs. The warmth of the space isn’t accidental — self-described as a “coming together ” kind of person, Rocky strives to create a space where the troubles of the world remain on the other side of the front door.
But that doesn’t mean the troubles of the world should be ignored. As part of her efforts to stay involved and make a difference in a world where she sees times being particularly tough, Rocky’s CafÃ© is one of more than 100 participants in this year’s Dining Out for Life event benefiting Food & Friends (see page 32).
“It’s a local responsibility, ” she says of supporting organizations battling HIV and AIDS in D.C. “I think that being a part of Dining Out for Life, for me, is taking care of my local responsibility. ”
And sitting in the CafÃ©, taking in all that cuisine, comfort and camaraderie, you’ll think it’s good that this particular road is Rocky’s.
METRO WEEKLY: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
ROCKY SCOTT: Well, the real story is I wanted a leather jacket. My dad wouldn’t buy it for me — he said the only way I would get it was to get a job. I was fifteen. Down the street was a Taco Bell. I was in there with some friends [who worked there]. It was a mess, so I started helping out. The manager asked if I wanted a job, and I was like, “Perfect! I can get this leather jacket. ” I worked there for a little while, then I was offered a job at a small Greek style restaurant downtown as a waitress. I moved around in there, learning how to cook and bartend. I learned a lot there.
The restaurant eventually went under, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I went to community college for a year and a half as a political science major. I didn’t like that. The woman I was dating at the time wanted to move back to D.C. I decided to move to D.C., get settled, and then tell my parents that I moved to D.C. [Laughs.] About two weeks after moving I got a job at American CafÃ© on Capitol Hill. After that, I went to work for Julio’s on Capitol Hill. I went away for about three months on a cross country trip.
[After I got back] I was hired at the Tabard Inn and worked there for six years. I was hired as a cocktail server. Then I did the bartending thing for awhile, and moved from morning bartender to night bartender. Eventually they asked if I would like the job of being the wine buyer. I was really excited and thankful that they would give me that responsibility — it gave me an incentive to want to learn more, how to structure a wine list, what to look for in wine lists. I did that for a long time, then became assistant restaurant manager, and then the restaurant manager. Then I got some money and opened up Rocky’s.
MW: Was there a point where you said, “This is the career path I want to stay on “? Or have you even made that decision?
ROCKY: [Laughs.] Well, in all honesty, I’m into other things, I’m into photography and artwork and DJ-ing. I have a few little hobbies I could pursue if I wanted to. Maybe one day I may have to if this economy keeps up. I’ve always been the kind of person who just goes with the wind. This is what I love, this is what I’ve always known. The restaurant industry’s been very good to me. There’s always been an open door and I’m not one to not check it out what’s on the other side. Even if I were to be the CEO of some big corporation making six figures, I can always go back and wait tables. But I didn’t know what I was going to do — I’m glad I just kept going.
MW: Being black and openly lesbian, have those doors been open more than you expected as you’ve moved up the ladder, or is that something that didn’t even cross your mind?
ROCKY: It really didn’t cross my mind. Until one episode happened when I was on my way out of the Tabard — this woman was calling them racist and this, that and the other. My entire life I’d worked not thinking about it, until this one episode where someone used me as a token: “We do like black people. ” Granted, I was the first black bar manager, assistant restaurant manager, and restaurant manager, but I didn’t like being used like that. I told them that that wasn’t cool at all.
Recently I’ve been looking at racism a lot more. I’ve had to pay attention to it, because of everything that’s happened, [like] they’ve tried to get rid of affirmative action. I am a black woman, that’s my culture, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that things are fair. And we know that things are not. The system is set up on an unfair basis, this country was set up on racism. So I’m looking at it more and more.
MW: But it hasn’t specifically affected you and your career?
