Fernando Ruiz’s story is one of inspiration and hope, but this is just to know the half of it. In meeting Fernando, a barrel chested, tatted up, bald executive chef with eyes so deep and blue, he captures every bit of your attention. Even so, if you think, He’s probably just like all the other tattooed chefs, you’d be dead wrong. Nothing can ready you for meeting Fernando in person. He’s an endless beam of light.
I first came to know him as a ‘friend’ on Facebook through another local chef’s posts, while following his cooking exploits. When I ran into him at the recent Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, I could see those deep blue eyes from 25 feet away. I was immediately drawn in like a Star Trek tractor beam. I tried to greet him with an out-stretched hand, but we hugged like two old friends. We said few words and parted, but I knew a friendship had been made. It was the highlight of the event for me.
While putting this interview together, it was easy to fall in love with this most beautiful man. I hope after reading this, you’ll love him as much as I do.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Fernando Ruiz: I feed off of my wife and kids, that’s what motivates me to succeed. Especially my wife Michelle. She’s at home all day with those three monsters—her job is 10 times harder than mine. That’s what motivates me, my kids, and my work here supports that. When this executive chef opportunity took off, we sat down and talked it about it. She knew what she was getting herself into from the beginning. I told her, “You realize I won’t be home very much, but hopefully it will get us somewhere.” And that’s what we’re working on together.
Mark: Tell me about the executive chef opportunity.
Fernando: Before the kids were born, I was a sous chef for four or five years and Michelle would suggest I go apply for a chef position somewhere, and I kept saying I’m not ready, I still need two more years, and every two years, it’d be two more years. She finally said, “I think it’s time now, you should go apply somewhere.” I took over the Ore House at Milagro 139. That’s when I realized exactly what I got myself into. Overall, that was a great experience for me. That was somewhere around 9-10 years ago, and it kept getting better and better and it still is.
Mark: It takes a special if not extraordinary woman to be married to a chef. The crazy schedule, long hours away from home, gone for the holidays…How has your wife’s support and encouragement contributed to your success?
Fernando: I give her 100 percent of it. She pushed me. There was a point about 10-plus years ago I was ready to give up on cooking, in my mind I’d already given it up––I was going to go back to Phoenix to make money the way I used to. At that time, I had no idea of the culinary scene here in Santa Fe, (we were living in Española for a little over a year at the time). She said, “No! Let’s go to Santa Fe and we’ll put in some job applications,.” That was exactly what we did and that was 10-12 years ago. It’s her fault I’m doing this. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, period. I know that for a fact.
Mark: How big is your family?
Fernando: I have six children but with different moms. They range from 2 to 23 years old.
Mark: How do you blend work and family?
Fernando: I think about my kids everyday, my youngest kid to my oldest kid, all day when I’m in the kitchen, they’re always on my mind, as is my wife––wishing I could be home watching them run around, fightin’, getting in the cupboards, making messes.
However, the great thing about my work is, it’s my career and this is where I’m the most creative. I can do what I want in that kitchen, I can buy what I want, create what I want. I’m here bustin’ my ass for something good. The last 10 years I’ve been working really hard and I have a vision where I want to be in the next 8-10 years. I said to Michelle, look, not too long ago we were stone-cold broke and look where we are now.
Mark: What’s your vision for that future?
Fernando: I want to expand myself. I see myself in Northern New Mexico, from Santa Fe to Southern Colorado. I’ll be working on a special project in Colorado–– a bistro/butcher-shop––with a close friend of mine, Jason Nauert. He’s a master butcher by trade and also a great chef. I’d still be based in Santa Fe, bouncing back and forth.
Next week, Jason and I are going to Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno for the International Sportsmen’s Exposition. Jason and I will have a booth there. Jason demonstrates how to butcher deer and elk, and I demonstrate how to cook cuts usually discarded or ground into dog food. (These guys are hunters not cooks). Same thing at The Sugar Land Wine and Food Affair, one of the biggest events in Texas; and in the spring, The Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. Jason and I are also getting this show together for The Outdoor Channel. They’re considering a series for us where we hunt, butcher and cook. Two chefs who love the outdoors. Hopefully, the sacrifices I’m making now, and the exposure and experiences from being on the two TV shows, I’ll be able to blend all these pieces together. Most importantly, my wife Michelle totally supports it. One-hundred percent.
