I was eager to meet Randy Rucker, to speak with him in person and try his food. I had heard a lot about him since moving to Houston, and what I heard made me think we would get along just fine. He is a proponent of sourcing locally, and he loves to forage for mushrooms and anything else edible. His energy, as I’d perceived it from articles I had read and conversations I’d had, seemed suited to my personality. Yes, I heard and read other things as well — about his temper and behavior, such as this, which appeared in the Dallas Observer in 2012:
That Houston based chef is known for foraging for obscure natural ingredients, and according to this blog post on the Houston Press, he’s a bit of an eccentric character as well.
Rucker’s staff dumped the contents of their ingredient tubs onto a prep table because they were tired of tweezering edible flowers and delicate vegetables at a dining event last year. Later they dumped liquid nitrogen into the Four Season’s hotel pool, causing damage that required the pool to be drained and repaired.
Rucker himself has told followers on Twitter, “Fuck You” when they didn’t make the 33 mile drive from downtown Houston to his restaurant in Tomball. That restaurant has since closed.
But I prefer to overlook secondhand observations and judge for myself, so earlier this week drove to Bramble, Rucker’s new restaurant, full of anticipation. I had been sporadically communicating with Rucker via Facebook for months and had even chatted with him about the idea of working in his kitchen (that is how much I liked his approach to food and cooking). The evening began well, and after taking my seat at the restaurant’s bar, I approached Rucker, who was expediting at the pass. We shook hands, and I said, “Congratulations, this looks great. I’m looking forward to trying your food.” I ordered a drink at the bar and scanned the menu. Rucker came over a few minutes later, and we spoke about the space and his menu, and how important it was to not merely talk about farm-to-table and local sourcing but to actually do those things in an honest manner. We discussed the soil and how much I missed dining in small restaurants in villages in Europe where the food tasted of the surrounding hills and pastures and valleys. I was happy, glad to have finally met Rucker and relieved that the stories about his temper and antics seemed nothing but exaggerations. Indeed, I was excited to taste the offerings from someone whom many people who write about food in Houston have called “one of the best, most innovative chefs” in the city.
All that changed about 10 minutes later. I had ordered the squash blossom beignets stuffed with goat cheese. I love chèvre and squash blossoms, and was curious to see what Rucker would do with them. They came to the table, and I bit into the first one. I found it a bit dry and bland. I asked for some salt, thinking that would be the simplest thing to add to the mix. The bartender had none on hand, so he went to the pass and asked Rucker for some. “Who the fuck wants salt!” the chef yelled. I raised my hand, confident in my palate and desire for salt. The bartender returned with a small bowl of it, and I sprinkled the beignets sparingly. It improved them, though it did nothing for their dryness. I told the bartender — who throughout the evening was professional and welcoming (plus, he mixed a great Dark and Stormy) — I had not meant to cause any problems. He replied, “The stereotypes ring true.” I did not bother telling him about the demanding, perfectionist chefs I have known and worked for in New York and Paris and Spain and Germany, who would never have yelled in front of diners or knowingly caused a guest discomfort. (Yelling in the kitchen is another matter.) I decided not to recount a dinner at Joël Robuchon in Paris during which I requested some salt for a rouget and was offered three varieties (I opted for the Maldon).
I finished my first course, then went to the men’s room. As I returned to the bar, I walked over to the pass and attempted to speak with Rucker, thinking his outburst was for show, a convivial wink at me. “No disapproval, chef, just thought they needed a little something,” I said —my way of disarming the situation. Before the final word was out of my mouth, he brushed past me brusquely, mouth closed, his shoulder brushing me as he strode by. That was the last I saw of him. I took my seat at the bar and waited on my pork butt and dumplings. It arrived, the broth and peas good, the dumplings too dry and heavy. I paid my bill and left.
I am still glad I met Randy Rucker in person, and I enjoyed our brief conversation. I sincerely hope that Bramble is a success and that he puts out good and honest food. I am not so sure, however, that I will want to taste it a second time. I, too, cook for paying guests, and while not one of them has ever asked me for salt at the table, if that ever happens, I will provide it happily, confident of my skills and hospitality.