ROCKY: Not too much that I’ve noticed. I mean, it may shock people when they come in and they’re like, “Oh, you’re Rocky. ” I get that, and I have no idea what’s going on in their heads. It could be, you’re young, or you’re a woman, or you’re black, or [whispers] you’re a lesbian.
MW: Is being a lesbian something that had caused more reactions?
ROCKY: I don’t know. I try not to utilize my energy trying to be a mind reader. Just have a good time when you come into this space. The greatest thing about Rocky’s is that we have such an eclectic clientele. That’s what I love, because that’s what I wanted. That’s the way I think of the world. There are so many different cultures in the world, we should all be getting along. I wanted that to be representational of Rocky’s CafÃ©.
MW: How would you describe Rocky’s as a place to be?
ROCKY: It’s got a really funky — good funky — atmosphere. we play such an array of different music, anything from reggae and dub to classical jazz to Motown. That’s the kind of place it is, comfortable. When you walk through the door, all the bad things that are happening in the world are outside that door — they’re not happening inside Rocky’s CafÃ©.
MW: How about the food? Why did you choose Creole, Caribbean and Southern as the CafÃ©’s signature dishes?
ROCKY: It’s a combination of a couple of variables. I used to vacation a lot in New Orleans, and every time I came back I thought, there’s no place to get some good Creole food in this city. Also, Paul Pelt, our chef, and I worked together at the Tabard for over five years. We would talk to each other about our experiences, and how we couldn’t get any good food like that in the city. I would go over to his house and hang out with him and his wife and he would cook up some fabulous Creole and Caribbean food. I told him, “You know Paul, if I ever get some money I’m gonna open up a little joint and you’re going to be the chef. ” He’s been our chef since we opened.
MW: Do you have a girlfriend or partner now?
MW: Are you available? Or happily single?
ROCKY: I’m halfway single. Nine years [in a relationship] is not an easy thing to get over, but you know, it’s going on a year and a half, and I’m okay right now. But I wouldn’t want to burden anybody with the lack of time that I have to put into a relationship, so I’m cool.
MW: What do you look for in a partner?
ROCKY: I would like a partner who is open-minded, intelligent, beautiful. I mean beautiful inside and out — aesthetics do count, I don’t care what anybody says. A woman who looks good in jeans and in a dress. Or nothing. [Laughs.] She doesn’t have to be into everything, but she has to understand what I do for a living, because what I do takes up a lot of my time. So someone who can definitely have her own life separate from mine. I’m not one to be smothered, so that’s why independence is important. That’s really about it.
MW: How do you feel about the lesbian scene in D.C.? Do you feel there’s a cohesive lesbian community here?
ROCKY: It’s very separate. You have black lesbians here, you have white lesbians here, and then you have Asian and Latina lesbians trying to figure out which one they want to be in, as opposed to all of them just coming together. I’m a big coming together kind of person. One of my best friends and I started this little production company called Neu Productions. We started it because the lesbian community is not cohesive. We’ve had three or four parties, but the lesbian community is small [in D.C.].
I go to a lot of bars for men because there are, like, maybe two places to go for women. I pretty much know most of the lesbians in this city, which is probably another reason why I can’t get a date to save my life. [Laughs.] I was stuck in New York after the [anti-war] protests and I went to a couple of girl bars. It’s completely different, the scene in New York versus D.C. I don’t know if D.C. women are more in the closet, more conservative, or maybe they want to have flair and style but just can’t seem to get there. I have no idea what the problem is here in this city.
MW: Is that aspect of the community frustrating for you?
ROCKY: Yeah, it’s frustrating. But if you’re smart you create other outlets. I don’t necessarily have to be in the lesbian scene. I have a lot of straight friends that I hang out with and have just as good of a time. For me, it’s just about the fact that I’ve got one life. I’m going to do the best I can to keep as many smiles on my face as I can every day. So it doesn’t matter who I’m doing it with as long as I’m feeling good, the atmosphere’s cool, and the people around me have good attitudes.
