Government & Politics

‘A wild part of me’: Rocket, a one-named videographer and Hartford politician, grapples with a pugnacious past

Rocket, who goes by one name, prepares to shoot an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Rocket pulled into the parking lot of Brownsville Butcher and Pantry 10 minutes behind schedule. He’d initially left his apartment in flip-flops — his trademark footwear — but decided to double back. It was 6 degrees.

The 31-year-old, one-named videomaker and social media personality arrived unannounced to make one of his typical videos showcasing a Vermont food-based business. 

Inside, he did not go long unnoticed. Brownsville Butcher’s co-owner, Peter Varkonyi, quickly recognized him, and the two locked eyes. “You Rocket?” Varkonyi asked. 

“Sorry it’s taken me so long to get here,” Rocket replied, the two falling into immediate conversation beside the cafe’s counter. They spent 20 minutes talking food systems and the pitfalls of operating a business in a small state before Rocket started shooting video. He’d been granted complete access to the store, and he was not shy about ducking into the kitchen and sneaking behind the butcher counter.

“What you’ve started for the state is amazing,” Varkonyi said. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Rocket has had such interactions across Vermont, packaging his explorations into bite-sized video content. His “Rocket In Vermont” Facebook page, with more than 12,000 followers, documents his trips up and down the state, from Orleans County to Rutland. His “Eat Vermont” Instagram account beams classic food porn to more than 28,000 accounts a month.

Conversations with chefs and farmers become 20-second reels and five-minute videos, mostly self-funded, though occasionally underwritten by chambers of commerce and local businesses. His goal is to foster meaningful human connections, he says, not just for himself, but between other people, too.

On screen, he plays part character, part himself. He describes the “Rocket in Vermont” series as an ongoing “narrative project.” Relentlessly positive, rarely self-conscious, effusive and affable toward all he meets, the on-screen Rocket visits restaurants, farms and makers of value-added agricultural products. 

But off screen, the cavalier charmer that so easily builds rapport with business owners has sometimes clashed with his colleagues. Rocket, who changed his legal name from “Ryan Kim” in 2015, has dipped his toes into public service, running unopposed for a two-year seat on the Hartford Selectboard in 2022. He likes to run-and-gun, but bureaucracy moves slowly, and words slung off the cuff, caught on the record, have occasionally left the man in hot water.

He’s worked to temper the impulsivity of his 20s. Still, it leaks out here and there. 

Rocket, right, prepares to shoot an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago with videographer Mike Cannon at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘Dude, I have no idea who these people are.’

Rocket draws in much of a room’s oxygen, the way someone with the name Rocket might. His panache suggests a diet of Jackass and Anthony Bourdain, seasoned heavily with social media during his formative years. Growing up one of four in a house run by two “extremely critical” Korean parents, Rocket fought to be heard. From his family, he said, he inherited a certain abrasiveness. He called his childhood in California miserable and isolating. He’d run away from his $4 million Newport Beach home to sleep in rain gutters. “A gilded cage,” he called it. 

A contrarian streak runs through Rocket’s politics: a graduate of the uber-liberal Putney School, he said he’s considered calling himself a “Vermont Republican.” At Middlebury College, a leftist bastion, he spoke with aplomb against the school’s divestment from fossil fuels if it could harm the endowment in any way. In the age of identity politics, the second-year Vermont Law School student insists on calling himself “oriental,” a label that is widely seen as outdated, if not racist. 

During the colder months, Rocket posts often of his icy swims. (Think: the cult of cold water evangelist Wim Hof, a favorite of wellness’s manly flank.) His previous ploys for internet attention include a rap music video from the perspective of Elon Musk — a stunt he insists crossed Musk’s desk. Then there was his vlogged cross-country hitchhike on a $100 budget, an endeavor echoing the Korean-American artist David Choe, who made a fortune painting Facebook’s office and went on to have a Vice show in which he, among other things, hitchhiked, train-hopped and gambled. 

Ever since his early years in Vermont, food has been central to Rocket’s goals. At the Putney School, he said, he’d cook with a dorm mother, Margie Levine. She taught Rocket about being in a kitchen, about the “magnetic power” of food that connects people across the heterogenous human soup. He’s chased that connection ever since.

