Rachel Mabb: A Beer-Drinker's Chef
Sometimes a chef and the restaurant at which she cooks seem like inseparable extensions of each other. Like a great director and his most celebrated film, it would be hard to imagine the one existing without the other. Steven Spielberg and E.T.Rachel Mabb and the Ruck.
Technically, the Ruck is a pub. In practice, pubs are more than restaurants: They’re local institutions. Pubs, or public houses, are licensed to sell alcohol but have always been known primarily for their selection of beer, cider and ales (and the salty snacks that accompany them) and the atmosphere of camaraderie that they impart. Pubs can be traced back to the turn of the last millennium in Rome, but they established the identity we most associate with them during the Anglo-Saxon period (410–1066). Known as “locals,” they attract regulars because of their selection of beers, the quality of the food that accompanies those beers and the manner in which it reflects the time and place they exist.
The Ruck checks all the boxes (and thanks to Mabb, a few more).
The Ruck in Troy, tucked on 3rd Street, with majestic Victorian-era brownstones hovering under a layer of urban grime, was one of the harbingers of the DIY foodie and cultural renaissance that has swept through the city in recent years. Visitors are greeted upon entering with the dead-serious dark wood bar/brick wall/dart setup every pub wants but few have, along with 20 rotating tap lines (with esoteric, seasonal offerings like Wrench New England IPA, Hop Tang’s Imperial/Double IPA and Beer Geek Brunch Weasel’s Imperial Oatmeal Stout) and numerous indications of beer geekery (the servers are Cicerone certified, which is basically like the hophead’s version of grad school. CraftBeer.com and the Brewers Association have recognized Cicerone’s excellence on several occasions).
Opened in 1998 and taken over by David Gardell in 2004, the Ruck has always been serious about drinks (and fun). But it wasn’t until Mabb, previously a chef at some of the most innovative and cut-throat competitive restaurants in Manhattan, came on board that the Ruck became synonymous with lip-smacking eats, too. (Her White Guy Wasted tots, made with bacon, beer cheese, cheddar-jack smothered in housemade ranch, and her deep-fried pickle-brined chicken thighs are practically a lifestyle in these here parts).
Mabb arrived at the Ruck in 2013 via a circuitous route that parallels the road many of the Ruck’s regulars took to get there. It started in Brooklyn, where she was attending City College in the early ’90s.
“I was studying literature, but one night we were at an Italian restaurant and I asked for cream for my coffee,” Mabb recalls over coffee on a recent morning at the Ruck, as she prepped for her busy night ahead. “She said she didn’t have any, and I asked her how that was possible if she had fettuccine alfredo on her menu? The friend I was with just asked me why I wasn’t a chef.”
Mabb realized her friend had a point: She’d put herself through school by cooking late nights at a restaurant in Park Slope, she cooked for friends and family whenever she had spare time, she inevitably ended up in the kitchen at parties, cranking out snacks. A few months later, she enrolled in New York Restaurant School. Part of the training entailed working “stages” or internships in restaurants. She scored one at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s JoJo on the Upper East Side in 1994, a position that turned into a job.
“At that point, being a woman in the kitchen was kind of a novelty,” Mabb remembers. “Most women, if they were there, were in pastry. But there are advantages. At JoJo’s another sauté chef and I joked that we got our jobs because we could fit in between the burly guys on the line.”
Then she had her daughter, Isly (who is now 21 years old and studying in Amsterdam). She jumped around, working for Anita Lo, Floyd Cardoz and others, cobbling together random catering gigs. Why? So she could spend time with her daughter, still pay the bills and find fulfillment professionally.
The triumvirate of life-career-financial success is a tough one to achieve for anyone, but for a single parent, it’s even harder. Mabb was without a network of support or the kind of income that makes living in New York City as a single mom feasible.
“In those days, we were making $9.50 an hour for the first 50 hours, and my hours were crazy,” Mabb says. “I’d be picking up my daughter from the babysitter’s at 2 a.m., trying to map out our life and schedule week-to-week.”
