For as much rock-and-roll hype a certain barbecue-sushi joint in downtown Santa Rosa enjoys, its only connection to rock music is loud volume. To truly eat like a rock star, one needs simply to walk a few doors up the street.
Gray Rollin, chef of the new downtown Santa Rosa restaurant Belly, has been a personal touring chef for bands Kiss, Motley Crüe, T-Pain, Tori Amos and Linkin Park. His new restaurant serves what he calls “new American” cuisine; it’s a melting pot of styles from the 40 countries he’s visited while on tour. There is no central theme, other than using ingredients from the West Coast and making diners happy, and he knows the route to that goal. “When your belly’s full, you’re happy,” says Rollin.
Belly’s offerings will change with the seasons. Menu staples, though, include the crispy pork belly ($20) and the Asian quinoa and kale salad ($10). The pork belly is crusted with ginger, garlic, salt and pepper, seared, then braised for about six hours in sake and hoisin sauce. “It’s literally the first thing we do every day,” says Rollin. “We use about four bottles of sake for it.” The result is a big hunk of tender, almost pull-apart pork belly; the crust is crispy, and the pork flavor shines.
Rollin has worked wonders with the belly, and he accomplishes a similar feat with pulled pork. It’s smoky, in a somewhat sweet sauce, and again the pork flavor sits atop the palate, right out front where it should be. But putting it on a pizza ($13) diminishes its appeal. The pizza dough serves only as a sloppy vehicle for the meat—a pork hoopty, as it were—and the cheese dampens the overall flavor. It would be better on its own, served like the belly, or perhaps in a corn tortilla with fresh coleslaw.
Elsewhere on the menu, however, comfort-food successes are plentiful. The delightful two-hog mac and cheese ($10) features both Mexican and Spanish chorizo mixed in with every kid’s favorite TV dinner. Though presented in a grownup manner, the rush of nostalgia from eating mac and cheese is thankfully kept intact.
Rollin calls his fare comfort food “with a twist”; that twist includes worldly influences and healthy salads like tuna nicoise and roasted beet with goat cheese. On tour, he has to keep at least one meal kosher and one organic, gluten-free and vegan, so he’s familiar with dietary restrictions. “I don’t cook with a lot of butter or too much fat,” adds Rollin. “I’ve been around these guys long enough, so I know what makes them happy.”
Being on the road and making food for a superstar band like Linkin Park means Rollin knows good rock-band tour cooking isn’t just about what’s on the menu; it’s also about when meals are served. Upon arrival, Rollin will have at his disposal a few hundred dollars of local currency, a translator and transportation to make sure the band’s meals will be ready on time. Sometimes, he’ll get a call to have dinner ready in 15 minutes, and sometimes this happens when there isn’t much available. While on tour with Blink 182, Rollin got a request from guitarist and singer Tom DeLonge for ahi tuna, but it’s not exactly of the freshest quality in Saskatoon, Canada. A stickler for quality, Rollin suggested DeLonge wait until the band stopped in Vancouver a few days later. “Whatever happens to that band, if I feed them and they get sick, that’s my ass,” he says. “I mean, I’d let down 60,000 fans because one guy got sick.”
He himself would be one of those fans, most likely. “My first tour was with Motley Crüe—that’s my favorite band,” says Rollin. “And I used to listen to Linkin Park in college to get pumped up before playing baseball games.” Now he gets to watch each night from the stage. Dream job? “It is,” he responds coolly with a slight smile.
Between tours, Rollin now has a home base, a restaurant to try new recipes out and hang up memorabilia, like the autographed crash cymbal from Linkin Park that sits above the 28 tap-bar at Belly. The beer selection is an admirable list of local and well-known microbrews, rotating based on availability and taste.
Though their lifestyle brands are similar, Rollin doesn’t fear competition from the frosted-tipped, flame-shirt-bedecked chef who owns the well-established Tex Wasabi’s, located on the same block. “He and I actually had the same tour bus driver,” he says. “I think he’s a great chef, and I’ve heard he’s an awesome guy.”
The buzz is that there’s a chance Rollin will be on an episode of Chopped in the next couple months, and he says he’s fielded calls about doing other television shows. “My name’s on the radar,” he says.
In other words, watch out, Guy Fieri—there’s another bona fide rock-star chef nipping your heels.
Belly, 523 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.526.5787.