John Havens and Aaron Mercier have been friends since high school, and now they’re in business together with Rooks Tavern, a barbecue restaurant that relies on Mercier’s cooking chops and Havens’ business acumen. So far, that recipe is working just fine.

By Kristen Schmidt

John Havens and Aaron Mercier have blithely disregarded the tired old notion that friends shouldn’t go into business with one another. Their Rooks Tavern, a temple to smoke and barbecue that riffs on old-school Southern traditions and cutting-edge Northern European cuisine alike, has been years in the making and, it seems, has brought them only closer together. A recent interview was a window into their dynamic—natural and easy, with plenty of friends-forever humor.

That is a really open kitchen.

John: It should all be centered around the hearth, like someone’s home. You want to sit around the fire and enjoy it. That’s where conversations happen. That was kind of the biggest thing for us, to show off these things and have people more involved in how their food is prepared. I don’t know if all our cooks love the idea of an open kitchen, but at the same time, I think you’re hard-pressed to find a cleaner, more presentable kitchen. That’s a big thing for us, too. You want to know where your food’s coming from.

What’s the equipment setup?

Aaron: It’s an Argentine-style grill, made in the U.S. A lot of barbecue in the U.S., including in east Texas, is done pit-style, where it’s just a cinder-block pit, using indirect heat but in an open setting. And Santa Maria-style barbecue is with direct heat, but elevated. Santa Maria-style barbecue uses that region’s natural winds to create a more efficient pit design. It’s a little firebox and a grill that moves up and down above it. When the grill gets to a certain height, the wind blows the smoke away, and it disperses heat more efficiently. They’ll put meat directly over burning logs; with the cross breeze and dispersion of the creosote, they can get away with that.

With an Argentine-style grill, you burn the logs down to hot coals and move them under the food to cook. It gets at some of the benefits of Santa Maria-style cooking over a live fire and being able to adjust the temperature by raising the meat without having to manipulate a coal bed directly. And I don’t have to find a way to reproduce Santa Maria winds in a restaurant.

Where did you learn to cook?

Aaron: It’s a combination of reading a lot of cookbooks, working in professional kitchens and growing up with parents who loved to cook. I learned a lot from my mom and dad. But more in kitchens, especially under Tom Smith at the Worthington Inn. He taught me a huge amount about building flavor profiles and presentation. I miss having Tom. When I came back in town after graduate school, the first time someone asked me where I wanted to go to dinner, I said The Worthington Inn, and that’s when I found out he had moved on.*

John: (He looks at the now-empty dishes of leftover chilaquiles we’ve been eating.) I wish we had more food to give you. It’s just my mindset. Here, have some food!

It’s like the bar ham. I like it when we’re not overly busy and I can give everyone some ham.

Aaron: This is hillbilly prosciutto—there’s generations of family lore in action here. It comes from Broadbent’s in Kentucky.

John: (Pulling a bag from behind the bar) Just smell the bag. I want to build a little house in there.

We got the idea from a place in Charleston. We were sitting at the bar, and they said, “Would you like a piece of ham?” I’m like, “Yes, I would like some ham. What kind of question is that?” We weren’t overly impressed by the food at the restaurant, but the ham stuck with us.

Aaron: That was the best thing we ate that night.

John: It’s so much neater than peanuts.

The entrance to Rooks Tavern at Chittenden Avenue and Summit Street / Photos by Autumn Theodore

How is business treating your friendship?

John: We’ve talked about doing this forever. Surprisingly, we haven’t had any big blowups yet. As far as our relationship, it’s been smooth sailing. We needle each other, but at the same time—

Aaron: We’re both very good at holding ourselves accountable and allowing ourselves to be held accountable by others. Mutual respect and trust, that’s a solid foundation for any professional relationship. I’m kind of sick of him at this point, but the fact I liked him before this helps with that. He’s an adequate dishwasher.

