Voici le chef Lyonnaise
French Week at Rooney’s is a tasty, time-honored tradition
The French have a saying that goes “les carottes sont cuites,” meaning, literally, “the carrots are cooked,” and figuratively, “it’s all over now,” or “the dice are cast.” It speaks to the French way of accepting and making the best of given circumstances.
The story behind French Week at Rooney’s Restaurant, an annual event now entering its fourteenth year, is one of cooked carrots, or perhaps happy accidents. But it really begins nearly fifteen years ago, when a computer network engineer from Morocco decided to buy a small restaurant in the Swillburg neighborhood of Rochester.
Joe Squalli comes from a family of hoteliers, but he attended Rochester Institute of Technology for computer technology in the 1980s. Then came the dot-com crash in the early 2000s, leaving him a choice between starting his own tech firm or returning to the business he knew well: restaurants.
“I was born into the business, and I had no intention of staying in it,” he says. “But life works in mysterious ways.”
Rooney’s Restaurant opened in the late 1970s, but the building has been there since the late 1800s, when it was a saloon on the banks of the original Erie Canal (which used to run where the 490 expressway now sits). When the previous owner of Rooney’s, Austria native Johannes Mueller, decided to step back in the early 2000s due to the strain of running both Rooney’s and Richardson’s Canal House, Squalli had a serendipitous run-in with Mueller’s wife, Alexis. The two had worked together at the upscale Rio Bamba (in the current Ox & Stone location) on Alexander Street when Squalli was in college.
“It happened by accident,” says Squalli. “[Alexis] mentioned [Mueller] was considering selling Rooney’s but thought he had a buyer already. I said, ‘if it falls through, tell him to call me.’ Sure enough, the next week he called me.”
By 2005, Squalli was the owner and operator of Rooney’s Restaurant. He was quick to implement new ideas, and his most ambitious was guest chef takeovers.
“My dilemma, in a way, was how established Rooney’s was,” he says. “It’s survived all these years for a reason -— there are unique dishes patrons know and love, like our plantain crusted shrimp, and they’d tell me, ‘Joe, don’t take this off the menu.’ So I had to maintain some things but also innovate a little and introduce new flavors.”
It made the most sense to begin digging into the restaurant’s existing European theme. Squalli, with his thick accent, easily passes as a convincing host for a French Week. But since he isn’t a chef, his challenge was to find someone who could do a complete French kitchen takeover.
“I wanted authentic French cuisine, where we make our own stocks for everything—lobster, chicken, beef,” he says. “But then I had to find someone really good. Chefs are great in their environment, with their team and equipment, but it’s not easy to put someone in a new kitchen and expect them to create magic.”
Enter kismet. Around the same time, Squalli’s wife, Laila, was doing her PhD research in Lyon, France—the capital of French cuisine. The Squallis had not been married long, and they were feeling the pressure of two demanding careers and the distance. When Laila confided some of these challenges to a colleague, her friend understood, offering their own example of a brother who was a chef at the internationally known Brasserie Georges, the oldest brasserie in Lyon and one of the largest brasseries in Europe. That’s when Joe knew he had a lead.
“I said, ‘What!—get me his phone number,’” says Squalli. “Of course, he didn’t know where Rochester was. I explained it wasn’t New York City, but we wanted him to come and be a guest chef. He got excited—he’d never been to the States. He had a ton of ideas for the menu already.”
Soon after their call, Chef Said Touyar mailed Squalli a packet filled with menu ideas, and in 2007, he flew in for the first French Week at Rooney’s. He used his vacation time for the trip, flying in on a Saturday for a Tuesday start time to French Week.
“I remember vividly that night—I picked him up at the airport, and we stopped at the restaurant first so he could see the kitchen,” Squalli says. “He had three days to prepare a whole menu, and the poor guy had jet lag. Here he is coming from one of the biggest brasseries in Europe, into our older, small kitchen. He looked at me and said, ‘what is this?’”
But, “les carottes sont cuites.” Chef Touyar woke up at seven the next morning and got to work, assisted by sous chef Minh Nguyen, who’s been at Rooney’s for more than thirty years. But that’s when reality hit.
“Half of the ingredients we didn’t have, and our purveyors would have to special order,” says Squalli. “All of his recipes were in the metric system and Celsius, and he didn’t speak much English.”
Fortunately, Squalli was able to create conversion charts while also finding most of the ingredients. He spent the day driving all over to pick products up and overnighted other products from New York City. Squalli also speaks fluent French and could help translate in the kitchen. All the while, Rooney’s was open for regular hours.
That Monday night, Squalli didn’t sleep. He’d sent out thousands of mailers, advertised the event, and they had reservations. What if this was a horrible mistake?
“I was really nervous,” Squalli says. “But early that afternoon, he made something. I took a bite, and all the nerves, all the fear, everything I was feeling was just gone. It was just a vegetable custard, but it was that good. I said, ‘oh my God, this guy is the real deal.’ He had everything against him, and he still excelled.”
Chef Touyar has continued his residency each French Week for fourteen years, continuing even after his retirement from Brasserie Georges. He’s become friends with patrons of Rooney’s, hosting some of them in Lyon and staying in touch with them online. And while it’s labeled “French Week,” it’s really ten days each April. Many patrons will dine as many as six times during French Week, and tables book fast, so reservations are recommended. rooneysrestaurant.com
Leah Stacy is a food- and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.