Local chef explores the cuisines of the world, one season at a time

Published 9:41 pm Friday, August 21, 2015

FEATURE RichardRuben-1


When dining in other parts of the world, the cuisines of various countries become something of an acquired taste to the tourists who visit. Seasoned travelers of the world eventually become accustomed to the various dishes peppered in from other cultures.

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Chef Richard Ruben, a native of New York City and now a resident of Columbus, incorporates the various cuisines of other nations into his diet, which is constantly evolving.

A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Ruben grows 90 percent of the food he eats in the garden and, based on the current season, will shake up his diet based on what’s best to grow during that time of year.

“From late May to about October with the first frost, I’m about 90 percent self-contained,” Ruben said. “That’s vegetables mainly. I don’t have any meats or chickens. I’m not allowed to have chickens otherwise I’d collect my own eggs. I had to go to the farmers market for corn because I can’t grow it since it takes up too much room. I go to the market to augment what I can’t grow.”

At the time of this writing, Ruben’s garden is supplying tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, string beans, zucchini and eggplant for him to eat. These vegetables are the peak summer vegetables for Ruben.

“When you grow things yourself, you also see the plant’s maturation,” Ruben said. “When is it going to come? What weather conditions are going to do its maturation? My background was in catering so I would do groups of 50 to 1,000 people and those events didn’t come in a month before but many months before so I was totally out of season when I was designing the menu.”

Data collection became useful to Ruben as a caterer when events came in months down the road.

“You needed to forecast what was available at the time of the event and forecast potential prices because if you have bad weather it’s going to increase the prices,” Ruben said. “So I did of this data collection out of necessity and, as I began traveling the world, it became useful.”

Ruben is also a cookbook author, having penned “The Farmer’s Market Cookbook” in 2000, while also being a food consultant for brands such as Apple, Unilever and Oxygen Media.


“I’ve cooked for Steve Jobs and he had a very specific, vegan menu,” Ruben said. “He was very difficult. He was a very driven, specific man. He saw food as part of his presentation and was incredibly aesthetic as a human being.”

Cooking food is not a hobby for Ruben. He says it is his passion, along with opening people’s eyes to new tastes and flavors.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a jack-of-all-trades since it is very specific. My passion is really getting people excited about new things,” Ruben said. “My whole thing is getting people to try things they have never tried before, hopefully with a free mind, and getting rid of the prejudices around food. The more you can say ‘yes’, the healthier you are.”

Ruben elaborated on the prejudices surrounding food by bringing up tofu as an example of a food that, to him, is virtually waiting to be experimented with.

“Take tofu for example and most people will curl their noses,” Ruben said. “For me, it’s just a blank slate with almost a neutral presentation. What do you do with it? How do you play with it? If you just take it, you might not like it. It’s more about getting people to see things for their possibility and not ‘I don’t like it,’ out of the gate. I totally don’t like things, but I try it first. We’re a country rife with disease around food.”

Because he’s acquainted himself with many different international cuisines over the years, Ruben says he can’t pick just one favorite.

“That’s such a bad question for me because eating is both a physical and emotional thing,” Ruben said. “I don’t just have one favorite, I have many favorites. It’s all about the more you say ‘yes.’ Would I want to try sea urchins again? No, because I don’t like the texture. It was not one of my favorite meals to take down.”

Through cooking, Ruben says he’s giving people an opportunity with his food and his desire for people to be more open-minded.

“For me, since I cook, I am offering people a possibility to live longer or die sooner,” Ruben said. “You can choose which way you want to go and my choice is to give the possibility to live longer.”

Monica Stevenson is a photographer from New York living in Tryon who has been friends with Ruben for almost a year and a student in some of his cooking classes. Despite this short time together, Stevenson said she and Ruben are like-minded individuals.

“We’re new friends and we’re professional collaborators,” Stevenson said. “I would say we’re kinda like kindred spirits and we see eye to eye on a lot of things and definitely have an artistic sensitivity that is very synthetic.”

Stevenson elaborated on her connection to Ruben by describing her mind as an artist compared to his as a chef, drawing on the similarities of the two fields.

“I’m an artist and I’m very creatively active and so my mind is always whirring,” Stevenson said. “His mind is always whirring and so that’s why we’re kind of drawn to each other. He just opened my eyes because for him the food is the paint of his pallet and he’s made me see things I may not have necessarily seen. He’s a shining light.”

There is a connection Stevenson said she feels to Ruben due to her being a photographer that stems from sharing her experiences as an artist to the chef.

“The connection that we share is from one extroverted artist to another,” Stevenson said. “He loves to talk about what he does and I love to hear what other artists do as well as talk about what I do and so we’re really interested in each other’s crafts.”

Johanna Fowler is one of Ruben’s clients in his personal chef services and said she has had him make food for a week for her visiting family.

“Richard is a very talented chef who has an uncanny ability to serve up fresh, local, seasonal, organic foods with the most delightful blends of colors, tastes and attributes,” Fowler said. “It often seems as though he is equipped with his own personal internal food alchemy gyroscope which in a matter of moments spent at the farmers market can brainstorm the most delicious fare from the available fresh offerings.”

Based on his experience and perspectives on food, Fowler said Ruben is a wonderful chef to collaborate with to bring food to her family’s table.

“His international experience and sophisticated viewpoints combined with his wonderful sense of humor make him a wonderful chef to collaborate with in the search for foods that are best for each person’s particular health and nutrient needs,” Fowler said.

After graduating from culinary school, Ruben spent the next two decades traveling and cooking in countries like Japan and Australia while also spending time in California and New York.

“As an American, they want you to have an American cuisine brought to them because that’s exotic for them,” Ruben said. “They want your perspective from your homeland because everything is exotic when you take it out of its origin.”

Ruben was taught by the Japanese to hold back with his palate as sometimes one added flavor might be louder and more distinctive than the entire dish.

“The Japanese taught me to hold back and realize that a single note sometimes sings louder and clearer than this cacophony of flavors and is just as enjoyable,” Ruben said. “In Australia, it was like being in San Francisco again because Australia and northern California have similar styles of food. They don’t have the Caribbean influence that we do though. It’s more Asian, Scottish, German and Italian over there.”

The continent of Africa is the only place Ruben has not been to yet. He said he wants to visit the continent to get a deconstruction of the new world cuisine brought over by the slave trade that originated there in the 1600s.

“I’m a very curious person, whether it be arts, politics or anything really,” Ruben said. “I would be a fool not to dig in your pantry while I’m somewhere else because I just want to know your perspective on things. A family in Bali taught me how to use condensed milk in tea because they didn’t have refrigeration and it was amazing.”

This line of exploration is defined as food anthropology by Ruben and piques his curiosity of the cuisines of other parts of the world.

“There a few universities like NYU and Oregon State, I think, that offer a syllabus on this course,” Ruben said. “It’s a new field of study, for sure, but it’s fascinating. Everyone eats all over the world and everyone eats in a community. If I’m going to move something forward, I would like to know where it came from in order to honor its past and have enough power to move it forward.”

All of the research Ruben does both in his backyard and across the world fuels his passion to know more and teach others about food.

“I do an art form that is destined for destruction and I do an art form that everybody can do at various levels. I love to teach,” Ruben said. “It’s beyond a hobby, it’s part of my passion and part of my reason for doing food. Getting people to do things and try things is about teaching. Food for me is very real and tangible. It’s my life.”


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