John: I am! Our dishwasher was off four days this week, so I was the only cashmere-wearing dishwasher we’ve ever seen. I’d be in the dish tank trying to get mostly caught up, take off the apron, run around the front, make sure everybody’s happy, and go back to the tank. A lot of owners wouldn’t necessarily do that. I think it gains the respect of your staff. We’ve got a really great core staff. We have only 10 serving shifts a week. On our busy nights, we have two servers on the floor. This isn’t a Bravo with 250 seats. But we wanted to start small, because you want to crawl before you walk. Each week has been busier than the last, which is heartening. We’re a little tired, a little run ragged. But I don’t think either one of us has been happier in a long time. Pretty cool.

Aaron: I’ve been presented with a not even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here. I’m aware of that every day, and that’s why I take it so seriously. I still wake up surprised sometimes. I have to double-check myself to make sure this is real.

John: We have a very collaborative environment.

Aaron: One of my favorite uses of that privilege so far has been to extend it to my staff. Our new dessert menu has a banana pudding that was, top to bottom, concept to oven, conceived by one of the line cooks. The pork chop on the dinner menu is entirely the brainchild of my sous chef. He often gets told to make a soup of the day and just does it. Sometimes, when he’s too busy, I tell one of the line cooks to do it. Sometimes I have to say, quick, make another soup. That’s one of the perils of running a kitchen that way. I learned that from (former Worthington Inn chef) Tom Smith. He would throw me a ham bone after Easter and say, make soup. Sometimes it sold and sometimes it was crap. And he would tell me exactly why it was crap.

I’ve worked at Ted’s Montana grill. They hate input. They want you to look at a recipe book and a scale.

John: We have a recipe book and a scale, but we find people work harder if they’re invested. And we want people here who want to be here. With the open kitchen, you can see what’s going on. So if there’s dysfunction, that spreads so fast it’s like a pandemic. Everyone will catch that, and you cannot have that in any sort of hospitality setting, especially in a place like this because of the size and the layout. One person in a bad mood can ruin the dining room. If people feel invested, then they’re excited to come to work and cook their stuff. I think it’s working really well so far.

*If you’re also missing him, Tom Smith’s new restaurant, Don Tomasso’s Pizza, is just a 75-minute drive north of Columbus in Upper Sandusky.

The chef recommends:

Aaron Mercier’s brain is awash with inspiration. He reaches into American barbecue traditions, Danish modern cuisine and Asian flavors with equal fervor. A few items from the Rooks Tavern menu that stoked our curiosity:

Jackfruit Pibil Tacos ($10)

Jackfruit, which acts an awful lot like meat, is sauteed in coconut oil and given a bath of achiote spice rub, mixed citrus, tequila and coconut sugar. The tacos are garnished with pineapple and cilantro.

Jalapeno-Cheese Pupusa ($11)

A corn cake sandwich with Leicester cheese and hot black bean sauce topped with Swainway Farms micro-greens dressed in chimichurri. “It toes that line between comfort food and spicy and exotic,” Mercier says.

Sheared Chevre sauce

“It’s a joke because you shear sheep,” Mercier says. “But also, when you take chevre and place it under shear in a Robot Coupe, instead of puffing up and getting fluffy, it liquefies. When it liquefies, it creates a non-Newtonian substance.” (“It’s his cook joke,” co-owner John Havens says.)

Copenhagen Barbecue ($9)

Beets are par-cooked and then placed in coals to finish cooking. Most of the skin is peeled off—a few charred bits are left for flavor and appearance—and the cooked beet is placed on a plate over a puddle of the Sheared Chevre sauce and under some lemon-dressed greens. “Just grab a beet, drag it across and eat it with your fingers,” Havens says. “To people who don’t like beets, I say, ‘Just try it. Please. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it. But give it a shot.’”

St. Louis demi

“Rib bones make the most wonderful stock you’ve ever had. There’s a faint smokiness to it, but mostly it’s incredibly collagen-rich. All the skin from the underside of the rib goes in there, too,” Mercier says. “You take that and reduce it even more and you have the world’s nicest demi. St. Louis demi. It’s starting to spread its little tendrils through the restaurant. It’s the foundation of the sauce for the pork chop. When we’re re-hydrating beans for cowboy beans, we’ll use some St. Louis demi.

Rooks Tavern

195 Chittenden Ave., Campus, 614-369-1266

Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tue-Sat, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun

Reservations: Accepted