Meeting for an interview at a White River Junction wine bar, Rocket can’t help but get noticed. Despite the hanging plants separating various conversation nooks, a nearby group met his eyes, and its members exchanged brief words with him. That kind of thing happens a lot, he said. A startling, unnerving amount. 

“I think a lot of people would refer to me as, like, a local celebrity,” he said. “I'm a small fish in a tiny pond.”

The same thing happened one of the last times he bopped into the wine bar, Putnam’s Vine/yard, which looks tailor-made to appear in Instagram stories. 

“I had this really weird experience here,” he said, recounting a time when a stranger accosted him.

“He kind of, like, popped up and said, ‘Hey, Rocket.’ He was kind of waiting for me. OK, fine. ‘Oh, yeah, dude, everyone's saying I should meet with you.’ When people say ‘Everyone says,’ who's everyone, right?”

In a village of 2,500, Rocket has lost his sense of anonymity. 

“It's a little weird, but it's nice that it means something to people. But there's also this other side, which is like, ‘Dude, I have no idea who these people are.’”

That ambivalence can appear puzzling when considering the character Rocket, who never seems far from performing some stunt that will return him to the center of attention. Sartorially, he asks to be looked at. All black, flip-flops, often a cowboy hat. In any weather. 

“If I'm in the woods alone, by myself, I'm still Rocket, I'm still in the flip-flops,” he said. “It's not determined by the people I'm around. It's something that I feel is natively who I am.”

Part of what makes that personality unique, he theorized, is its apparent comfort with attention, be it in media or politics. But that’s only what’s on the outside. 

“For a long time, it has been in my mind and heart — since my teenage years — that one of these fields, it might be the right fit for me,” he said. Yet the attention that comes with working in the public eye is not as welcome as Rocket makes it look. “What's weird about it is that I actually don't like that at all. Like, it makes me very uncomfortable,” he said.

To an observer, Rocket has perhaps not made life in government easy for himself. When proposing legislation, he has sometimes taken a fun-first approach to a process that otherwise favors pragmatism. Like when he suggested occasionally putting police on horseback in downtown White River Junction, or when he suggested creating an open-container law in town. 

“I'm so new to this process that I just want to try things that are not very consequential,” he said. “Why should the first thing I try be something that is going to really affect people's lives?”

That approach has earned him the teasing label “weekend dad” from one of his fellow selectboard members, Kim Souza, who was first elected in 2018. 

“I just tried to express to Rocket that there was a process and that I fully supported that he wanted to bring these things forth, but that he couldn't jump to the front of the line,” Souza said in an interview. “I think he took it to heart, and then he sort of, like, from my perspective, it looks like he reprioritized.”

Rocket, right, prepares to shoot an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago with videographer Mike Cannon at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But Souza and Rocket have sparred more seriously — and publicly — about more than beers on the sidewalk. 

Their ideological disagreements bubbled over last June, when Souza questioned the public display of dozens of American flags by the local American Legion post. 

The flags are “not a welcome sight for everyone,” Souza said at a selectboard meeting, and “not necessarily a symbol that everyone relates to and admires.” Later, in a Facebook post, she called the prominently placed flags “an example of white supremacy culture.”

Set off, Rocket decided to make a video addressing Souza's comments, as well as his own patriotism. 

He took particular umbrage at Souza’s white supremacy comment. Wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat, Rocket carried an American flag and offered a monologue.

“For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m not white. Surprise, surprise,” the Korean-American said to the camera, a cheeky grin sliding over his face. “And I don’t think of myself as a white supremacist. I don’t think of anyone who carries this as a white supremacist.”

“Does this flag represent the ugly aspects of our country, or the positive and beautiful, aspirational aspects of our country?” he asked, going on to say his colleague’s comments had caused “pain” in Hartford. 

Despite the provocative nature of the video, Rocket was sure to offer some praise for Souza, calling her “an incredibly dedicated public servant.”

“She of all people has earned a right to be critical, in the sense that she is so committed to improving our community,” he said. 

