Frank Ruta of Palena, the best chef you've never heard of
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 11:35 AM
Ask Frank Ruta why after 10 years he finally decided to expand Palena, his jewel-box restaurant in Cleveland Park, and the chef will tell you it's an opportunity to explore his repertoire and offer dishes he simply can't turn out in his cramped basement kitchen. Only when pressed, firmly, will he acknowledge that doubling the number of seats might generate more income, too. It's just the kind of answer you'd expect in an era when chefs craft their images as carefully as what they put on the plate, and snagging a high-profile interview (or an appearance on "Top Chef") can drive more business than a four-star review. But Ruta doesn't like interviews. Although he has won every industry accolade - best new chef from Food & Wine, best Mid-Atlantic chef from the James Beard Foundation - Ruta is the rare modern chef who seems to truly prefer being in the kitchen. He rarely visits the dining room, even at regulars' requests. (Several years ago, after he didn't emerge for Michel Richard, chef-owner of Citronelle, Richard publicly scolded Ruta: "You have to see people.")
"If I were in a band, I'd be the bass player," Ruta said in an interview that took several years of gentle pleading and cajoling to secure. "The guy hanging out in the back where no one is watching."
His philosophy is as old-school as his approach to the media. In 11 years at the White House, he learned that chefs should have mastery of every technique, whether it's distilling a perfectly clear consomme or whipping up pastry cream. Everything that can be made from scratch should be, and prices must be fair. For Palena's burger, the kitchen makes the bun, the mayonnaise and the pickles and hand-grinds the beef. Only the truffle cheese, imported from Italy, is not house-made.
And then there's Ruta's apparent allergy to trends. Since opening in 2000, Palena has always cured its own meats. But when charcuterie plates became a must-have at chic eateries a few years ago, he pulled his off the menu.
All of which makes Palena a hybrid of neighborhood joint and culinary destination, one that on its 10th anniversary remains unknown to many Washington diners. But ask anyone who is passionate about food (or lives in Cleveland Park) to name the best dishes in the city, and they inevitably will nominate Ruta's consomme, gnocchi, burger, roast chicken and meant-to-be-but-not-always-shared fry plate. "He's the best cook in America, if not the world, and I say that having eaten at every two- and three-star Michelin restaurant in New York," said Mark Kuller, who owns the downtown restaurants Proof and Estadio.
Ruta, 53, grew up in McKeesport, Pa., near Pittsburgh, in what he describes as a typical Italian family: Everything revolved around the dinner table. His family grew much of its food in a large back garden. His grandmother, who he says "didn't speak a lick of English," would make crispy eggs, fried in olive oil and lard, for lunch and lay out stuffed-squash-blossom fritters for snacks. His parents cured meats and made their own wine according to Italian traditions. They planted garlic during the last full moon of October. They racked wine when the moon was waning. Ruta remembers his father once was angry at his mother for several days after she served polenta in warm weather.
"Frank once told me that when he was a kid and you ate a grilled cheese sandwich, they didn't just make the bread. They made the cheese," said Ann Amernick, who was pastry chef and partner at Palena for seven years. "He takes great pride in making everything himself."
Ruta didn't have dreams of becoming a chef. It was different in the 1970s. Cooking was a trade, not a profession. In high school, Ruta got a job washing dishes and cooking at a local catering company. Next, he got work at the Lemon Tree, one of the best restaurants in McKeesport. In 1975, he was accepted into a three-year American Culinary Federation apprenticeship program, modeled after the European "stage" system.
Ruta had been cooking at a country club for a few months when he got a surprising call from the White House. They were looking for an assistant chef, and he had been highly recommended. "I basically hung up on him. I thought it was a joke," Ruta remembers.
The recruiter was persistent, however. Ruta agreed to an interview. Before he left for Washington, a friend told him that a job at the White House would change his life forever. "And I thought: 'Oh, no. Should I not do it?' I thought they meant it was a bad move."
Ruta stayed at the White House for eight years. He was the personal chef for the Carters - he fondly remembers making breakfast for Amy Carter and packing her brown-bag lunches - and the Reagans. But he also helped cook for state dinners and other official events. His years there shaped Ruta in two ways. Under the tutelage of executive chefs Henry Haller and Hans Raffert and pastry chef Roland Mesnier, he perfected his technique. In the 1980s, haute French cuisine was still the standard, especially at the White House. He also learned to be happy working behind the scenes. "We were servants. Domestics," he said. "We weren't oppressed, but we had our place. Personally and professionally, I'm still more comfortable in the background."
By 1987, however, Ruta was longing to explore the Italian food of his childhood. He left the White House for a job at a one-star Michelin restaurant, Ristorante Andreas, in the Italian Alpine town of Merano. (His then-girlfriend, now-wife Anne, whom he wooed in the White House curator's office with batches of warm cookies, joined him.) There, under Andreas Hellrigl, Ruta learned how to apply his French technique to the rustic foods he had grown up with. "Andreas's pasta had finesse. He sought out the best olive oils. His risottos were perfect," he said. "There was just a little more care and precision. Those are the things in our business that are important."