Frank Ruta was nominated for a James Beard Award last year. There must be 10,000 chefs who would sacrifice a pair of line cooks to earn such recognition, not to mention the chance to attend the awards gala in New York City, where the country’s greatest toques get drunk on Champagne and their collective fabulousness.
Ruta didn’t even attend the event. He went to Delaware instead, to help with his wife’s parents. “I just didn’t think,” says the Palena chef and owner, “that it was going to be my year.” Ruta ended up winning in absentia. He split the award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic with R.J. Cooper from Vidalia.
That story, in a nutshell, illustrates a few of the things that I love about Ruta: He’s not caught up in the celebrity trappings of chefdom. He values family over food awards—even though he damn well deserves a few after slaving for more than three decades in various kitchens—and he’s still humble after all these years.
But that’s not why Ruta and Palena have earned the nods as Best Chef and Best Restaurant, respectively. It’s because Ruta is one helluva cook, both technically and creatively, and Palena is the least stuffy, least pretentious fine-dining room in the entire D.C. region. Ruta’s the kind of chef who still arrives early in the morning to butcher his own spring lambs or make a pot of veal stock. He’s the kind of chef who, during the dinner service, still inspects practically every plate before it arrives at your table. He’s the kind of chef who steps in to make his own desserts when his pastry chef decides to split.
No, Palena is not a perfect restaurant. The dining room has a sort of aging austerity about it—some of the chairs are chipped, a few tables are scratched, and the surreal, black-and-white artwork feels incongruent against the colorful classicism of Ruta’s cooking. The dinner service has its drawbacks, too. You won’t receive an amuse-bouche or any other treats from the kitchen during the course of your meal. You order four courses, you get four courses.
But for your $67, you’ll get four of the most thoughtfully composed plates you’ll find in town. Ruta’s genius is not his presentations, which are more conventional than whimsical. His particular genius is for constructing flavors; like a poet who chooses every last word for both sound and meaning, Ruta builds dishes in which every single ingredient has a rightful place, maybe for texture, maybe for flavor, maybe both. Subtract just one, and the entire plate suffers.
Take Ruta’s recent second course of Atlantic fluke. By itself, the crispy flatfish has a moist, delicate flavor, but by adding a few seemingly simple ingredients, Ruta has discovered the fish’s deeper possibilities. Ruta has paired the fluke with tiny florets of lemony cauliflower, which add both acid and crunch, as well as little bulbs of spring onion, which add sweetness and aroma. When combined, the flavors are so bright, fresh, and alive that it seems as if Ruta has extracted the very essence from each ingredient.
This kind of exact cooking does not happen by accident. It takes years of discipline and patience, which are maybe the words that best define the 50-year-old Ruta. The future chef was born in McKeesport, Pa., just outside of Pittsburgh. Less than two years after completing his grueling American Culinary Federation apprenticeship program, Ruta was working at a country club when he received a call from Jimmy Carter’s White House. “They just called out of the blue,” Ruta remembers. “I hung up on them the first time, thinking it was a joke.”
Ruta was 22 years old when he was hired to join the presidential cooking staff in 1980, which was then led by executive chef Henry Haller and future White House executive chef, Hans Raffert. Ruta would work the better part of 10 years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. under three different presidents, with one 18-month break to study under the hugely respected chef, Andreas Hellrigl, in Merano, Italy. The White House left its mark on Ruta. It’s one thing, after all, to cook for finicky diners with easy access to a blog; it’s a whole other thing to cook for Nancy Reagan and every head of state who parades in the door.
“I think that’s probably what contributes now to how I operate,” Ruta says. “Because if you serve something to Mrs. Reagan for lunch, and she asks for it for a luncheon that she [will be hosting] two weeks down the road…well, you better be able to duplicate it. So I used to keep notes. Roland [Mesnier, the White House’s longtime pastry chef] taught me that—that you have to be able to do it again and again. To do it once is luck.”
Ruta’s obsessive, perhaps even neurotic approach to cooking—he measures out everything for his recipes, down to the precise amount of salt needed—has helped to make Palena a model of consistency ever since it opened in 2000. But just as important, Ruta is a chef who, like his mentor, tries to master everything in the kitchen. “Hans [Raffert] was a guy that could do it all,” says Ruta, who’s also worked with Yannick Cam and Peter Pastan over his career. “He could do it all, and he could do it all quickly, efficiently, neatly. He was just a walking encyclopedia of classical cooking.”
At Palena, Ruta leaves little to chance or outside sources. He makes his own bread. He makes his own pasta. He cures his own meats. He has even made his own hot dogs for the casual Palena Café, which he opened a few years back in the front of his restaurant. (Incidentally, the chef entertained dreams of selling those dogs, and his celebrated truffled cheeseburger, at the Nats’ new stadium, though he says he didn’t press his case hard enough with team ownership.) And now that his former business partner, Ann Amernick, has left, Ruta is in charge of desserts, too.
“Rather than bring somebody in and say, ‘OK, make desserts,’ I thought [Palena] had to have some kind of a foundation,” Ruta says. “We had to have some kind of an idea of what we wanted first. So I wanted to work it out myself.”
Despite all this, Ruta isn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of being labeled the best of anything. When informed that Palena would be named Best Restaurant, Ruta demurs. “I don’t even pretend to think Palena is one of the Top 5 in this city,” he says.