Trying to have a conversation with best friends is like this maniacal mystery tour soaked in nostalgia, filled with private jokes and tangents shooting like stars through the space between us. Aaron Mercier and John Havens are just such friends. The two are this close to the opening of Rooks Tavern, their OSU campus barbecue joint, and sitting in Mercier’s Clintonville living room, the conversation seems to alight on everything but smoked meats.
The house is one of those secret garden type places – set back from the road, tucked in amongst greenery so dense, it feels like a tree house. A perfect place for besties to hang. There are two dogs chillin’ and a smoker going out front. That the beasts are not going nuts as the meat smell envelopes the area shows just how often Mercier works his craft.
As the afternoon-long conversations pongs back and forth, subjects from NPR bands (hip but safe) and Dungeons and Dragons are bantered about. At one point, there is a long sidetrack about ballerinas, how they smell, and what they eat after practice (a single tic-tac or an onion – a cocktail onion), I learn that one likes Tom Waits and the other most certainly does not; there is some back-and-forth about Norse God Odin’s goats – Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder – being preferably to his two crows. I am given advice regarding gifts for parents: passive-aggressive self-help books. I learn about the siren smell of the former Wonderbread factory that nearly seduced the young men and their mates while riding the bus to school.
Like gathering up loose threads, I eventually learn that Mercier and Havens met while star-students at Wellington High School. “I gave the graduation speech,” said Havens. “It bounced off the Willy Wonka quote, ‘We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams – that and duct tape.” I learn that Mercier’s time as a graduate student and teacher left him with the necessary skills to run a kitchen. I learn that Mercier’s phone number is actually the most called on his buddy’s phone – more so than his wive’s.
Between the two, Havens is a natural storyteller, while his friend is an observer. Many of Havens’s stories are punctuated by sharp laughs from the quiet Mercier. Such as when he chats about the kitchen prowess of their families:
“My dad was a great cook, my grandmother was a great cook, his dad was a great cook, his mom was an adventurous cook …”
“Well, sometimes it turned out good.”
“Ha ha. The woman could roast a chicken.”
If Rooks Tavern succeeds in replicating this easy to and fro between longtime friends, it will be a everyone-knows-your-name place in no time. “The first meal we cooked was a pork tenderloin with chipotle brown-butter sauce, with scalloped or mashed potatoes?”
“It was jalapeno hash browns,” answered Mercier. “They were my favorite part of the meal.”
As the opening looms, Mercier notes that “it’s exciting and scary, I’m just glad we’re almost there, it’s been a long ride.” As we talk, the three os us snack on pickled ramps and radishes with butter. Havens mentions that food has always been one of the foundations of their friendship, “The first meal we cooked was a pork tenderloin with chipotle brown-butter sauce, with scalloped or mashed potatoes?”
It’s memories like this one, tucked away after 18 years of friendship the two hope to set the scene for at Rooks. “We don’t sell food, we sell experiences, food is incidental,” emphasized Havens. “People are still talking about the Kahiki and how long ago did that close? I still have vivid memories of that place … that’s where we went when we got an “A” on our report cards.”
“It’s a form of immortality. Barbeque just means cooking with fire, it’s the original form of human interaction, we’ve been doing this as long as we’ve been doing anything else; Aaron’s skills are constantly growing.”
And that’s just how these two roll. Taking from the past to give to the future.
Rooks Tavern is located at 195 Chittenden Ave.