In addition to the logistical challenges, she says she was up against the kind of run-of-the-mill sexism that was par for the course just a few decades ago.
“Thankfully, the culture of toleration has changed,” Mabb says. “I came up learning to sidestep bad behavior and try to flip it to my advantage. But I definitely lost opportunities just because I was a woman. I had to double down and give 150% whereas men could put in 100% and get by.”
Her mother, meanwhile, had moved upstate. Her grandmother was there, too. She missed them both and felt like they could help provide the network of emotional and practical hands-on support she was missing in New York. (Incidentally, she was right: Mabb says she just spent a recent Saturday sitting around eating cake with her kids, her mother, her grandmother. “Four generations of us. We hang out all the time.”)
“I had amazing role models in my mother and my grandmothers,” Mabb says. “They carved out careers for themselves in film and as inner-city educators. They never put up with misogyny and they never felt entitled to anything. They taught me how to fight for what’s right in the right way.”
Mabb got steady work at hotels, working at the Crowne Plaza and the Hilton Garden Inn for more than a decade. It was regular and predictable, just what she needed at that point in her life. She married, had a son, Wyatt, now 11, and bought a house. (She and her husband are no longer together.) But her kids were older and she was itching to challenge herself again.
“I was drawn to Troy,” Mabb says. “It reminded me of Park Slope. That creativity, energy, history. I met Dave and he told me that he was ready to kick the kitchen up a notch, hire a real chef. They had a serious beer program at the Ruck, but the kitchen had always been run by college students who didn’t stick around.”
Initially, she dipped her toe in, getting a feel for the kitchen, the people, the place. “I did closings and checked out their procedures,” Mabb explains. “Then I started introducing specials, then I revamped the menu. I had no idea how far down the rabbit hole I’d go, but it’s a dream come true.”
Many of her culinary choices take cues from the draft list, she says. Mabb loves beer as much as the rest of the crew at the Ruck, and her menu changes reflect not just the shifting seasons but the rotating draft list.
“We always try new beers together, and sometimes the flavors will inspire a new special or a new take on one of our classics,” Mabb says.
In addition to delivering grown-up, seasonal, beer-friendly fare, Mabb renovated the back-of-house kitchen’s operating system. She traded in the prefabricated products and premade sauces the kitchen was crutching on for fresh, local (when possible) meat, produce and dairy. Sauces, gravies and dressings are made from scratch, and while the food—it is a pub, after all—isn’t haute, it’s as thoughtful as it is delicious.
They are often inspired by conversations she has with the bar and kitchen team.
Take the KRS-One, which a bartender ordered every night as his shift meal, and Mabb decided it was pretty delicious. (It’s a pressed wrap with grilled chicken, bacon, pickles, spicy mustard and cheddar-jack cheese.)
The Ruck lives and dies by its burgers, sandwiches, wings and fries (disco, cheese or hot?), but it also dishes out mean flatbreads and, yes, salads (like Slamm-It, with spinach, noodles, bean sprouts, chestnuts, carrots, cucumbers, peanuts, crushed wasabi peas and sriracha vinaigrette).
The food’s great, as the hungry crowds attest. The attention to detail required to execute menus well at the breakneck pace brunches and dinner rushes require at the Ruck (sometimes it’s tough to even get through the door at 7 or 8pm) can lead to stress on the line, something Mabb tries to keep in check with her trademark tough-Brooklyn-girl sense of humor.
“Even now in the kitchen, it’s such a high-pressure environment,” Mabb says. “It’s crass and it’s funny and there’s definitely something to be said for thick skin, and the joy of ribbing people and being ribbed. As long as people are aware of the boundaries and are respectful. It’s cool.”
Mabb has perfected the art of the balancing act, making it look easy to embrace beauty and strength, a sense of humor and outrage, work and comfort, on the menu and in life.
Just like the Ruck.