Friday, March 13, 2009
Chef blends a little soul into his menu
By Liz Rogers
Spend a little time with Chef Al Collins and one thing quickly becomes apparent: This guy is passionate about food and cooking.
The down-to-earth owner of Al an' Ruben's Bar and Grill in Washington, Pa., is also a straight-shooter who won't be bothered with pretentious-sounding dishes or people. He points to his "Beans 'n Greens" – escarole and cannellini beans sautéed in olive oil – noting that he goes through 150 orders a week. And he affectionately refers to the comfort-food favorite, macaroni and cheese – his grandmother's recipe that he tweaked – as "crackaroni."
"Once you have it, you're done," he says, not in a boastful way.
Aside from his pastas, which are imported because he doesn't have the room to make them, everything on the menu is made from scratch. He crushes the tomatoes and grounds the basil for his sauce, and cuts his own meat and fish. He'd like to grow his own herbs for the restaurant, too.
"I just believe in the freshest product you can get," he said.
Collins has just one goal: to make and serve good food, and that's the philosophy he instills in his 22 employees.
"There's a lot of people out there that don't care, and there's very few that do," he said. "So I'm here. I'm cooking every day. I have a really good staff behind me. They're back there with me every day. They won't send anything out of the kitchen that's not right."
He treats his staff like family, and some of them actually are: Leesa, his wife, helps manage the restaurant and works in the kitchen, and two of his five children are employed there, too.
During an interview in the cozy 80-seat restaurant that hugs busy Jefferson Avenue, Collins reflected on his first year as a restaurateur. The day was typical November-dreary, but inside the eatery, the atmosphere was bright and warm. There have been some ups and downs, but for the most part, business has been good. He's looking at innovative ways to attract new customers, offering live jazz in the dining room on Wednesdays and in the bar on Thursdays.
"I'm not here to get rich," Collins said. "I want to be comfortable. And the look on people's faces when they eat food from here, it's priceless. It really is."
Chef: Al Collins, 40, owner and chef of Al an' Ruben's Bar and Grill, 2390 Jefferson Ave., Washington
Culinary experience: Trained at the former Pasta Piatto, Shadyside; Cafe Giovanni, Pittsburgh; Big Jim's Roadhouse, Hendersonville; former Bella Piatto, Peters Township
First job: Dishwasher, Pasta Piatto
"That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. But I got so good at that. I was so good they wouldn't promote me. I finally got them to let me on the line."
Specialty: Italian, soul food
Inspiration: His grandmother, Shirley Blair
"My grandmother had me cooking when I was 7 years old ... I would sit in the kitchen with her every holiday. We'd be up till 3, 4 in the morning, making turkey, I'd be cutting vegetables, helping her with the stuffing. She was my best friend, my best friend in the world."
Favorite dish: Stuffed banana peppers
Least favorite dish: Tripe
"I don't like tripe; I won't eat liver, and I won't eat chicken gizzards. I won't eat it; I'm not going there. You won't see it on the menu."
Accolades: March of Dimes Star Chef and Signature Chef Awards
Cooking tip: Build a dish by cooking in steps. Don't throw all of the ingredients in at once. Ingredients like herbs and spices need time to marry to develop a dish's full flavor potential.
Hours: Opens 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday