It was 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday when I picked up my wife from the train station at the Tacoma Dome. Per usual, I had a snack in the car, because a 20-minute car ride with an exhausted wife is hard enough without throwing hungry into the mix. Also per usual, when I saw her, weaving her way through the commuter traffic I began to dance. The dancing is one part excitement to see her and 99 parts because it embarrasses her deeply. The people loading onto the light rail love it though, (nothing like a goofy white kid doing the Carlton to brighten up your Thursday) so it works out for everybody. This Thursday was different though, for two reasons. The first reason was that she was smiling, (which isn’t something you do when you’ve been packed into a rattling urine can from Seattle to Tacoma after a full day of work). The second was that she was carrying a bag of cookies. I stopped dancing as she approached, seemingly nonplussed by my spot-on rendition of the Fresh Prince classic, and I invited her into the car.
“Whatcha got there?” I asked.
“Macarons.” she said. And she did.
They seemed to shine in the afternoon light oozing through the windows of our Subaru. Little pastel treasures in a white waxed bag.
“Where’d you get them?” I asked, assuming that she was about to launch into a diatribe about the insane post-work foot traffic in downtown Seattle and how it had driven her into a bakery. Instead, a serene smile lit her face. “In there.” she said, and she pointed at Freighthouse Square.
According to the official Freighthouse Square website, the building was built in 1909 and was the “Westernmost freight terminus for the famous Milwaukee Railroad.” The commuter train from Seattle cannonballs to a halt in front of the place and people dragging ass from working too hard and traveling too far are chucked overhand into the building, which, according to me walking through the place a bunch of times, is big as fuck. Seriously, massive. And weird. Oh-so-weird. You’ll find rows of vacant shops, odd little boutiques and local art displays. Mannequins with no pants near an artfully carved Sasquatch and a comic book shop.
And standing strong amidst this weirdness, between some twinkly lights and a wasteland of abandoned storefronts, there is a food court. A serious fucking food court. And tucked into that food court is La Waffletz.
In the backseat of our Subaru, my wife pulled one of those little watercolor masterpieces out of the bag. Crinkle crinkle. It was pink and there were dried rose petals on it and when she bit into it the look of bliss that spread across her face was like yolk from a cracked egg. “Oh my God,” she said. “You have to talk to this guy.”
“This guy” is Rogerio Martinho. On any given day you can find him stuffed into a 200 square foot bakery at the westernmost edge of the food court. If you’re thinking that’s a pretty confined baking space, you’re right. It’s a veritable maze of kneading areas and alien looking equipment, all dusted with flour and sweltering in the late spring sun. The close quarters don’t seem to bother him, though. He moves through the kitchen like experienced hands on the keys of a piano, right where he needs to be, when he needs to be there, pouring batter into presses and filling piping bags with whipped cream like a man on fire. It is on a day like this, at a time like this, that I meet Rogerio. He’s hunched over a stainless steel counter drizzling chocolate over a Belgian waffle and there’s a man at the door of the kiosk turning a credit card over and over in his hands, anxious, but not in a hurry. Excited.
“You want zee ice cream?” Rogerio says over his shoulder, spoon splashing chocolate artfully back and forth. His accent is as French as it gets.
“Yeah!” shouts the man. It shoots out of his mouth before he can rein it in. He composes himself. “Uh, sure…yes.”
Rogerio, smiling over the plate. The chocolate done, he opens a freezer near the floor and fishes a scoop from a rack beside the sink and nestles ice cream down amongst the chocolate drizzle. They’re both smiling when he presents it and the man carries it to a table by door where his wife is smiling too.
“Ahlo,” Rogerio says to me, and now I’m smiling as well.
Interviewing is hard. When you watch it on television, it has been edited. Pretty profusely edited. All of the open mouthed head nodding gets hacked right out of there. Along with the “uh-huhs,” and the “cools,” and most especially that first moment where you, “the interviewer” is standing shaky-kneed at the top of the ramp waiting to put your weight into the hill and ride it out and he, “the surprise interviewee” is standing in front of you watching what appears to be a sales pitch blossom on your face and wondering if this is a: would-you-like-to-buy-some-girl-scout-cookies or even worse, a: Do-you-have-a-minute-to-talk-about-our-lord-and-savior-Jesus-Christ.
I’ve interviewed a lot of different people in a lot of different capacities and, be it restauranteurs or shoplifters, I’ve found that the only thing harder than conducting the interview, is getting the interview. Either they don’t have time for you, or they’re not emotionally prepared to brave the minefield of talking to you. The latter is a very strong motivator when it comes to avoiding an interview, both for shoplifters and restauranteurs. As a shoplifter, there are a lot of things to be lost from talking to someone who does the work that I do in my 9-5. He might accidentally implicate himself in a series of thefts that we didn’t know he was involved in, or get his fencing operation/drug hookup arrested. He might get shot in the face later. Similarly, a particularly vocal restauranteur might explain how he wanted to open his cafe in Seattle, but couldn’t afford it and doesn’t like Seattleites anyway. He might mention his food-handling practices and end up with a health inspector sniffing around his kitchen. He might say he hates the Seahawks. Whatever the motivation, when Krishan and I come begging with our bowl of questions, we often end up catching the run around.
This brings me back to a sun-splashed Freighthouse Square food court, standing across a counter from a man whose accent is no joke.
“I’d like to interview you for my food blog.” I say.
“Okay,” he says.
And just like that my weight is forward and I’m down the hill.
“I was 12.” He says. “My grandfather has always cooked, and he sat me down and said, ‘if you learn to do this,’” Roger motions around his kitchen, “’You will always have a job. People will always need to eat. You eat, you shit, you need to eat again.’” So, Roger learned. He learned from his grandfather and he learned from his grandmother and when he was old enough, he went to a very illustrious French cooking school and he learned from them. It was a three year program that sounds about as grueling and unforgiving as any I’m aware of. He spent his time there working constantly and moving from kitchen to kitchen all over France, soaking up the tricks of the trade and catching hard lessons. I imagine drill sergeants in chef hats and my time in basic training, which reminds me:
“It says on this sheet here,” and I motion at a printout hanging from the wall by the door, “that you were a paratrooper for the French Army?”
A look with which I am accustomed finds his eyes. It is a look I see in the eyes of a lot of veterans with a lot of stories to tell and no real intention of telling them to a stranger. Mischief, plain and unabashed.
“How was that?” I ask.
“Great.” He says. “I jumped out of planes into Beirut and Kosovo. All over the world.”
“How’s your back?”
“The back is okay. The knee though…”
The back and knees are the Achilles heels of people who jump out of airplanes in WW2-era parachutes with a hundred and something pounds of equipment strapped to their bodies (go figure).
“So how do you go from doing that to doing this?” I ask him.
“I found myself out of the army with an injury and I thought, ‘now what?’” He worked security for a while, which he downplayed initially before finding out that I worked in a similar field. A brief story that would have made Dog the Bounty Hunter blush followed. It involved a bar in the Netherlands and a biker gang infestation. It involved whooping ass and running for your life. But this isn’t about that. This is about macarons.
“So after the security gig, you’re realizing that you’re not happy?”
I get a spirited nod, then he says, “I went back to cooking.” Which again is an understatement. He went back to cooking so hard that cooking called her girlfriends to gossip about it. Back with a vengeance. Fast forward to Roger working in Belgium and learning the tricks of the Belgian waffle trade, becoming a Master of Pastry, opening businesses in South Africa, Costa Rica and all over South America and consulting in New York and Canada. Roger at the helm of a huge operation, as the executive chef for Essential Baking Company and landing finally in the position of Head Pastry Chef at Ba Bar in Capitol Hill, Seattle, where he met his wife.
Google his name and you’ll find articles about him in quite a few Seattle publications. Lots of talk about the macarons at Ba Bar and the time that he spent there, perfecting recipes and slinging goodness from a window at the front. It’s mentioned more than once in a few of these pieces how overqualified he was for the position. How skilled he was.
“Why’d you leave?” I ask him.
“This,” and he motions at his kiosk. “This is what I love about America. You can still have a dream here.”
Working in the big kitchens and industrial operations had again dragged Roger away from what he was really looking for when it came to cooking. Food. Good, simple food. Ba Bar had been a step in the right direction. He was on the ground floor with his customers, listening to their reactions and making things he could stand behind, but he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. He wanted independence. He wanted honest food.
