By June Naylor
Photos by Ron Jenkins
This chef’s recipe for soul food: Assemble ranks of long tables, stir up memories of Grandmother, add a pinch of family history and blend world-class culinary chops with a wife’s good sense.
On a warm summer night in Fort Worth’s historic Northside, guests at Magdalena’s Supper Club watch the chef stirring saffron rice, shellfish, chicken and sausage in a giant paella pan set over a fire. Tables sit near raised-bed gardens; string lights hang overhead. Across the street is a historic cemetery and the glittering skyline beyond. On chillier evenings, guests chat amiably, seated at rows of communal wooden tables inside the dining room. Wine, brought from home, is shared among friends and strangers.
All quiets down when Juan Rodriguez begins the dinner service with a quick introduction, some self-effacing jokes and, always, inspirational credit given to his late grandmother Magdalena. But the show-stopping, madly inventive turns that the classic dishes and traditional ingredients take in his kitchen are Juan’s alone. That said, a significant influence on much of his career has come from his wife, Paige Rodriguez. She manages the reservations for every dinner, as well as a heavy catering schedule, and is largely the reason Juan’s dream for Magdalena’s has become a reality.
Juan, 37, grew up understanding that sitting down to dinner isn’t only about eating. From his parents and extended family he learned that sharing a meal is equally about feeding the soul and fueling a community. Juan was born in Chicago, but relocated to his parents’ native city of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, while still a baby.
It was when the family returned to the Windy City a couple of years later that Juan, then a second-grader, learned English. He was a high school freshman when his mom took a job with Motorola that moved the family to Fort Worth.
He learned the restaurant business at Steak and Ale, busing tables, hosting and working in the kitchen. After graduating from Western Hills High School, he toured the Art Institute of Dallas with plans to study computer animation. Intimidated by the art students’ skills, he was drawn to the school’s new culinary program. He began commuting from his home in Peaster to work in west Fort Worth and to attend night school in Dallas. He worked weekends at Motorola.
His first job after culinary school put him in the kitchen with a mentor on whom he still heaps praise, almost 18 years and many restaurant gigs later. “I loved working with Jenny Brightman,” he says of the then-executive chef at the Classic Cafe in Roanoke. “She was so passionate. She showed me about caring for the process and ingredients. She was a key inspiration for me.”
She also insisted on tasting his mashed potatoes daily for six months before entrusting them fully to his care. Brightman laughs about his memory of her attention to detail and is obviously pleased at his success. “Juan was the most incredibly polite and well-mannered person in our kitchen, and he wanted to do his job well. He was an ideal person to have on the line,” she says.
Moving around, Juan pushed himself to learn as much as he could at various jobs, including a stint with chef Gerard Thompson at Rough Creek Lodge near Glen Rose. “I admire Gerard so much and was so impressed with his use of local ingredients long before everyone did that. I’d still be there if it weren’t for the drive.”
Back in Fort Worth, he landed at Lonesome Dove. Within six months, chef Tim Love took him to open the New York City location as chef de cuisine. Too, he tapped Juan as his sous-chef in a famed Iron Chef TV competition in which they defeated the heavily favored chef Masaharu Morimoto. They did not fare so well against a famed dining critic. A notoriously unflattering New York Times review ultimately led to the shuttering of the restaurant.
Returning to Fort Worth, in 2007 Juan joined Reata, moving up to executive chef after two years. More importantly, he met Paige Walker, the restaurant’s catering director. After dating for seven years, they married. On a honeymoon in Spain — while enjoying the 18-course tasting menu at Arzak, a two-star Michelin restaurant in the Basque region — they began mapping their future.
“Juan kept talking about doing something of his own, so I finally just said, ‘Stop talking about it and do it,’ ” Paige recalls. She took a full-time job at Alcon Laboratories, and he borrowed money from his 401(k) to launch their catering business. They reached out to family for help, too. “They say my great-uncle in Monterrey is a loan shark, and maybe it’s true,” Juan says with a laugh. “But he made it happen for us, especially when I told him I was naming our business for his sister.”
While creating menus for Magdalena’s Cocina in 2015, the couple’s catering start-up, Juan honored the influences of family. “My dad and uncles are big on carne asadas and cabrito. There’s always something cooking over live fires. My mom’s dad was Puerto Rican, so I love making things like lechon, pernil, bacalao and tostones.”
And while Magdalena is his patron saint, he says it’s not about any one particular dish of hers. “I think I channel more of her love of simplicity. Her albondigas soup took the whole day to make, and the flour tortillas took hours as well because she did it with such love,” he says.
The catering business flourished, but Juan itched to create more. On a visit to Portland and other points west, he heard excited talk about supper clubs. “It was a really hot topic, these one-night dinners, like pop-ups, but with more of a schedule.” He came home ready to sell Paige on the idea.
“I was like, ‘Is anyone going to show up? What is it? Isn’t this kind of weird?’ ” she says. Juan won her over, and they sent out nearly 100 emails introducing Magdalena’s first supper club in October 2016. Paige insisted they should set up individual “date night” tables, but Juan believed communal was the way to go. “My grandmother always brought different people together around the same table, and they loved it. I felt it was right, and it worked.”
A memorable Dia de los Muertos dinner spurred growth when news of the magical evening spread. By the time social media began buzzing about the fabulous BYOB dinners, some nearby residents complained that the couple had started a restaurant without proper zoning. Other neighbors and a few city leaders supported Juan and Paige’s ultimately successful effort to have Magdalena’s zoned for the pop-up events.
Notices of supper club dates go out monthly and events book up quickly. Patrons look forward to shrimp ceviche with diced watermelon and avocado crema; roasted poblano soup with pepitas and cilantro oil; duck carnitas with arroz a la plancha and vegetables en escabeche; and grilled New York strip with squash mole and elote. Guests say the food reminds them of meals enjoyed in Spain and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
As Juan anticipated, strangers become friends at the dinners. WBAP radio personality Steve Lamb and his TV news anchor wife, Deborah Ferguson, are fans of the communal experience, having sat with a couple who turned out to be neighbors. Of course, culinary artistry is a draw for Lamb, too. “We love that Juan’s food has history tied to his grandmother’s kitchen, and it’s first-rate. Whether we’re indoors or outdoors, the dining experience is taken to a higher level.”
The dream continues to grow. They’re taking over adjacent buildings to accommodate more elaborate wedding parties and to host small dinner groups for an expanded tasting menu. Meanwhile, Juan is helping a client open Austin City Taco on University Drive in the Cultural District this spring. Acting as consulting chef, with Paige helping with front-of-house guidance, the pair get a chance to be part of a restaurant without the ownership responsibilities. And in spite of their hectic schedule, the two steal downtime at home with two Australian shepherds and their year-old son, Lucas — who stands to inherit his parents’ and grandparents’ sensibilities about food, family and heart. It is Juan’s dedication to those things that leaves an impression on everyone he knows.
“Juan cooks with such authentic feeling, and that food is in his heart. That can’t be taught — it’s instinctive,” says Russell Kirkpatrick, the Reata general manager who was Juan’s boss. “When you taste his food, you can taste his journey, his enthusiasm. And he molds all that into one bite.”