Paying it Forward: Chef Doug Ruley
Chef Doug Ruley debunks the stereotype of a celebrity chef
An invitation to cook at the venerable James Beard House in New York City is an honor for any chef. Being invited four times is a distinction worthy of bragging rights. But Chef Doug Ruley, vice president of Rehoboth Beach-based SoDel Concepts, is no culinary diva. While he appreciates an accolade, the reserved Ruley is reluctant to bathe in the limelight.
“He’s very humble; he’s not about ego,” says Jason Dietterick, the executive chef at Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar, the newest of SoDel Concepts’ 10 restaurants. “He’s extremely down to earth and laid back.”
That’s evident in Ruley’s uniform of choice: jeans, work boots, a dark full-length apron and a short-sleeved shirt that looks like something a mechanic would wear. Few see him without a baseball cap, which is typically emblazoned with a SoDel Concepts logo.
But don’t underestimate his skill just because he isn’t wearing a white coat or toque. “Doug is a very talented and creative chef who has an excellent grasp about a variety of different cuisines, flavors and textures,” says former boss Kevin Davies, a founder of Delaware-based Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. “He is driven to produce high quality food that hits the mark.”
Scott Kammerer, president of SoDel Concepts, would agree. “Doug’s cooking is refined and focused. He doesn’t include unnecessary ingredients that overcomplicate a dish. To me, that’s what sets him apart from some of the other guys.”
The older of two children, Ruley grew up in Elkton, Maryland. His father was a supervisor at the Chrysler plant in nearby Newark, Delaware. His mother worked for W. L. Gore and Associates. Happy childhood memories include cooking breakfast with his father and visiting his grandparents farm in Rising Sun, Maryland, where they raised cattle and pigs and had an extensive garden and smokehouse.
At 14, he entered the hospitality business when he worked the fry station at McDonald’s. Supervisors were so impressed with his work ethic that he was promoted to the register. More jobs in restaurants followed. Since his parents and aunt had homes at the beach, he got a summer job as a server at The Country Squire, owned by the Hearn family. “One day, the cook didn’t show up,” he recalls. “I jumped back in the kitchen and stayed.”
Fresh out of high school, he tried selling accidental death insurance. He sold a few policies, but cold calling didn’t agree with him. Neither did community college or the classes he took at the University of Delaware. He learned more while working with Jude McDonald at the iconic Jude’s Diner on Main Street in Newark.
“She was a character,” Ruley says. “If things weren’t going her way there might be an egg flying past my head. One day, there were eggs raining on top of me. She was tough but took me under her wing.”
McDonald told him to go to culinary school. She even went so far as to provide him with information on Johnson & Wales University. Six months later, he packed up his Honda Civic and enrolled in the celebrated culinary program in Rhode Island. “I felt I had a goal now—something I could work toward,” he says. He was dating wife-to-be Lisa, whom he met at the Deer Park in 1994, and the couple made the long-distance relationship work.
After an internship and job on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, he returned to Delaware. It was 1996, and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant was under construction in Newark. He was hired to make salads. Over the next five years, he worked his way up to prep cook, line cook, sous chef and executive chef, a position he held for five years.
In 2005, Ruley and Lisa, who married in 2002, decided to move to the beach. Ruley looked for a job before making the move. Someone gave him restaurateur Matt Haley’s name, and Ruley remembers calling Haley on a cell flip-phone. The two frequently met at Borders Books in Stanton to “have coffee, talk life and talk food,” Ruley says. Haley at that time was a big, burly man who wore flip-flops even in winter.
In April 2006, after making the move south, Ruley became the chef at Haley’s flagship restaurant, Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar in Bethany Beach. Kammerer met the new chef soon after. “I instantly thought: ‘Here’s a guy in his element who is doing what he was born to do,’” Kammerer says. “He’s methodical and understands what it takes to run a kitchen.”
Ruley’s calm, disciplined approach balanced Haley’s shoot-from-the-hip, follow-your-gut style. Ruley soon grew accustomed to early morning phone calls to discuss Haley’s latest burst of inspiration, and he didn’t lag behind when Haley began opening restaurants at a dizzying pace. Ruley helped write the menus and often served as the new location’s opening chef. Once the restaurant hit its stride, he returned to Bluecoast in Bethany. Recognizing Ruley’s contributions, Haley made him the company’s corporate chef.
Ruley, Kammerer and the rest of the management team began handling daily operations as Haley actively pursued philanthropic projects around the world. In 2014, Haley was awarded the James Beard Humanitarian Award, one of three recognitions he received that year. He planned to cook at the home of James Beard, the late cookbook author and chef.
Learning that the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s award ceremony fell on the same night, Haley told Ruley—who’d never been to New York— that Ruley must face the discerning New York audience on his own. Ruley was confident that he could cook. He was more worried about the logistics of moving his team and the food to New York for the event. He handled both with aplomb. “Once we got into the kitchen,” he says. “It was okay.”
In August 2014, while motorcycling in the mountains of India, Haley was struck by a truck and died a few days later. Back home, it was the busy summer season, and operations in the eight restaurants had to remain smooth and seamless. “As the corporate chef, Doug became the face of this big restaurant group in Delaware,” Kammerer says. “He rose to the occasion.”
As SoDel’s culinary representative, Ruley participates in local, regional and national events. He and his crew in summer prepared a meal at Bouchaine Winery in California. (Owners Tatiana and Gerret Copeland are Wilmington residents.) They also held a dinner in Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.
Ruley has repeatedly been back to the James Beard House, and in October, he competed against Bryan Sikora, who has three Wilmington restaurants, in a “Chopped”-style competition at the Southern Delaware Wine, Food & Music Festival. Ruley won. “It’s not just another day in the kitchen,” he acknowledges.
In the last three years, SoDel Concepts has opened two more restaurants, taken over The Clubhouse at Baywood, and upped its restaurant-management services. Ruley often pops into the various kitchens to work with the chefs and sous chefs. Dietterick at the new Bluecoast says he’s still learning from Ruley. “I always want to do my best,” Dietterick says. “There’s a method to the madness, so he says, and his way of doing things might be different but there’s method to it. He’s inspiring.”
Every now and then, Ruley thinks about owning his own place. But after 20 years, he and wife Lisa and their daughter, 13, and son, 10, are enjoying a balance between work and home lives. What’s more, SoDel Concepts is still expanding.
Ruley remembers well the words from Johnson & Wales University commencement speaker Julia Child. “’Do what you love and love what you do,’” he recalls. Today, Ruley is doing just that.