Mark: I started cooking very young wanting to recreate my grandmother’s cooking. But you started your career as an inmate in a jailhouse kitchen cooking expired, donated food from the local food bank. That’s an interesting way to start a career as a chef.
Fernando: That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had working in a kitchen. Being in jail, we got to be ourselves––just as we get to be ourselves in here [points to kitchen]. We would have fun, we knew we were in trouble––we were still in jail. Everyday, we were cooking on a massive scale. We had enormous steam jacket kettles that could fit 100 gallons of soup at one time and we had five or six lined up against the wall. There were big prep tables with 50-60 guys in the kitchen (with the knives chained to the cutting boards). It was a big operation basically that we, the inmates, ran. We organized it, we moved it around. We would plate up to 200 breakfasts here, another 200 there. We would be watched by the guards and of course nobody’s an angel in there. There were so many of us we’d be able to nap after they counted us up for the day, I remember taking naps in a rolling cambro heat box.
Mark: What was the take-away, the lesson[s] you learned in the kitchen that you can apply out of jail?
Fernando: What I learned in the kitchen is that everybody is replaceable, including myself, the front of the house staff, the pastry chef. That was a hard lesson. I found that out years ago. I’m no better than anybody else. It’s humbling once you get this. I was humbled young, 15 years ago when I was growing up getting shot at, shooting people, gang-banging. You think you’re unstoppable and you’re not. There’s always somebody better than you. There’s always somebody that can kick your ass harder than you can kick theirs. The whole jail thing, that’s pretty humbling and in the cooking world I’ve been humbled.
When I took over as executive chef at the Ore House, I knew I was going to try my hardest to be the best chef I can be. Back then, a magazine came in and reviewed us, they were rating restaurants on a scale of four chiles back then. I thought for sure I’ll get at least three chiles. Well, I only got two chiles. I said what the hell? I poured my whole heart into this thing and I only got two chiles––it was pretty humbling.
Mark: A rapper, Kodak Black, was recently derided for eating jailhouse food after he was released—and most chefs wax nostalgic about the foods they were raised on and how they contribute partly to becoming chefs. Is jailhouse food still part of your life, and as a chef does it inform your work?
Fernando: Sure, I still eat jailhouse food. My wife and I eat it all the time. In fact we ate it a few weeks ago. It’s corn nuts, beef and cheddar sticks and a bag of hot spicy corn chips. First, you crush the corn chips and the corn nuts in their bags as much as you can––add the cut-up the beef and cheddar sticks then fill it up about a quarter of the way with hot water, let it sit there for about two minutes, it’s delicious.
Mark: So when you eat jailhouse food is it that food you eat while watching television when you and your wife are all alone?
Fernando: Yeah, right. It’s usually at 10 or 11 at night after everybody’s asleep, which is funny that you say that…and my wife really liked it. The first time I told her, “Let’s go buy some jail food.” She said, “What’s that? Sounds like it might be good, sorta like posole.” I made it and got her hooked. It’s great for things like road trips, too. It’s funny that whole jailhouse food thing. I think I remember seeing a cookbook on it years and years ago. Oh, and the hot-iron grilled cheese thing. We did that, too. Grilled cheese under a hot iron––basically you get your iron HOT––and put the iron right on top of the bread, like you’re going to iron a shirt. The iron gets hot enough to toast both sides. It doesn’t get super brown, but enough where the bread has a crunch and melts the cheese.
Mark: At the restaurant, what’s your process for creating a dish—is it individual or collaborative?
Fernando: I create dishes on my own a lot of times, or I’ll tell my sous chef Kelman (usually on Friday or Saturday night when we run two or three specials) why don’t you do a special, I’ll do one and have Nelson one of the other line cooks do one. I let them do their specials all the time. I’ll do my own or we’ll do them all together; I don’t want them to feel they’re just line cooks. You can’t reinvent food, you can refine it and make it your own. It’s already invented but you can refine it, that’s what I try to do to make it my own. Osso bucco is that traditional dish for me. I like it with a white bean ragù or a Serrano mashed potato with some kind of mushrooms on it and some ancho chile––it’s a great dish to make your own. Makes me think of dried chiles, guajillo, pasilla or chile negro that goes great with braised beef, and I know that’s a classic French dish but the way I would prepare it, there’d be nothing French-classic about it besides the braising.
Mark: So you don’t make a distinction between chef and cooks like some people do?