Souza, in an interview, said that the flag incident has had “a net positive impact” due to the productive conversations it sparked, and that she and Rocket had moved past their disagreement on the issue. 

But tensions between the two have bubbled up again and are thus far unresolved.

“The topic in which Rocket and I cannot seem to really find any common ground is around diversity and equity and inclusion training,” Souza told VTDigger. “I said, ‘Look, I give up, that's fine. If I can't convince you to at least, like, open your mind to it, then I'll leave you alone.’ ”

Rocket, for his part, said he supports the “core mission” of equity work but thinks the town isn’t choosing the most effective path toward it.

“I’ve become increasingly uneasy with conversations around equity in Vermont, because I feel like it’s become way too laser focused on race and race alone,” he said. That approach neglects poor white people and “calcifies resentment toward minorities,” in his estimation.

“A large subset of silent colored people,” Rocket said, “completely agree with me.” 

And because of the work he does and his ethnicity, Rocket said, his “existence is, de facto, whether I want it or not, equity work.”

On the selectboard, Rocket hasn’t just butted heads with Souza. Back in August, he caused the board to hold a special meeting after he shared publicly an email he’d written to his selectboard colleagues outlining “troubling rumors” he’d heard about the then-town manager. In the message, which Rocket shared with a constituent after the town manager declined to release it in a public records request, he said he’d “lost faith” in the town manager.

The selectboard decided to endorse a statement reading, in part, that the release of the email “represents a failure on the part of the entire Selectboard.”

At the special meeting, Mike Hoyt, the board’s chair, said the board was not explicitly “censuring” Rocket, but instead talking about “a process that broke down and led to the release of an email that caused incredible pain to the people who were mentioned in it, sowed division in our town.”

He went on to say the entire board needed to be held responsible, but he “could not stress enough how damaging” the email’s release was. 

Rocket later publicly apologized for the incident, as did the entire board. But some constituents loudly voiced their support for his actions.

“This meeting was called for me to be admonished. And it’s turning a little bit into I feel like a fan club, which is very ironic and sweet,” he said. “But I do know that I messed up, and it’s important for me to take responsibility of that.”

Less than three months later, the board put the town manager on administrative leave, and she has since left the post. 

Rocket shoots an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The ‘Middlebury incident’

Though his time in Hartford’s government has left Rocket in hot water here and there, the controversies pale in seriousness to a 2016 incident involving a Middlebury town employee.

While a student at Middlebury College, Rocket advocated for creating an economic development position inside the town’s government. Voters later gave the thumbs up to fund the position.

But after the job was filled, Rocket grew concerned that the employee he’d helped hire wasn’t doing his job. His campaign to find out more information led him to believe the employee was doing little work. The beef grew, culminating in a mohawk-sporting, leather jacket-clad Rocket riding his motorcycle to the Middlebury town offices on the day of primary elections in 2016. 

A stairway altercation ensued between the two men. (Rocket said the other man initiated the physical contact, but he admitted to egging him on verbally.) In the melee, Rocket beat the town employee in the head with his cellphone, according to police reports. Both were left bruised, blood was drawn, and both were charged with disorderly conduct.  

According to Rocket, constituents in Hartford had raised the incident to him multiple times. But beginning late last year, he decided he needed to once and for all explain what happened, and apologize, too. 

In his White River studio apartment, Rocket and two collaborators met on a Sunday night for what was to be one of the longest videos he’d ever made. 

Underneath string lights, he set out goat cheese and charcuterie, sipping a hard kombucha. A magnet pinned affirming mantras to his refrigerator. He planned to answer a series of prepared questions as jumping-off points to talk about what had happened, how he’d become the person he is. 

“This video is really about an event that was, frankly, pretty traumatic for me, but very self-inflicted,” he told the camera. “I feel like the story deserves to be told with not just my perspective of it, but also my reflections of it, which are of learning and growing and, frankly, some apology, too.”

Two hours later, his energy began to wane. He’d chased tangents, circling and returning to the “Middlebury incident.” He’d explained the purpose of his work (“philosophically, what I’m trying to do is write a love song to humanity”); defined himself (“I think of myself like a rock in the river. A good rock in the river serves as a bridge”); expressed regret and a desire for reconciliation (“I just feel really guilty about having done that. ‘That’ being the fallout or the results of me being unable to manage myself personally.”).

