The Next Big Celebrity Chef? This Former Gang Member
These days, Fernando Ruiz sells steaks rather than smack.
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These days, Fernando Ruiz sells steaks rather than smack.
Fifteen years ago, Chef Fernando Ruiz was ready to give up cooking, go home to Phoenix and jump back into the dope game. But his wife, Michelle Romero, wasn’t having it. “You can’t,” she told him. “You know exactly what’s going to happen.”
Ruiz spent three and a half years locked up in Arizona for gun and drug charges, earning his GED while incarcerated and going straight to culinary school upon his release in 1997. But with few prospects, Ruiz felt like he’d gone to school for nothing. “I never in a million years thought I was going to be a chef,” Ruiz says. “I was like: Fuck this. I’m not making no money.”
He’d just quit his job at Martini’z, a little mom-and-pop bar in Española, New Mexico, and was spending his days sitting on the couch playing PlayStation and thinking about returning to a life of crime. So Michelle got Fernando dressed up, drove him an hour and a half into Santa Fe and asked him where he wanted to work.
They drove to the high-end steakhouse Rio Chama. After Ruiz retrieved an application, Michelle made him fill it out in the car and take it right back in. After he didn’t hear back, she pushed him to take the initiative. Ruiz set up an interview and was hired as a line cook.
This marked the beginning of Ruiz’s career as a chef. After rising to sous-chef at Rio Chama, he’s managed multiple restaurants, designed menus and entrees, and won Food Network competition cooking shows Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. Now he’s executive chef at The Lodge and Ranch at Chama in northern New Mexico, where he specializes in modern Southwestern cuisine featuring elk, bison, trout, quail and the choicest steaks.
The hardest thing for me was to stop selling drugs.
Chef Fernando Ruiz
“I just keep pushing and pushing,” Romero, his wife of 17 years, says. “I know he’s capable of a lot more. He’s really like the phoenix coming up from the ashes. He started at the bottom and it just kept going from there.”
Ruiz, 41, decided to become a chef while working as a cook in the prison chow hall. He figured it was one of the only careers where he could make decent money without a college education, but he never imagined he’d be competing in shows on the Food Network — much less win three of them.
A friend recommended Ruiz seek out an application to go on the shows, but he sat on it until, once again, his wife intervened and made sure he applied. “My goal was always not to be the first chef to go home,” Ruiz says. “I didn’t sign up for this, but I’m glad it’s happening the way it is.”
As a kid moving back and forth between Phoenix and Guaymas, Sonora, in Mexico, Ruiz learned by watching his mom, dad and grandparents do everything from pit cook to butcher animals. But at the age of 13, he jumped into a gang. He took and sold drugs with abandon, getting shot at regularly. “I thought it was cool: guns, drugs, money, women, cars and hotel rooms,” he says. “You’ve got to get out of that element. The hardest thing for me was to stop selling drugs.”
By the age of 19, Ruiz was hardened. It didn’t matter what he did, who he hurt, who he robbed. Most of his homeboys from that era are either incarcerated or dead. In retrospect, he’s kind of glad he went to prison but admits he wasn’t a saint when he walked out of jail. He got violent when necessary to survive.
“Succeeding after prison all too often is about giving former prisoners the opportunity to try,” says Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and a former prisoner. Given that prisoners often learn culinary skills on the inside, the food industry can be a viable path. Brian J. Kelly, a senior federal probation officer in New York City, says nonprofits and job training centers can often help with training and certification in areas like safety and food handling, as well as job placement. “It provides a skill set that someone can carry with them for the rest of their life, and the ability to earn legitimate income no matter their age, geographic location, etc.,” Kelly says.
Ruiz’s location proved fortunate. Most places wouldn’t give a Mexican American former gang member a second glance, let alone a job. The Lodge at Chama isn’t one of those places.
Yvonne Sandoval, The Lodge’s president and general manager, knew Ruiz’s rap sheet when she hired him. “For us, we looked past all the bad experiences that he’s had. You’re either going to stay stuck in the prison, the drugs and everything else, or you’re going to try and better yourself.”
Sandoval says the dependable, outgoing chef goes out of his way to take care of customers, rather than question them. “We’ve had many chefs over the years,” Sandoval says. “I’ve been here for 26 years and for the type of Southwestern food that we do, he’s been the best that we’ve had. Anything that comes out of the kitchen, he takes pride in.”
The traditional Mexican entree that Ruiz deployed to beat Bobby Flay, chiles en nogada, is a dish from the 1800s that combines the Mexican flag’s colors — red, white and green. “To be able to beat him, kind of at his own game, at his own style of cooking, Southwestern Mexican, and for it to be a unanimous decision on the judges’ part, blew me away,” Ruiz says.
Since the show aired in March, Ruiz has been inundated with offers. “I didn’t know what to do,” Ruiz says. “I wanted to leave. I wanted to [head for] the mountains and hide for 30 days. I never thought this was going to happen.”
With a blessing from Sandoval — “She’s letting me do what I need to do, which is fucking cool,” — Ruiz is pursuing more TV opportunities and guest appearances across the nation. He’s also working on his own line of custom-made kitchen knives, the weapon of choice for his new life.
Read more: This ex-con is bringing prison life to a screen near you.