Fernando: Right, we’re all cooks. It’s not a useful distinction for me. I cook. I’m cooking back there with them. On Friday and Saturday nights, I work on the line with them; I like to work on the line, I don’t want to get away from that aspect of cooking. I don’t want or need an office doing invoices and paperwork. I want to be in a hot kitchen sweating––and creating cool plates.
Mark: Congratulations on winning Chopped and Guy’s Grocery Games!
Fernando: Never in a million years did I believe I’d win Chopped. I didn’t even want to go. I didn’t want to go to Napa Valley to do Guy’s Grocery Games, I didn’t want to go to New York to do Chopped. My wife made me go. I didn’t sign up for any of it. Rocky [Durham] signed me up for Guy’s Grocery Games. They called him. He was on the show last year. The owners gave me the application for Chopped and it sat in my inbox for two months. My wife kept asking me, “Did you fill it out yet?” “Nope, I don’t wanna do it.” “Well, what if you win?” she said. But, I’m really glad I finally did. I won Chopped. Who would have known?!
Mark: Well, good job, you really kicked some culinary ass, too. So earning your early culinary stripes in a jailhouse kitchen, the idea of “culinary arts” slowly evolved for you. Do you remember when your skill set evolved to the next level?
Fernando: I do. I was working at Rio Chama Steakhouse under chef Tom Kerpon, who was one of my mentors. I remember him doing a decomposed salad one day and that was one of the first times I’d seen a decomposed salad. I thought that was really cool. Then we started doing wine dinners together and one day it just clicked, “Now I got it, now I get what you’re doing.” He said, “You see what I’m trying to do?” I said, “Yeah.” And he asked me, “What am I doing?”
I then explained to him why he was doing this here and that there. I totally nailed it and he said, “Now I think you know what you’re doing.” I thought, Now I got it. Now I know that I can do a cilantro demi-glaze with that chicken breast or pork shank, or whatever it is. It just totally clicked under Chef Tom, he’s been totally great to me.
Mark: What do you think is the most important quality in a chef?
Fernando: Attitude! A humbleness, being respectful. I’m respectful to those guys and girls back there––I can’t do it by myself, I have a great team behind me. I respect them and they respect me––no one’s better than anyone else, I learned that years ago. Marco Pierre White says that “Kitchens are like the French foreign legion. It doesn’t matter what your background is white, black, atheist, Jewish you’re always going to be accepted.” Which is true.
Mark: We all know by now our successes rest on the bed of our doubts and failures. Where have you doubted yourself?
Fernando: I doubted myself for the TV shows. Big doubts. Before I even stepped foot in there, I doubted myself. I would think, I’m gonna go home. I won’t win. I’m not here to win. I want to win. I would love to win, but I know I’m not going to win. Both times I doubted myself right before we started filming the cooking segments. But leading up to the show it’s like well, I’m not going to go to New York [to do Chopped] to lose, I’m going to New York to win. But once they said ‘Action!’ Man, I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t think I can win, I don’t think I can get through this round. It all just happens so fast. Yeah, I doubted myself both times.
Mark: Plate Magazine recently did a feature where a chef was rediscovering and remaking the foods of his childhood only using better ingredients.
Fernando: I do that, too, especially with menudos or oxtail––my mom used to make a braised oxtail stew––she would braise the oxtails and put pinto beans and posole in it. It was called Gallina Pinta. I’ve done that dish for a number of wine dinners. It’s got that delicious gooey gelatinous texture to it. We grew up eating lots of exotic foods. Another thing we did was we grew up butchering a lot of goats making barbacoa in the pit covering it up and pulling it out the next day. We’d eat barbacoa tacos for every special occasion. We made them here for the holidays, a barbacoa beef-cheek tamale. I told my mom, “I’m gonna run a special of tamales with barbacoa.” She loved it.
Mark: So clearly your love of food has brought you closer to your parents
Fernando: It’s brought me closer to my mom for sure. We talk every morning about food and stuff. She called and said she had some left over chicken mole and with the leftover masa was going to make some chicken mole tamales––they were delicious, like chicken mole corn dumplings. My dad and I have always been pretty close. Food brings everybody together––it brings family together and that’s how we grew up. Every Sunday, a gathering at my mom’s house. Whether it’s winter, summer, fall or springtime, on Sunday, the neighborhood of kids, friends, family always showed up at mom and dad’s house to eat.
Mark: What would your last meal be?
Mark: Who would cook it?
Story by Mark Oppenheimer