Bruce Bogartz believes in the mystical power of food to bring people together. That simple premise was the impetus for an eclectic gathering of friends, acquaintances and friends-once-removed on a Sunday evening at RouXbarb – Bogartz’s intimate restaurant in the District in Bearden. The invitations for the inaugural “Forty Folks” event were strictly word-of-mouth. Everyone who was there was supposed to be there. Serendipity determined the guest list. Chef Bogartz cooked up some of his signature soul food and shared the love!
Bogartz welcomed the crowd, saying this was a dream of his, to host periodic gatherings of people from different walks of life, different parts of town and different ethnicities to share a meal. “I’ve seen people come together over food,” he said, “and that’s my hope, that we come together today and invite others to join us.” There were no strings attached. No donations solicited. No agenda. Just a beaming chef surrounded by adoring customers, friends, business associates and fellow foodies.
Everyone exchanged “Bruce stories” – some people have followed him like groupies since his days as corporate chef of Harry’s, the former Grady’s and Regas-family restaurant. I have fond memories of his signature dessert there – an upscale MoonPie with bananas foster ice cream and homemade marshmallow sauce. “We had to take it off the menu,” recalled Bogartz with a smile, “due to trademark infringement issues” with the iconic Chattanooga company.
Other people remember lazy Sunday brunches at Bogartz, Chef Bruce’s previous culinary incarnation in Homberg, opening on Mother’s Day in 2000 and closing exactly five years later. After blowing town for awhile, Bogartz returned to be near his daughter, Sarabeth, now nine. He did a brief stint at Harold’s Deli and made a subsequent stopover at The Shrimp Dock, fixing po’ boy sandwiches for a hungry lunch crowd. But Bogartz is no longer an itinerant chef. He’s once more king of his castle, master of his domain, happily ensconced in the original Bistro By The Tracks digs.
Among the forty folks at this grassroots get-together were Merrill and Hank Ammons, Tyrone and Lana Bean, Nick and Melissa Chase, Philip Clift, Jennifer Beyt Coffin and Jared Coffin, Mick and Angie Connors, Steve Dupree, Linda Guisset, Rhiannon and Rob Kirkpatrick and Barry Steinberg. All of us were drawn to RouXbarb on this rainy Sunday to experience the “culinary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Food is Bogartz’s art; feeding people is his passion, and feed us he did!
On the tables were relish trays of locally grown vegetables, featuring heirloom tomatoes from David Meadows at Mountain Meadows Farm in Anderson County. Their succulent tomatoes have wonderful names like “Cherokee Purple” and “Green Zebra.” To complement the raw vegetables, there were milkshake glasses of homemade blue cheese dressing, recipe courtesy of Jerry Cross, who served it at a memorable meal in his home years ago – “one of the all-time best meals of my life,” said Bogartz.
There was also a mustard-based potato salad featuring homegrown fingerling potatoes, fresh herbs and hard-boiled eggs, whipped up by Bogartz’s mom, who was in town from Atlanta for the gathering. Next came steaming plates of mouthwatering fried chicken, brine-cured in an overnight salt bath and then battered with a buttermilk/Coca-Cola mixture. “The Coke gives it a zing and balances the flavor,” explained Bogartz with a mischievous grin. You get the impression he’s making it up as he goes along, but he’s not. He’s part connoisseur, part party host and part mad scientist.
The fried chicken was accompanied by RouXbarb’s signature dish – dry-rubbed spare ribs, prepared on-site and smoked right out back. The “Forty Folks” gang dined on the succulent ribs with blackberry barbeque sauce from just-picked berries. Bogartz plans to bottle and sell his seasonal barbeque sauces, which also include pumpkin, pear and fig varieties. There were also “evolutionary sweet potatoes,” as Bogartz christened them, because they “evolved” after being peeled and candied with the remnants of the decadent finale: rhubarb, peach and raspberry cobbler with fresh whipped cream. It was a warm, buttery-crusted triumph, brimming with sweet fruit. How’s that for Sunday supper?
The event was B.Y.O.B., or guests could wash it all down with pitchers of delicious watermelon lemonade, nectar of the gods. My dinner companion brought a stash of bootleg mojitos. It was all good.
“Forty Folks” was a bit like the first Thanksgiving – long tables of natives and pilgrims gratefully sharing a bounteous spread. Everyone helped serve and clear between courses. There was a great sense of camaraderie in the restaurant, packed to the rafters with laughing, gregarious people. Glasses clinked. Dishes clattered. We became instant family and fast friends. After two hours, there wasn’t a stranger in the place!
“It completely exceeded my expectations,” said Bogartz of the first-time gathering.
Bogartz’s lady love and business partner, Amy Hackett, was also his co-hostess for the evening. A former executive with Ruby Tuesday, she now bakes fabulous desserts for RouXbarb, like her peach melba cake with butter cream frosting. But she also prepares rhubarb on occasion. Hackett said that the first time she fixed a pie with the trademark Southern veggie for Bogartz, he was deeply touched by the tribute. “No one’s every fixed me rhubarb before,” he told her, with simple astonishment and gratitude. You see, Bruce Bogartz has a big heart, and he wears it on his sleeve.
If you call him and get his recorded voice message, you’ll understand what motivates Bogartz. “You’ve reached Bruce,” it says, “I’m spreading love and cheer through good food and drink.”
For Bogartz, food is always the underlying theme. “I’m at the pinnacle of my career,” he said, sounding shocked by his own success, “and I’m still doing what I’ve been doing all along.” What Bogartz has been doing all along is bringing people together by making regional food exceptional and accessible!
RouXbarb is located at 130 S. Northshore Drive and is open Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, call 865.212.0024.
All Photos © 2009 Karen Krogh, All Rights Reserved.