Chef News

Lenard Rubin on Cooking at a Country Club and Winning Western Region Chef of the Year

It was heartbreak that led Lenard Rubin, the executive chef at the Country Club at DC Ranch, to the culinary arts.

“I had a girlfriend in Rhode Island who was going to school in Boston,” he recalls of his college days. “I got a job in Boston at the Ritz, as the café runner, and I went over to my girlfriend’s to tell her about my new job and she was with another guy. I thought, I can go back home or I can stay in Boston and work at this restaurant.”

Rubin stayed, and went on to be an excellent café runner — whatever that is.

“It’s someone who runs up and down three flights of stairs all day,” he says with a laugh. “The Ritz had a main dining room upstairs and a café downstairs, and the open kitchen was in between. My job was to bring the food up or down for the waiters.”

 Rubin went on to executive chef gigs at the Wigwam and the Ritz-Carlton, and launched the local chain of The Vig restaurants; he’s still a partner in The Vig Uptown. He signed on with DC Ranch in 2013.

“I never went to culinary school,” he says. “I have no formal training, other than a certification program at Beringer Vineyards in Napa. I moved up through the French classical hierarchy of a kitchen at the Ritz in Boston, which turned out to be a great way to learn every part of how to run a kitchen — the whole atmosphere and camaraderie of putting together food. It turned out I had a real knack for it.”

He certainly does. Rubin has racked up an impressive list of culinary awards — most recently the 2016 American Culinary Federation Western Region Chef of the Year, which he received in February at the ACF Western Regional Culinary Salon held in Reno. He won with a smoked maple-scented breast of pheasant and a medley of chestnuts, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, micro carrots, pearl onions, and lardoons. He’s also been inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame.

Rubin’s cramming now to compete for the national title against his regional counterparts at a competition this July in Phoenix. If he bags that, he’ll receive $5,000 and the title of 2016 U.S.A.’s Chef of the Year. In the meantime, there’s his day job. Chef Rubin admits that cooking for country club guests is a challenge, although he swears it’s a welcome one.

“When you’re trying to please people in their 30s who want the cool new stuff they’ve eaten at St. Francis, and also people in their 70s who want just a steak on a plate, you really have to be on your game.”

Rather than creating a menu that’s either super cool or too conservative, Rubin strikes a balance, by making what he calls “in-between food — it’s recognizable food that isn’t stuck in any cooking trend.”

Rubin says he makes a good gumbo, which may be his most popular entrée item. His signature dish is an appetizer portion of what he calls “Mexican street corn made easy.” He roasts the corn, cuts it off the cob, and mixes it with lime mayo and chipotle powder, then plates it in the shape of an ear of roasted corn. “Street corn is great, but when you’re cooking for a country club, you don’t want to offer food that runs down your chin.”

When Rubin isn’t training for his next competition or coming up with tidy ways to eat corn, he’s trying to convince his 11-year-old daughter to consider a wider variety of food.

“She has a very narrow palate,” Rubin admits. “But I’m hopeful. The other day she told me she likes chicken curry.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela