Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Someone's in the Kitchen with Rhonda

Ronda Ruckman joined the Link Restaurant Group in August of 2010 as Executive Pastry Chef for all four restaurants in the Link empire, with a fifth on the way (Cochon Lafayette). A native of New Orleans, Ruckman is turning out elegant, seasonal desserts, while still always innovating; See Exhibit A: The Butcher Mini King Cakes which swept across the city like a summer afternoon thunderstorm. Recently Ruckman was kind enough to sit down for an interview. So let's put 20ish questions on the clock and get to know the chef whose chocolate chip cookies are the best in the world. Recipes later in week.

Was at LSU, quit college for a semester and started cooking at a tea room inside Fireside Antiques in Baton Rouge. Washed dishes, salads, made sandwiches, that kind of stuff. Then saw an ad for an entry level prep and pantry position at Juban's.

Wanted to stay in desserts and hoped to work with Norman Love, who at that time was cooking at a Ritz-Carlton in Florida. So I picked up the phone and called him. I got to talk to him because employees of the Ritz are not allowed to screen calls. Frankly, I got lucky. The day I called they had an opening in pastry. So I moved to Florida. Later, I  went to Los Angeles and was sous chef for Donald Russell at the Four Seasons. Left the Four Seasons, to open a retail bakery in Florida called Dough Monkey. Eventually, moved that business to Dallas.

When the economy tanked, Dough Monkey fell with it. We closed Dough Monkey in 2008. I was looking for an executive pastry chef gig. Ended up working at a country club. One day I was looking on a headhunter site and, again pure luck, crazy luck, there popped an ad for executive pastry chef position with Link Restaurant Group. I had always been a fan of Chef Link so it was a thrilling opportunity to cook for him at the try out.

I start with a restaurant. For instance, Herbsaint is the fine dining restaurant. So there I can work with a more complicated flavor profile. At Cochon, I want my desserts to have a comfort factor, a good combination of something warm like blueberry cobbler and something cold like ice cream. At Calcasieu, we often use desserts that mirror Cochon's desserts, but we also field plenty of special requests.

Not sure about food allergies. Never really had any personally nor any limitations. So if someone has an allergy, I always want to accommodate them immediately. Something deeper is going on though, if someone doesn't want to try something.

Often times we create by improvising. Say we run out of a specific ingredient, we sub something else and discover a new dessert. For instance, I have a dough recipe that calls for honey. Recently we ran out of honey and subbed in molasses, which in turn pushed the dough into a much more interesting flavor direction. Or I play with ratios, I'll sub out cream or sugar in a vanilla recipe and replace it with blackberry puree. And see what happens.

Cupcakes. However, before I offend anyone, know that my dislike of the cupcake trend is because I prefer a wedge of cake. Better proportions, better to eat, cake cooks better. A piece of cake is just better than a cupcake. May take cupcakes off the menu at Butcher

Chef and I have talked extensively about that. I understand where both Chef Link and Chef Stephen are coming from. I feel comfortable with flavors of this region. We follow seasonality and tend to rotate at least one dessert per restaurant per month. Soon peaches will get in and I will start working with them. You can go elegant with peaches or simple. I like that. But sometimes, I just want an ice cream sandwich.

Both a science and a skill. You miss a detail in baking and it will be wrong.

When I first started cooking, I went to Charlie Trotter's and had sweetbreads for the first time. That bite of food showed me what food can be. Then, first time I went to Cochon when it had been open about a year, I had the deep fried boudin and it just blew me away. That bite took me right back to my childhood.

Chocolate pudding cake. It is just so versatile and delicious. The rich, warm and moist cake lends itself to all sorts of things. First, we paired it with a cafe au lait ice cream. Now we use a salted caramel sauce and cashew ice cream. I love to make that dessert. I love to eat that dessert. I am a chocolate freak and that dessert uses Patrick Chocolate, which I think is the best chocolate in the world.

You want daily examples? (laughs) There are always ideas that don't work, but I tend not to dwell on them. I get mad and cut my losses. Recently, I tried to make a sausage cheese in brioche King Cake with Steen's glaze. When Stephen tried it, he just got this quizzical look on his face that said it all. I just could never get that idea to come together.

I like making pralines. If I am making pralines, it means everyone else is working on other things. And that they are working correctly. We have a solid system in place and when it is humming along, I can devote time to that pot of pralines. That is where I like to be in the kitchen.

Small offset spatula. I use it for everything from transporting things to icing cakes. There is a cake tester I really like. I also have an enormous chocolate knife that I love to use. It is huge. Wow, I can't believe I have favorite kitchen tools.

Real Cajun and the CIA Pastry book. The CIA book is the best for reference whenever I need a simple ratio. I go on the internet a lot as well. Cooks Illustrated's website is one of my favorites. I have a lot of cookbooks at home. My husband reminded me of this when we moved here.

Didn't have a favorite after school snack. I was a skinny kid, but have always enjoyed making cookies. They are easy for me to whip out. I make a snickerdoodle with this leatherwood honey from Tasmania. They are pretty amazing. But I am running low on the honey so I hoard it.

Snickers. I know they aren't good, but I love those things. Also, I am pregnant so I find myself craving those Drumstick Ice Cream Cones all the time. I am going to find a way to make that a real dessert.

Good flavor; not subtle and certainly not sweet. I want a dessert to be on the bold side. First and foremost, chocolate desserts need to taste like chocolate. Too often chocolate desserts are too sweet. If the flavor is there, I then want to see was it done correctly. In a creme brulee, is the custard cooked correctly? Flavor and technique make a great dessert.

If home cook really wants to pursue baking, try it more than once. Ovens vary. Learn to bake by sight and touch.

The key to the chocolate chip cookies is to melt the butter before creaming it with the sugar. But the real secret to any great cookie is the baking time. Trial runs are important. Cook the cookie, just until it is golden on the edges. Allow it to rest. Those chocolate chip cookies are also good with pecans. 

We eat at Butcher a lot (laughs). But I love small places with unexpected good food. Avenue Pub has a pleasantly nice cheeseburger. Parasol's is really tearing it up right now. The chef in there is from Mamou and he is learning to cook with confidence, his roast beef is exceptional and his gumbo is really good. Very good burgers as well. I am in love with the roast beef po-boy from Parkway. La Divina is always my gelato and espresso fix, when I could drink coffee. Man, I need to get out more.


Celeste said...

Agree completely about the inferiority of cupcakes! A slice of layer cake is so much nicer: better proportion, balance, texture.

Meghan said...

Are the questions missing? Is it my computer? Or am I just dumb?

Pontchartrain Pete said...

Is she the genius behind the bacon pralines? If so, I bow in her direction. If not, the king cake and cookies remain bow-worthy. That is all.

Blackened Out said...


Questions were left out on purpose. It is not you computer and you are not dumb.


Those bacon pralines have been around from about day one at Butcher and Rhonda started last August. But she does make them now.

Anonymous said...

She makes a mean stuffed pretzel as well!

Meghan said...

Where are those recipes you promised?