So, Roger packed up his gear and he and his wife waded into the jungles of the Puget Sound Farmers Market scene, dropping into uncharted territory like in his army days. He and his wife sold macarons from a folding table at farmers markets in Seattle, Gig Harbor and several other places in the western Washington area, trying to get a feel for where they were the most welcome, where their product would be most enjoyed.
“Is that how you ended up in Tacoma?” I ask.
“The people were so open and friendly here. We loved it.”
And they love him. Punch La Waffletz into your yelp machine and the first thing you’ll see is (at the time this is being written) about 75 reviews and a 5 star average. The second thing you’ll see is love and admiration. Review after review talking about how great the guy who owns it is and the confectionary bliss that is every item conjured from behind that countertop.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about that. Roger is cranking out much more than pastel cookies (his Belgian waffles are something of a legend in the area and have been perfected from many years at the source, in Belgium) but since most of his local fame has centered around his macarons and they’re the only thing I’ve tried personally, I’m going to focus on those. For such a colorful cookie, one can’t help but be surprised that they aren’t that sweet. When you see something hot pink with cream in the middle, you tend to think, “Diabeetus”.
In fact, talking to Roger, carefully balancing the sweetness is something that a lot of other purveyors get wrong. He’s tasted several other people’s take on the macaron, including some of his own previous tries at them, and the taste was so cloying that he couldn’t even finish it.
“Bleccchh.” He says to me. “It was too much.”
The cookies at La Waffletz are nuanced and measured in their flavor. More importantly, they are true to their names. I bit into a guava cookie, pleased by crispness of the outer cookie, and the subtle chewiness that the center of it gave way to, and I found myself totally shocked by the fact that it tasted EXACTLY like guava.
The secret? Guava, stupid. Roger works in purées, doesn’t fuck with artificial flavors. He also doesn’t fuck with glucose or wheat flour.
“It’s more expensive this way,” he says,” but it’s better. It’s our responsibility to be better.”
He’s big on that. When I brought up the flavoring he made a disgusted face and waved the question away.
“Too half-assed?” I asked and he nodded. He sees bad chefs the way a sergeant sees bad soldiers. Unacceptable.
“You hold life in your hands.” he said. “You’re doing something important.”
An islander woman approaches the counter with her two kids and Roger grins at her.
“Did it melt?” He asks.
“You were right!” She says laughing,” It totally melted! It was still good though!”
“I told you, you have to eat it right away! Here,” he says, and starts back into the kitchen, “I will make it for you now and you can see.”
The kids wave spastically at Roger as she walks them to a table by an award winning burger shop, which I hear is pretty fantastic.
When they’re seated, we resume.
“You seem to know your customers pretty well.” I say.
“I know them all. Most of them are repeats. She ordered a banana split waffle last week and she was going to take it home but I told her it would melt before it got there. She will have to try it fresh this time.” He’s loading batter into the waffle press and the smell of it cooking is as full and primal as the shrieks of the islander kids playing tag in the food court behind me.
“This is why I do this.” He says, stirring chocolate with a spoon. “Young men want to run a big kitchen, do the next big thing. I’m older, I’ve done that. I want to make good food. I want to put time and effort and love into it.” A timer dings and he flips the lid off the waffle, crispy and brown.
“You seem happy.” I say.
“If you have a bad attitude, your food will have a bad attitude.”
The chocolate he was stirring drizzles down off the spoon with a mechanical precision. “I’m not a young man anymore, but this,” Powdered sugar drifts from a colander. “I like this.”
He carries the split, steaming and piled with ice cream, to the table and the woman and her kids look at him with a reverence that I can feel from across the hulking, weird international food court. As he points to the map of Belgium on the wall of his kiosk, no doubt explaining the origin of the waffle to the kids who sit with rapt attention, faces coated with an expertly prepared chocolate sauce perfected a world away, I can’t help but feel like I’ve wandered into a Billy Joel song, happening across an expert in a divey train station. Whipping up excellence, hot, fresh and with passion because he loves it, and that’s all he really needs to keep going.
And we sit at the bar and put bread in his jar and say, ‘man what’re you doing here?’
La Waffletz on Yelp
Freight House Square: