He may not be a movie star, but local chef David Ruiz enjoys celebrity status nonetheless. Not only has he appeared on Food Network’s wildly popular show “Chopped,” he was recently named a winner in the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Blended Burger Project. Chef Ruiz, who is only 32 years old, is a budding talent in the food world.
Ruiz grew up in the Bay Area, and knew he wanted to be a chef by age 10. His grandma had a farm in Gilroy, Calif., (an agricultural town famous for its garlic and onions) and to Ruiz, the farm was a paradise filled with herbs, jalapeños, tomatillos and avocado trees. His grandma also had livestock, so he was exposed to the realities of where meat comes from at a young age. Although it was difficult for him to eat a duck on the farm he had named Buford, he accepted this as one of the realities of farm life. Ruiz says that both his grandmothers were instrumental in shaping his interest in food, and that “my fondest memories are centered around the kitchen table.”
About six years ago Ruiz moved to Albuquerque, and has since fallen in love with New Mexico. In that short time he’s found massive success as a chef. In 2015 he started 505 Food Fights, a food competition that brought local chefs together to form community and to raise money for charitable organizations. In three years 505 Food Fights raised over $85,000 for charity. Ruiz also worked at the reputable Pueblo Harvest in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where he crafted “New Native American” cuisine. This was basically a menu centered around pre-European contact foods such as buffalo, duck, turkey, pheasant, corn, squash and indigenous rice. He worked with several local Native American farmers to source the ingredients for the unique menu. Ruiz also incorporated a youth program at the restaurant: Pueblo Indian youth earned internships to work in the Pueblo Harvest kitchen, and Ruiz hired several interns to stay on long term.
New opportunities recently led Ruiz to Toltec Brewing Company, which opened in May of this year. He felt he had maximized his talent at Pueblo Harvest, and was excited by Toltec’s owner’s desire to have a professional chef oversee the kitchen. Ruiz created the menu at Toltec and helped design the kitchen, which speaks to a level of freedom and control that not many chefs have at their restaurants. His creative juices flow freely in this new environment; he is currently experimenting with fermenting vegetables. Ruiz is excited by the prospect of an Albuquerque brewery being highlighted not only for its beer, but also for its food. It appears that the menu is attracting customers; when I visited Toltec on a Wednesday afternoon every booth in the joint was filled with diners. On a side note, Toltec has the only all-female brew staff in the state. It’s such a perk to enjoy good beer and food at the same location.
Prominent on the menu at Toltec are their burgers, and one especially stands out. The Royale is the creation that won Ruiz the James Beard Award. It’s no surprise this burger is so popular since it’s stacked with delicious ingredients, including a half pound beef brisket, crimini mushrooms, chipotle mayo, green chile, aged white cheddar, bacon, a fried egg and heirloom tomato. The James Beard Award is the highest honor for a chef, and since earning this accolade Ruiz has gained unprecedented exposure and recognition. Many people have reached out to him for advice and consultation on their own culinary careers. Ruiz hopes to help transform the image of Albuquerque from that of “Breaking Bad” to a place to visit for its fabulous restaurants and breweries. As a part of this effort, Toltec recently started offering Craft Course Wednesdays. For a mere 20 bucks, patrons get a 3 course meal paired with 3 beers. Menu details are posted on social media on Sundays.
Through speaking with Ruiz and looking at his accomplishments, one can see that he is a chef with a conscience. He has supported local farmers throughout his career, and still buys all his beef from a rancher in Ruidoso and sources local eggs and produce from the South Valley and surrounding farms. He enjoys working with youth and providing rewarding career opportunities to them. He’s raised money for charity and he wants to attract people to Albuquerque for the right reasons. If more local celebrities had such soul, Ruiz’s vision of a transformed Albuquerque might come about sooner or later.