Doug Ruley still remembers the day when Jude McDonald, owner of the now-defunct Jude’s Diner on Main Street in Newark, pulled him aside and told him she saw something in the young cook, that “he had talent and loved it so he should go to culinary school.”
Ruley, who is today the corporate chef for SoDel Concepts with responsibility for all culinary operations, had worked at the beach as a teenager in various restaurants, including the Country Squire in Rehoboth Beach next to the boardwalk (“I was a busboy, a server, and then one day a chef didn’t show up for work so I went back there and never left.”)
So Ruley left UD three years into his degree program for Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island for two years, where his commencement speaker was fabled chef Julia Child. He headed to South Carolina after college for a six-month internship that turned into a full year, taking a boat to work every day.
Ruley moved back to Delaware in 1996 to take a job at the brand-new Iron Hill Brewery on Main Street. He stayed for 10 years, including five as the restaurant’s executive chef. In his time there, Iron Hill won five consecutive Best Restaurant Awards from DBT’s sister publication Delaware Today.
But the beach had always been a huge magnet for Ruley, and he and wife Lisa decided to sell their house in Odessa to move to Fenwick Island in April 2006 at the behest of SoDel’s owner, the late Matt Haley, and Ruley became executive chef at Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar, ultimately helping grow SoDel Concepts’ restaurant empire, one location at a time.
“Every day here is different. Opportunities just kept appearing. I kept rolling with the punches and kept moving forward,” he says. “In culinary school, we set out goals. Mine was to be a sous chef by age 35 … and I thought that was wishful thinking. But I was the executive chef at Iron Hill at age 28.”
Under Ruley’s guidance, SoDel’s restaurants regularly win Best Of awards. He was recently named Best Chef in Sussex County by Coastal Style magazine and has been the featured chef at the prestigious James Beard House four times (five if you count his upcoming dinner on Dec. 13).
He also ran a chef boot camp in Montana centered around ways to reduce the 40% of food that’s thrown away in restaurants. He has also made sure that all of SoDel’s restaurants are compliant with the James Bear Foundation’s Smart Catch initiative, which is an educational sustainable seafood program.
Ruley says his job today is “a lot of operational work, but I do set aside time to go into kitchens and cook. It’s not orders from the dining rooms; it’s research and development and menu design. You need to be among employees and the people you’re mentoring. I want to give them whatever they need, but you will find me fixing faucets and fixing menu items if someone says they don’t like it.”
When I’m at home, I normally cook tacos a couple times a week and every once in a while, a big steak on my flat-top in the garage. People think living with a chef must be great, but we do a lot of cooking in the restaurant. I cook at home with nice ingredients but it’s quick — a dozen ears of corn, a steak and some tomatoes.
The lessons that I’ve learned over the years that I’ve brought to both my work and home cooking are you have to stay a step or two ahead. Less is always more. Overthinking is the root of all problems.
The thing most people notice first about my kitchen is my misfit plate collection. I have accumulated quite an array of plate samples from opening restaurants.
The kitchen tools I can’t live without are my microplane and rice cooker. Microplanes are usually used for woodworking but chefs use them for shaving cheeses, garlic and zesting lemons and oranges. My rice cooker is great because you can set it and forget it.
In my pantry, you will find Texas Pete Hot sauce, great olive oil and sea salt.
In my freezer you can usually find tater tots. It’s a guilty pleasure and even better the next day when you make tater tot “hash browns” with eggs.
The one thing I have to serve at every family get-together is Anson Mill’s Pencil Cob Grits. They are so versatile with whatever protein I am serving. Always a crowd-pleaser and again go great with eggs the next day.
The best meal I have ever had was at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Charlie was very hospitable and when I ran out of film, he sent someone down the street to buy me a new throwaway camera. The whole roasted squab with sage-infused morel mushroom consommé was ridiculous, along with the Hawaiian pineapple sorbet.
My time in Delaware has made me a better chef because Delaware has great natural resources. As a chef I have grown to appreciate our farms and bountiful seafood. Coastal Delaware is a great place to be a chef.
My cooking mentor was Matt Haley was and he still is my mentor. The eight years we spent together helped me develop into the chef I am today. From mindset to technique, you learned from Matt not knowing that you are learning. It was just a natural process being around him.
When I entertain, I like to make something hearty and classic. Gumbo in the fall is always great. While it takes a bit of skill to execute, you do all the work beforehand and let it simmer as guests arrive, making it look effortless. Those Pencil Cob Grits pair well as does a nice egg.
Most difficult thing to cook/create in the kitchen? I have made one spot-on cheesecake in my life and I have the pictures to prove it! But that’s it. All other attempts have been epic fails. Cheesecake has my number!
Chef Ruley's Gumbo with Lobster, Dirty Grits and Sunny Egg
1 cup clarified butter
1 cup flour
4 ounces tomato paste
1 diced Spanish onion
4 diced stalks celery
1 diced large green bell pepper
4 minced cloves garlic
1 cup sliced fresh okra
3 to 5 quarts lobster stock
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon gumbo file powder
1 teaspoon blackening spice
(black pepper, smoked paprika,
cayenne, oregano, thyme, chili powder)
1 ounce Worcestershire
1 ounce hot sauce
1 pound fresh lobster meat
Salt and pepper
Start to make the roux by adding the butter to a heavy-bottom pot at high heat. Next whisk the flour slowly until well incorporated. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the roux is a deep toasty brown. Add the onions and stir until slightly browned. Next add the blackening spice and tomato paste and stir. Turn up the heat to medium and add the garlic, celery, okra and bell pepper. Add bay leaves and thyme. Continue to whisk slowly add the stock. Whisk until there are no lumps. Bring back to a boil then back down to a low simmer. Let simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce. Add lobster at the last minute and allow to heat all the way through.
2 cups quick cooking white grits
2 quarts lobster stock
8 ounces smoked andouille sausage
8 ounces smoked cheddar
Handful minced scallion
Bring stock to a hard simmer, stirring occasionally until grits are done.
Add sausage, cheddar and scallions.
I would serve the gumbo with Dirty grits (fried andouille, smoked cheddar, scallion). Basically, dice and pan fry the andouille as the grits and gumbo are cooking. Once the grits are cooked I would add shredded smoked cheddar, fried andouille and scallion. Just before plating I would cook sunny-side eggs Right after I fried the andouille I would tear up a half of French baguette, toss in andouille drippings and toast. Once toasted I would garnish the top of the egg with toasted baguette crumbs for some texture. As I start the roux I would also be chopping and sautéing the veggies, heating stock for the grits. Once everything was cooking I would work on the fried andouille, smoked cheddar and garnishes. 8 minutes before plating I would fry the eggs. Plate (gumbo down first, then a scoop of grits, top grits with egg, top egg with toasted French bread crumb, garnish with cracked pepper and scallions, serve).