Owner and chef at RouXbarb, Bruce Bogartz has won an unprecedented fifth straight Best Chef award in the Metro Pulse reader-voted Best of Knoxville awards (see the complete listings). In such a volatile business, how does he remain the favorite of local foodies?
Do you still cook at RouXbarb, or just advise?
I cook every day. That's partially because I'm a perfectionist, and partially a requirement of having a small infrastructure. I cook lunch and dinner most days, and desserts, and prep and special stuff.
What's "special stuff"?
We have a core menu, but then I have things based on whim and special requests and what's best in the market that I put together on the spur of the moment. I have to buy super-reinforced chef's pants because I fly by the seat of them every day.
Are you still doing Shack In the Back?
We are serving lunch Tuesday-Friday, but due to city regulations it's now being served in the front. It's more of a diverse menu now, like smoked pecan gnocchi, a po' boy of the day, old-school fried chicken. Barbecue is the backbone, but the goal is, anyone who gets in here, we'll try to accommodate them.
Why do you have such a soft spot for vegetarians?
Forty percent of my staff is at least vegetarian-leaning, and on so many menus in town, the vegetarian is just an afterthought. It used to be pasta primavera, now it's something with a portabello. I think, "Really?" That's so '80s, like listening to the Thompson Twins. There are enough ingredients on hand that there's no excuse—I can always do something fresh and good that's vegetarian. Anything less is just weakness, a cop out. I do have to draw the line sometimes—I get outlandish requests like, "I'm a vegan who doesn't eat nightshade plants and can't have salt or sugar."
What's your most recent favorite local ingredient?
I'll go with strawberries. I love making a really quick strawberry jam and pairing it with a dessert, like key lime chess with the jam and a chantilly cream. Some strawberries right now are just like sugar bombs.
What's your current favorite seafood ingredient? Meat? Sauce?
The halibut's been wonderful this year, but I'm leaning towards the redfish. In the past, it's been way overdone with blackening, but with just salt and pepper and seared in a skillet—when it's fresh, it literally tastes like butter it's so good. It's also called spottail bass, and it ain't tilapia, the fake fish of fish. For meat, I'd say lamb right now—who doesn't like the cliche of spring lamb? We've been doing some fun things with lamb in the smoker, and rack of lamb on the weekend. Sauce, we make everything from scratch, and I'm always a fan of stock-based sauce; they're most simple and flavorful. I'm doing lots of warm vinaigrettes. One favorite is duck rubbed in curry salt and smoked, and then finished with rhubarb strawberry mustard. It's an amazing marriage of flavors. I can't believe I just said marriage and amazing in the same sentence.
Who's voting for you?
Customers. Some of the votes are unexpected; I get responses from people I haven't seen in a long time, but they still tell me, "I haven't found a chef who can touch you." I do think I have a mental palate—that's the source of my inspiration. But it's not rocket science. I'm not one of those chefs who's a friggin' rock star and then you're at their restaurant and you're like, "Where's the great food?" I just try for really good ingredients and give them a little respect.
Are you influenced by the BOK award in the off-season?
I think about it occasionally, particularly when I still have to struggle to pay the bills. But awards aren't my motivation for doing what I do: I have an 11-year-old daughter to get through high school.
Would you want her to work with food?
I wouldn't mind it being part of her makeup—right now it's hard to imagine her wanting to work that hard. I can't imagine doing anything else, and I love doing it, but there's so much B.S. involved. The city behaves like it's Warsaw, with so many requirements that keep little businesses down. But then I've also got great customers I serve several times a month. And it's cool to take a raw product and do something special with it.
If I can stay in business, there are a few things I'd like to do. I'd love to do a desserts-only concept, a real old ice-cream parlor type of place with indulgent desserts. A Jewish deli lingers in the back of my mind. I have lots of ideas—I just need to put some folks together who have some money. This is a tough town: Without having money, it's tough to make money.