BY ELIZABETH GRANGER
SOUTH BEND – Nicholas Ruse’s childhood memories center around his grandmother’s house in Bay City, Michigan. Specifically, around Grandma’s kitchen, Grandma’s garden, Grandma’s basement with a second kitchen for canning. And most definitely Grandma’s cornbread.
It gave him an appreciation of what’s important in the culinary world– quality, freshness, local. “My love for food came from Grandma,” he says.
Ruse, now in his early 40s, has taken that early interest and turned it into a vibrant career in the culinary world. He’s the corporate chef at Café Navarre in South Bend.
His first job, at 15, was at an A&W. “The girls did the roller-skating and I was a fry cook in the kitchen,” he says. He went on to several other casual restaurants, some chains and some mom-and-pop, and then he joined the Navy to see more of the world. “That was a good experience to get out of a small town,” he says.
He was stationed on an aircraft carrier, as a cook. It was an assignment he’d asked for. “The military helped me learn discipline,” he says.
After the service he returned to the Bay City area. But a vacation to Las Vegas— somewhere he’d always wanted to visit—changed his world. A friend of a friend there worked at the Bellagio. The guy gave him a tour of the kitchens, and Ruse was hooked. Within weeks he was working in Olives, a stand-alone restaurant in the Bellagio.
His interview there had scored an immediate job offer. “I was enthusiastic,” Ruse says. “I said I wanted that job more than anything I’d ever wanted. I told him I worked hard, I would continue to work hard, this was the place to be.”
Ruse was in Las Vegas for nine years. He moved to South Bend seven years ago because his former wife and son had moved there, where she was from. He’s been at Café Navarre about a year.
“I think of Chicago as the mecca of the food industry right now,” Ruse says. “If you want to experience what’s trendy in the food scene, go to Chicago.”
Café Navarre has been described as “Chicago chic.” The sleek, contemporary restaurant with huge windows and plenty of natural light began its life as a bank, and then held a jewelry store, candy story, clothing store, grocery.
It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its second-floor balcony overlooks the bar and the main floor. It also has small private dining rooms.
Likewise, its culinary offerings build on an enduring foundation of quality blended with contemporary twists.
Ruse says the South Bend food scene “is getting better and better.” He likes to be artistic, to present his own dishes that can put smiles on diners’ faces.
Ruse says his favorite months for being in the South Bend area are May through October, because he shops at the Amish produce auction in Wakarusa. “I’m a very seasonal chef,” he says, “and those are the months I absolutely love being here.
It’s the cleanest food you can get, and everything is in season. You’re going to see the same items from me year after year. Not the same dishes, but the same ingredients.”
And always, “great food starts with quality ingredients.”
101 N. Michigan St. South Bend, IN 46601