Only minutes after finishing prepping Apple Tarte Tatin, a French pastry that's like an upside down cake, newly minted Black Rooster Head Chef Alex Strickland was in good spirits.
“It's definitely a little bit more responsibility but it's still doing more of what I love, more cooking,” he said. “I love working here and love the belief they have in me and my cooking skills.”
Black Rooster owner Kristian Niemi elevated Strickland, who was previously a sous chef, to head chef, the West Columbia upscale eatery, it announced on Nov. 25 through its social media pages. Strickland’s promotion comes after the previous top chef, Frank Bradley, left to assume the same role at Hendrix, Main Street’s rooftop bar and fine dining restaurant.
Strickland has worked at Black Rooster since its inception in 2019, with prior positions in New York City and at nearby West Columbia restaurant Terra. Before coming to Black Rooster, he led the kitchen at Main Street's Hunter-Gatherer. He brings a flare for Asian-inspired cuisines, exemplified by a series of popular popups under the name Baodega amid the restaurant's temporary pandemic closure.
That’s been evident in several Vietnamese-influenced dishes the “French-ish” eatery has served of late — those include a Vietnamese twist on escargot and pho boiled peanuts. Despite that knack, Strickland has no plans to radically alter the French bistro’s identity.
“We’ve been around for a little over a year now, we have a little bit of expectation now, that is great, I love that to meet their expectations and then push them,” he said. “Nothing is going to change so you can be like ‘this isn’t Black Rooster anymore.’”
Strickland was the logical choice for the role, said Niemi. The restaurateur who also owns Main Street’s Bourbon didn’t even conduct a search for other candidates, he said.
“He was basically next in line and he’s been a head chef before and so he’s been the most qualified,” Niemi explained. “He is an integral part of the team there and he knows what we’re all about. … It was a no brainer.”
Niemi asserted that Strickland has been on his “radar” since he worked under chef-owner Mike Davis at Terra and its sous chef Joby Wetzel. There, Strickland said, was where he became serious about cooking after starting as part-time help and with previous stops at franchise restaurants and pizza joints.
After Terra, he moved with his wife to New York City for a roughly year-long stay, where the two lived with her mother in her apartment. Strickland worked at the restaurants Nanmos and at Momofoku Noodle Bar, perhaps best known for its affiliation with celebrity chef Dave Chang, before the expensive city (and a line cook’s wages) brought them back to Columbia.
Working under head chef Bradley and fellow cook Pierce Bowers at Black Rooster, the three worked in what he equated to creative harmony.
“We worked so well together on a creative level, there was no ego clashing, s#!t talking, if there was anything going on it was over by service,” Strickland elaborated. “I’ll miss coming up with some good food, crazy ideas and then executing them the next day. (We’re) onward and upward.”
Strickland’s promotion is the latest in a busy month for Niemi’s establishment. Beyond the aforementioned Bradley departure, he also announced a forthcoming next-door cocktail lounge expansion for Bourbon on Main Street.