Unlike many of today's chefs, Daniel Rubino didn't go to culinary school, nor did he grow up in a family of good cooks, save his Italian grandmother who knew how to make all the classic Italian dishes. In fact, he says, his mother "could burn water. She could make a few tasty things, but in general, we had steak on the grill and my dad did all the grill work."
So it was by happenstance that he began a career in the culinary arts. He was washing dishes at Finnegan's Fish Market in his hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, when the head chef pointed at him and told him to take over food prep since the regular cook had arrived at work in an inebriated state.
"It was not the most fun night of cooking in my life. I was covered in burns, but they taught me for a year," Rubino says. He bounced around for a while, working under some excellent chefs who taught him different cuisines. "We'd stay after work and create new dishes till morning," he says.
At age 24, Rubino was given his first job as executive chef for Harry's Sauteuse in Larchmont, New York, and now, at 58, he's the new executive chef at Chattanooga's Camp House in the M.L. King neighborhood.
Q: What or who brought you to Chattanooga?
A: The Mission Chattanooga is an Anglican church that one of my best friends founded nine years ago. The Camp House is an outreach of that. I'd been consulting with them from the beginning when The Camp House was on the Southside. Lately, I felt I wanted to get out of the corporate chef world and the crazy New York rat race. I'd also wanted to work with young people who could use some direction and benefit from my knowledge. We employ a lot of great neighborhood young people who just needed a chance to grow and learn. It's a joy for me to work with them and move them forward in life.
Q: As a newcomer to Chattanooga, what do you think of the city's restaurant scene?
A: It's surprisingly fantastic! I love the diversity and great flavor profiles I have experienced. Main Street Meats is a favorite. We eat out five nights a week, and I've really been enjoying the restaurant scene.
Q: What's missing?
A: Chinese straight up. A real restaurant — not Chinese buffets. There are plenty of those.
Q: Do you think the MLK neighborhood will keep growing?
A: Absolutely! It's growing daily. The road improvements have been wonderful, as have the improvements to Miller Park. The road and park, combined with the great businesses along the boulevard, will continue to bring people to the area and experience the wonderful culture happening in this area. We can't wait to see what the MLK corridor will look like over the next five years.
Q: How does The Camp House differ from other restaurants in the area?
A: We are not just a coffeehouse or food eatery, although we have great coffee and tasty food. We are a cultural melting pot where people work and meet. It's got a fun and exciting vibe. We're all about creating culture, from art to music. We have lectures and concerts at night, too. In everything we do, we strive to be part of growing our community and making it a better place.
Q: You only serve two meals a day — breakfast and lunch, and brunch on the weekends. Do you ever have people urging you to serve an evening meal?
A: We have events of some sort most nights, and that is part of our mission, so it makes it almost impossible to do a regular dinner service. But, yes, we do get asked a lot.
Q: You're not very far from the Southside, and the river divides you from the North Shore. West Village is a few blocks away. What do you think draws people to The Camp House since it's not exactly in a dining destination neighborhood?
A: Our coffee, our food and our space. We serve great coffee sourced and roasted by our world-class roaster Kyle Bellinger. He's won a Good Food Award and was a runner-up in the U.S. Roaster competition. When it comes to food, I think our lunch menu is really unique and interactive, almost playful in a way. It's a three-step process where you choose your base (rice, grits, a baguette or salad), then your protein (pulled pork, chicken or roasted tofu). The last step is choosing your flavor profile (Southwestern, Pan Asian, Mediterranean or Indian. And our space sets us apart — it's big and open so you can be confident there's always a table ready for you.
Q: What spice could you not live without?
A: Salt, but also hot peppers. They're all different, and I love them.
Q: Do you try to keep up with food trends, or do you like to follow your own path?
A: I've been around awhile, but I still find it essential to constantly be reading and watching what's hot.
Q: What trend do you think is getting too much hype?
Q: Is there a famous person you'd like to cook for?
A: Yes, Bill Gates. I would love to hear about creating the Gates Foundation and the changes it's made on a global scale.
Q: What's your favorite meal of the day?
A: I like to cook hungry when my taste buds are more awake, so it would have to be dinner. In the summer, I love to grill my son's favorite food — Korean barbecue — when he is home from college. You'll use the same marinade for the pork and the cauliflower, but it tastes totally different on the cauliflower.
2 pork tenderloins
1 large head cauliflower
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons mirin sweet rice wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons Korean hot chili paste
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons water
1/2 cup mirin sweet rice wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
Clean the pork tenderloins, score each one with a paring knife and place in container or resealable plastic bag. Slice the head of cauliflower in 4 pieces like steaks, and place in separate container or resealable plastic bag. Combine all marinade ingredients, and pour over the pork and cauliflower. Allow to marinate 8 hours or overnight.
Prepare dipping sauce by combining all ingredients. Store, covered, at room temperature until ready to use.
Remove pork and tenderloin from marinade, prepare charcoal grill and grill the tenderloins to medium-rare (about 145 degrees) and the cauliflower to charred but still crisp in middle. Let the pork rest for 10 minutes under foil, then slice and serve with a slice of cauliflower and dipping sauce on the side.
Note: Korean barbecue is excellent with a side of jasmine rice topped with sliced green onions and frizzled ginger.
Contact Anne Braly at email@example.com.