Big City Inspiration: Jean Claude Roge On Manhattan’s Culinary Scene
Of his creations at BLANC, Roge says, "I look at what I do as an art, not a business.
In an area in which casual dining and chain restaurants seem to dominate the landscape, BLANC is a beacon for connoisseurs searching for the dining trifecta: excellent food, service and atmosphere. Two years ago, longtime restaurateurs Jean Claude Roge and Chris and Kaitlin Whitaker opened BLANC by transforming the small spot in Fort Myers that had been home to the Oyster Shell for more than three decades.
Roge has been in the hospitality business his entire life and is the face of the restaurant. He recently returned from a culinary tour of New York City, where he met up with Times of the Islands publishers Friedrich and Daniela Jaeger. A fan of the entire experience of dining, Roge travels the world for inspiration and that is evident in what he has created at BLANC.
From the moment you walk through the doors of the 32-seat restaurant, you feel as if you are in a big city anywhere in the world—not at a shopping center in Fort Myers. Regarding his New York experience with the Jaegers, Roge laughs and says, “It was non-stop restaurant hopping. We’d go to five, six, seven restaurants in one day and they were all really, really good.”
In addition to the innovation he finds in New York restaurants, Roge notes, “I like the ethnicity. You can find things from every country and not cuisines that have been Americanized—but the real, authentic stuff.” He explains that he then will ponder how to introduce some of those dishes to Southwest Florida diners.
Eyes always open for new ideas in décor, presentation and menu items, Roge says about his most recent culinary exploration, “I like this idea of lobster made like an escargot, small bites in a crock. It’s not too expensive and an experience for those who want lobster but not a whole one.”
The restaurateur likes to take things that on the surface seem ordinary and then make them extraordinary. “Every day I’m thinking of stuff, always looking for the next step.” For instance, he says of the giant prawns sitting on ice at the bar, “People love it. They’ve never seen a prawn that big—12 ounces. It’s still a shrimp, just a really big one.”
BLANC is clean, with chic earth elements and “cuisine from the heart,” according to Roge. He calls the food “almost entrées,” meaning they are small but not quite tapas. It’s a restaurant that has something for everyone and in every price range.
Healthful items cooked on the robata grill somehow manage to feel a bit naughty. The compact Japanese grill burns solid wood coals at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees. Sometimes you can even smell that wood and it’s comforting, especially during this time of the year.
With a menu and specials that change often, try the five-spice pork belly, marinated for 36 hours, sous-vide, then grilled. The house cured salmon trio is a regular special. If you see it, order it—it’s a work of art. And the cheese and charcuterie board at BLANC puts most others to shame.
When it comes to vegetables, the Brussels miso is so popular that the printed recipe is kept at the hostess stand for a parting gift. However, the most rave-worthy side dish is the batterless fried beets; they will make a vegetable lover out of almost anyone.
Most of the desserts at BLANC are made in house but if you don’t save room, at least order a coffee. The fresh brew comes on a wooden board with a spoon of brown sugar on one side, a sake cup filled with sweet whipped cream on the other, along with fresh fruit and a madeleine cookie.
Even though Roge has been in Southwest Florida for nearly 25 years, he has worked all over the globe. His career is quite fascinating: He has operated restaurants, Club Med and nightclubs, and is an accomplished artist. As a sculptor and painter, Roge created set designs for MTV and other commercial projects.
“I used to play with metal—now I play with food,” he says. Perhaps that was the inspiration for the brushed metal binder that holds the menu at BLANC.
Motivational speakers often tell their audience that the key to success is doing something you are passionate about because then it won’t feel like work. Roge is a perfect example. “I look at what I do at BLANC as an art, not a business. I don’t feel like I’m working even after 80 hours,” explains the restaurateur.
He adds, “A lot of people try to make money first, instead of understanding the process. You give people what they want, make hospitality a priority, do a good job—and it works. You will get paid. I really love what I’m doing.”
Now that New York City is under his belt, Roge’s next food adventure is to his hometown of Paris. And of course he’ll be sharing his inspirations with Southwest Florida foodies for the holidays.
Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.
IF YOU GO
13451 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Roge’s Culinary Find in New York City
Among the restaurants that left an impression on Jean Claude Roge during his whirlwind dining trip to New York is Yoon Haeundae Galbi. Tucked in the midtown Manhattan enclave known as K-Town (Koreatown), this contemporary restaurant with traditional roots is gaining recognition as a great place for Korean barbecue. You’ll want to add it to your “must-dine-at list” next time you visit the city.
Open since March 2018 in bustling K-Town, Yoon Haeundae Galbi brings a storied legacy to the neighborhood. It’s an offshoot of the original Yoon Haeundae from Busan, South Korea—an institution that has been around since 1964, spanning two generations.
Run by Bobby Yoon, the grandson of the original owner, the restaurant specializes in Korean barbecue, and specifically short ribs prepared via the “Haeundae Cut.” A special technique created by Bobby Yoon’s grandfather, it tenderizes even the toughest of meats, making the grilling experience unique to Yoon.
Besides tasty Korean barbecue specialties, Yoon offers the Busan Neighborhood Pancake. A savory appetizer for two, the scallion pancake is made with a gochugaru (chile) batter topped with a slightly sweet bulgogi beef, shrimp and egg.
The restaurant is a contemporary reinterpretation of the original location. Diners can choose from Korean dishes with a modern flair or the barbecue offerings, which are prepared right at guests’ tables for an interactive experience.
8 West 36th St., New York; yoon-nyc.com