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One of the famed chef's proudest accomplishments was creating the hotel menu with locally produced food.
Photo courtesy of Hotel Roanoke
Raper, who recently moved to Florida, put touches of perfection on banquets and galas and mentored many a young cook during his 18 years at Hotel Roanoke.
The Roanoke Times | File photo
Executive Chef Billie Raper cut up turkey breast as 1st Cook Conner Johnson (left) carry pork loins and Banquet Sous-chef, Marie LeBlanc (right) peel beets during a Thanksgiving buffet preparation at Hotel Roanoke in Roanoke, VA on Monday, Nov. 24, 2008.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Walking through the Roanoke City Farmers Market with Billie Raper on a recent Friday was like being spotted with a celebrity.
The manager of Blues BBQ came outside to chat him up, as did a chef at 202 Market. Farmer Mark Woods said hello, and a woman in a sport utility vehicle on Campbell Avenue slowed down to wave enthusiastically from the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Billie!” she called. “We’re going to miss you!”
Raper heard that sentiment a lot after news got around that he was leaving his job as executive chef at Hotel Roanoke. By the time you read this, Raper will already be in southwest Florida helping to open a posh $70 million retirement community called The Terraces at Bonita Springs.
But Raper, 42, truly left a mark on our community. Through 18 years and multiple roles at the hotel, he reassured countless brides, put touches of perfection on banquets and galas, mentored many a young cook and established ties with local farmers.
All of this was done with a calm demeanor unlike the stereotypical image of a screaming, red-faced chef.
“Kitchens can be absolute places of chaos, and he really had a way about him of keeping everybody focused on the task at hand, with emotions and everything in check,” said Hotel Roanoke general manager Gary Walton . “No matter how tense things got, Billie seemed to always be pretty steady.”
Determined to learn
One of my first Front Burner columns, in March 2007, featured some of Raper’s knowledge and advice about cooking corned beef. Two months later, I attended his grilling class at Hotel Roanoke.
I fancied myself a decent amateur cook, but I’ll never forget the look on Raper’s face when he saw me chopping vegetables. He shook his head, said my knife skills were all wrong, and showed me the proper hand position. I suspect he saved me a couple of fingers.
By then, Raper had already worked his way up to executive chef after only six years at the hotel. A Richmond native, he came on in 1995 as a lead cook to help open the newly remodeled facility.
Before he was named executive chef in 2001, he had worked as the Regency Room chef and executive sous chef. During that time, the hotel went through about a half-dozen executive chefs, but colleagues say Raper was determined to learn something from each one. When it came time to hire a new head chef in 2001, Walton said, Raper stood out because of his commitment and loyalty to the hotel.
“Our observation was each of those chefs brought certain strengths, and I think Billie was just a sponge and observed both the good and the bad,” Walton said.
As the executive chef, Raper was in charge of anything food-related at the hotel, whether it was the Regency Room menu, the Pine Room Pub offerings, banquets for 1,000 people, holiday buffets, weddings or room service. The stress could be tremendous, but food and beverage manager Declan McGettigan said Raper took it all in stride.
“It’s tough to find that chef that has the perfect balance to lead the kitchen, to lead a lot of individuals, and to develop skills in a stressful environment,” he said. Raper “is hands down one of the finest individuals I have ever met in terms of integrity, fairness to his people and doing whatever he could think of to get the customer satisfied.”
Friends and farmers
On his last day on the job, Raper told me he was most proud of two accomplishments of his career at the hotel. One was the relationships he developed with customers.
“We’ve always been that special occasion place,” Raper said. “You have to put something out there to say come and create these memories.”
Donna Wray of Rocky Mount has helped organize the annual New Year’s Eve gala at Hotel Roanoke for the Beta Sigma Phi sorority for some 30 years. She and her sorority sisters worked closely with Raper each year he was there.
“It just became such a personal relationship, and he was just so accommodating,” she said. “You’d go in there and you’d have a vision in your mind, and all you’d have to do is say you want to do a ’50s theme and he’d come up with all these ideas.”
When Wray visited the hotel recently to start planning for a convention in September, Raper showed up at the meeting with a farewell bottle of champagne. They both cried.
“I truly feel like the hotel is known for so many things, but I think he brought that hotel up to a top-notch level as far as the food went,” Wray said.
Raper said his second great accomplishment was buying locally produced food for the hotel menu. He and McGettigan figure the Hotel Roanoke now sources between 10 percent and 20 percent of its food locally, depending on the season. That may not sound like much, but when you consider the size of the place, it’s huge. The goal for the Regency Room alone is 25 percent to 30 percent, McGettigan said, but they come closer to 40 percent local at times.
Craig Rogers, who owns Border Springs Farm in Patrick County, sells his lamb to high-end restaurants along the East Coast. He said local protein is very expensive for restaurants to source, but the Hotel Roanoke continues to buy his lamb and is the only customer he has in Roanoke. That’s largely because of Raper.
“He was just an articulate ambassador for farmers, and out of all of the chefs that I have there simply is no one who is more passionate and earnest about his sourcing than Billie Raper, and probably the one who got the least amount of recognition for it,” Rogers said.
“He wasn’t doing it to be in the spotlight. It was just his sense of good food and what was good for the restaurants and the people of Roanoke.”
Raper said he hopes the hotel will continue to work with local farmers.
“I’ve always said the community put a lot into this hotel,” he said. “There is a responsibility to the local community.”
Hotel management is searching for Raper’s replacement; meanwhile, Walton and McGettigan said they are confident in the leadership of the remaining staff, which includes Regency Room chef Sandra Krebs and executive sous chef Paul Gautier. Gautier worked at the hotel in the past before leaving to help open downtown Roanoke’s Frankie Rowland’s and to run Surf & Turf (now closed) in Roanoke’s Grandin Village.
When Raper got emotional talking about his departure, which happened quite often in his final days at the hotel, it was obvious that the move was a difficult decision for him. Ultimately, he said, it came down to wanting to spend more time with his family.
He has two daughters from his first marriage, ages 15 and 22, who didn’t see him enough when they were growing up, he said. Now that he is remarried with three young sons ages 7, 5 and 3, he doesn’t want the same thing to happen.
Raper’s bosses describe him as a man who learned from every day on the job, whether it brought successes or mistakes. It seems that quality carries over into his personal life.
“Some things you can’t fix,” he said, “but you have to take what you know now and try to be better.”
On the blog: Take a photo tour of the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op in downtown Roanoke at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.
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