MW: Based on what you said earlier, I’m guessing you had a pretty close relationship with your parents. Do you still?
ROCKY: I love my parents. They’re great. They have allowed me the independence and room to grow as an individual. They never said you have to do this or that with your life. They just said it’s your life, you’re going to live and learn. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. They’re my friends also. They haven’t let me down, and I hope I haven’t let them down. They seem to be very proud of what I’m doing, although it’s a major struggle, they’re still proud of me for hanging in there.
MW: Since you were dating as a teenager, did you come out to your parents then or did they find out later?
ROCKY: Well, that’s something they found out about. My parents are separated. My dad [one day] pulled me in a room and asked to have a conversation. And I knew what it was about. He asked, “Is there anything that you want to tell me? ” And I’m like, “Is there anything you want to know? ” And he asked, “Are you and Angie dating? ” And I said, “Yes, but don’t tell mom. ” [Laughs.] He’s like, “Okay, I won’t. ” And then he told her. He, told, her. And my mom took it harder. We didn’t speak for awhile actually. But after about a month she came around and we talked. She pretty much was “I don’t necessarily agree with what you do, but I love you and you’re my daughter. ” Now I make sure whoever I’m dating seriously knows my parents and my parents get to know them. My parents will put their little tidbit in there, about whether they like her or not. My dad’s always like, “Ooh, she’s really pretty! How’d you get her? ” It’s like, what am I — chopped liver? [Laughs.]
MW: Rocky’s CafÃ© is one of the participants in Dining Out for Life. Why is the event important to you?
ROCKY: Dining out for Life is a beautiful concept and I’m very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with them. [Our first years] we were donating as much as we could at the time, which was a smaller percentage. This year we decided to do a hundred percent, because I know that this particular administration in office right now is not paying close attention to HIV and the funding that’s needed to do more research and help people with HIV. It’s a local responsibility, and I think that being a part of Dining Out for Life, for me, is taking care of my local responsibility. So as long as Rocky’s is around, we’ll continue to participate. We’ll do whatever we can to make sure they stay around.
MW: Looking at HIV in the community, do you think there’s been a decline in participation with fundraising and activism?
ROCKY: I can’t say yes or no. I can only think that people are not paying as much attention because there are so many other things going on in the world now. In my thirty-two years of living, these are the worst times I’ve seen this country go through. People are getting laid off left and right, businesses closing down left and right after 9/11, money’s not circulating so people are concentrating on trying to make ends meet. There are lots of important things out there that are not being recognized because people are having a hard time now. I don’t think it’s their intention to ignore them, it’s just that they’re prioritizing the way they prioritize.
MW: What are the issues or problems that get you the most motivated?
ROCKY: I think right now people should be concentrating on protesting this war, really questioning the politics and policies in this country. People should be concentrating on public education, which is very important. People should be looking at HIV, not only in this country but in the world and the way it’s spreading — God knows Africa is pretty much being annihilated by the virus. Also, especially after the 2000 elections, people should be out there getting people to vote in the next election. Being a little bit more into politics helps out. Every constituent in this country has a voice and they need to make sure it’s being heard. It’s our obligation, especially as adults, to take care of our kids in this country. Their voices aren’t being heard. We supposedly live in the richest most powerful country in the world, and we’ve got millions of people with no job, people with no roof over their head, and kids being taught in dilapidated schools with history books that don’t go past Kennedy as president. This is crazy, and people need to pay more attention to that.
One of the most important things I’d like for anybody to know is that it’s important to try and take care of each other, to look out for each other no matter what color the skin, or sexual preference, or gender, or religion. The bottom line is that everybody should be trying to take care of each other and watch each other’s backs instead of just focusing on me me me. Because me can’t work without others.
Rocky’s CafÃ© is located at 1817 Columbia Road NW. Call 202-387-2580. For more information on Dining Out for Life’s participating restaurants, visit www.foodandfriends.org.