Brent Ruggles, CEC
Favorite food: a hamburger dressed up with fried onions, chipotle barbecue sauce or blue cheese
Chef hero: his grandmother, an expert in traditional country cooking
Most challenging culinary assignment: cooking for the Dallas Cowboys
Cookbook Recommendation: Conscious Cuisine, by Cary Neff
Hobbies: gardening, working on the house
Brent Ruggles has culinary responsibility for two major medical centers in Dallas, located about a mile apart: the 155-bed Zale Lipshy hospital and the 300-bed St. Paul hospital. Between the two, Ruggles' operations generate annual revenues of close to $25 million.
Ruggles came to Zale Lipshy in 1999 after a career that included stints in hotel dining, commercial restaurants and as corporate chef to the Dallas Cowboys professional football team, where he worked for flamboyant Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
He started cooking as an after-school job in order to earn enough money for a car and continued into college. "I soon realized I enjoyed cooking more than I enjoyed going to college," he laughs.
A chef, Charles Perkins, took Ruggles under his wing, getting him a job with a resort as executive chef. That position led to a larger role troubleshooting properties around the country.
A few years later, newly married, Ruggles connected with Zale Lipshy nutrition services director Mary Kimbrough, who hired him in August 1999 as a production manager and executive chef. His operations include patient feeding and retail cafes at both locations as well as a c-store at Zale Lipshy as well as the St. Paul's doctors lounge and on-and off-premise catering at both facilities.
What did you do for the Cowboys?
"I was the executive chef for their stadium and for the team, including for the players and all the coaches. I worked out of a kitchen in Texas Stadium, and we did catering events all year long and then kicked it into gear for all the suites and the club during the season"
What was it like working for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones?
"He gets a bad rap sometimes. As long as you do your job and give him what he expects, he'll leave you alone and give you what you need. If you don't embarrass him in the public eye, you'll never hear anything but good things from him.
What does he like to eat?
"He and his wife are from Arkansas and they love that country type food. When I was doing the food for their suites during the games, they wanted things like fried chicken, or tea sandwiches with ingredients like pimento cheese and tuna fish, on sliced white bread and cut into star shapes [the "Texas Star" is the emblem of the Cowboys team-ed.]. They also loved cheese grits. One time they asked for macaroni and cheese, and the way they explained it to me was that 'if the chef could get it out of a Kraft box, we would be more than happy.'"
What sorts of special skills do you bring to Zale Lipshy, especially in light of your varied background?
"I think in part the ability to be creative with food and to problem-solve. A lot of high-end patients and visitors come to Zale Lipshy and have to be taken care of from the food end, so I have to be very flexible and accommodating. That means anything from a peanut butterand jelly sandwich to Beef Wellington and everything in between.
What about at St. Paul?
"Because St. Paul mostly serves the local population, it serves a lot Spanish and Mexican-influenced food because many of the patients are of that heritage. Of course, we also have to also have a broader choices. But, the food overall is more Spanish at St. Paul and more Regional American at Zale."
Do you have a cuisine specialty?
"I grew up in Corpus Christi, which is right on the Gulf of Mexico, so my first cooking experience was seafood. We also did a lot with chilis and pepper. If I had to peg myself at something it would be Southwest seafood. I also love the mesquite grill and the flavors it gives.
Do you have a specialty dish you're noted for?
I do a grilled horseradish stuffed shrimp that I wrap with bacon and dip in my own barbecue sauce that I serve it either as an appetizer or entrèe. I also do an Italian-Southwest thing...
...that's an interesting combination...
...well, it's a green chili polenta that I throw on the grill and then, in the winter, I'll do it with a wild mushroom ragout I serve on the side. In the summer I'll do it with heirloom tomatoes and fresh cheese, just real simple.
You mentioned your barbecue sauce. How do you characterize it?
I use a dark ale beer, which tends to make it a little sweeter and gives it a little twang that people aren't sure what it is. It goes well with brisket, chicken because of the sweetness, pork, and it can even go with some of the seafood if I thin it out a little with vegetable stock so it's not so thick and overpowering.