But, more than reflection on a bad deed done, the night functioned like a therapeutic autobiography. 

“I feel tender, because I gave a lot of answers that I have not told a lot of people,” Rocket said. 

The long night had a different effect on the cameraman. “I’m exhausted,” he said.

Rocket shoots an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘There is a wild part of me’

Rocket’s Vermont-focused videos tend toward the celebration of others rather than himself. And his relentless pursuit of positivity has led him to focus on towns sometimes colored by negative reputations.

In Rutland, Rocket shot one of his most popular YouTube videos back in 2016, celebrating the town’s revitalization. He took a similar approach last year in Springfield. That four-minute short, celebrating the town’s history, is displayed prominently on Springfield’s town website, a mid-sentence Rocket gesturing under the header “Welcome to Springfield!”

He’s made similar videos for many other Upper Valley towns — Woodstock, South Royalton, Chelsea and Norwich among them. At every destination, he gets his subject talking. Like in Quechee, where he stopped by the Farmer and the Bell doughnut shop to talk to co-owner April Lawrence. She discussed her love of the budding community of regular customers, and Rocket saluted her and her team’s long hours and hard work to make the whole operation happen.

“As consumers, I feel like we all enjoy the finished final project,” he said, cutting away from his interview with Lawrence. “But what I’m trying to do with this video series is to pull back the curtain a little bit and show you the real human faces, but also just the love and the labor that goes into making these products that we all enjoy.”

A couple of sentimental piano chords underscore Rocket’s praise, and he cuts back to him and Lawrence laughing and at ease. A heartfelt story, delicious doughnuts, and viewers in the comments ready to trek however long it takes for a freshly fried cruller. 

At Brownsville Butcher and Pantry, Rocket’s drop-in went seamlessly. He ran with creative frenzy from aisle to aisle shooting vertical video. While the store’s owner, Varkonyi, divided up a quarter cow, Rocket and his iPhone took it all in. And invited into the open kitchen, he made quick friends with the bakers and cooks, careful to stay out of their way as much as possible while capturing their craft.

But most of his 90 minutes in Brownsville were spent chatting with Varkonyi. Each sounded off about what Vermont’s food scene lacks, about dreams for a more connected network of growers, makers and mongers. They exchanged numbers, and made plans for future collaboration.

“My great joy is I get to hang out with people like you,” Rocket said, rallying all the staff in the store for a group photo. They waved to the camera, everyone smiling. He’d later condense the morning into a 22-second Instagram reel. 

That day in Brownsville, Rocket was three months into making his Middlebury incident video. He’d decided to scrap his 40-minute draft. The few people he’d shown it to suggested it was selfish. Grateful for the feedback, he knew he had to keep the video simple to tell an effective story. So, Rocket started over.

“A personal reflection on trust and one of my biggest mistakes,” he called it.

“There is a wild part of me. The part of me, for example, that would name myself Rocket,” he tells the viewer. “Back in 2016, in the town of Middlebury, I raised hell about an economic development office that I felt like was not serving the interest of the taxpayer. But I did it in this way that absolutely torched my relationships in town.”

“Consider this my formal apology to the people of Middlebury,” he offered.

The video makes no mention of the physical altercation. 

Out in the parking lot of the Butcher and Pantry, Rocket drove his car up beside this reporter and beckoned to roll down the window. 

Maybe all the politicking only distracted from the people and food — the real meaning in his life, he suggested.

“You see how much joy this brings me,” he said, referencing the morning’s shoot. Then he drove off. Maybe he’d stop at the Windsor Diner on his way home for another quick vid. He wasn’t sure yet.

Rocket, who goes by one name, right, prepares to shoot an apology video for a violent incident in Middlebury a few years ago with videographer Mike Cannon at his apartment in White River Junction in November. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Corrections: A previous version of this article misspelled Wim Hof's name and mischaracterized Rocket's video that he says crossed Elon Musk's desk.

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Ethan Weinstein

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