Executive Chef and Partner,
Oyster Oyster, Washington, D.C.
Rob Rubba is a renowned American chef who has left an indelible mark on the culinary world.
Hailing from New Jersey, Rubba’s passion for cooking began at a young age and has propelled him to great heights in his career. He reached the apex of the industry gently when the James Beard Foundation named him the Nation’s Outstanding Chef of the Year.
His culinary journey started at the prestigious Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut. It was there that Rubba honed his skills in the pastry department under the guidance of seasoned professionals. This early experience laid a strong foundation for his future endeavors.
Throughout his career, Rob Rubba had the privilege of working alongside some of the most celebrated chefs in the industry. He joined forces with Todd English in Connecticut and further expanded his repertoire under Gordon Ramsay’s tutelage in bustling New York City. These experiences not only exposed him to different culinary styles but also allowed him to refine his techniques and develop a unique culinary identity.
Rubba’s pursuit of excellence led him to Las Vegas where he had the opportunity to work with esteemed chefs Charlie Trotter and Guy Savoy. Immersed in their kitchens, he absorbed invaluable knowledge and gained insights into creating exceptional dining experiences.
With each step along his journey, Rubba has consistently demonstrated a commitment to innovation and pushing boundaries within the culinary realm. His dedication to crafting exquisite dishes that tantalize both palate and imagination has earned him recognition among peers and patrons alike.
Today, Rob Rubba continues to captivate diners with his extraordinary creations at Washington, DC’s Oyster Oyster, which seamlessly blend flavors from around the world. His passion for food is evident in every dish he prepares – an artful symphony that delights all who have the pleasure of experiencing it firsthand.
In 2020, Rob Rubba opened Oyster Oyster, with a menu featuring sustainable ingredients, including oyster mushrooms and true oysters, the only animal on the menu. When Total Food Service heard what he said at the press conference after winning the award: “It doesn’t have to be all luxury items on a plate to be recognized, you can cook with plants and impress the world, we knew we had to share his story.
Who got you interested in cooking?
I’m from Southern New Jersey outside of Ocean City. I grew up with some local influence of food, but I never really took it too seriously. I skateboarded and played music and was an aspiring artist hoping to go to college for fine arts and graphic design. So, there was really nothing early on that told me this was what I would be doing.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I briefly went to Art Institute in Philadelphia and ended up leaving art school. My parents at that point were kind of like what is going on with this kid? They suggested I go work with my uncle in Connecticut where, at the time, he was the Executive Chef of Mohegan Sun there.
I was there for two years, then I went back to New Jersey to study at a small community college culinary program and work at some restaurants down there. And then I returned to work at Mohegan Sun working for Todd English at Tuscany for about three years.
So, what did you learn from your time at Mohegan Sun?
What I learned there was to be professional. I learned discipline and how to take a profession seriously. The professionalism of it and then working at a casino was very volume-driven. We were doing a massive amount of prep and producing a lot of food at a very high quality. Those building blocks really prepared me to go into fine dining. I was mentally able to handle a lot of balls in the air when I left and nothing scared me.
What happened after that and how’d you get into fine dining?
I saw an article in The New York Times that Gordon Ramsay was opening in the London Hotel in New York City. At that point, I was so enamored with all these chefs and the cookbooks I had been reading and I really wanted to get my feet wet in that opportunity.
I made the decision that I was moving to New York no matter what, and I figured that I wouldn’t be able to back out if I just moved there. I left the casino with my last paycheck of $300 and a duffel bag. I slept on some friends couches and I ended up landing that job that I wanted at Gordon Ramsay’s. That was kind of my first real foray into the fine dining world of cooking at that level. And with that kind of quality ingredients and with those sorts of accolades behind it.
So, the obvious question is, you knew Ramsay’s reputation and you still wanted to do it?
At that point, I don’t think America was bigger than that character. The truth is that he still really is known as this Michelin star chef from London with an uncanny passion for precision. I wanted to work at that level of intensity, and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it.
How long at Gordon Ramsay and then what?
My girlfriend at the time, and now my wife, was moving out to the West Coast. And I decided I would rather be in that relationship than my relationship with Gordon Ramsay. We went out west to Las Vegas, where I worked for Charlie Trotter and Guy Savoy in restaurants at Caesars Palace. Our restaurant was really cool, and I learned a ton. Super exciting, much different than my previous casino experience.
Then I went to Chicago for about two years, worked at L2o under Laurent Gras for a year. Under that leadership and that team, we got three Michelin stars. It was a super precise and modernist kitchen that was so big in the early 2000s.
I came back to New York for a little bit, consulting on a project and kind of figuring out what my next move was, and I realized that I needed a change. I ended up in Philadelphia briefly. And then fast forward but really quick to DC, where we were expecting our first child. I put my roots down here, and I’ve been cooking in DC for almost 11 years now.
In light of Vegas, NYC, Chicago… what makes DC unique?
DC is a much smaller market, very educated. We have people from all around the world here, a very intelligent clientele. So, you really have to put out a good product.
More than any place I ever worked, in DC, the goal needs to be to constantly produce dishes that are exceptional and not a flash in the pan. If you do that, you grow a customer base that is very, very supportive.
It’s unique because all of your competitors want you to win which makes DC way less cutthroat than other cities. It has given me a place to make some big changes in my career, continue to cook and move forward.
Let’s talk for a second about where you were before Oyster Oyster came about.
I had a restaurant called Hazel in the Shaw neighborhood of DC. We opened back in 2006 and the restaurant was named after my grandmother. We even served her zucchini bread as well as sticky crunchy ribs, steak tartare with house-made taters and this incredible duck.
At that point, I’d probably been professionally cooking for about 16 years and began to wonder if it was sustainable. It became a bit daunting, and I really started to question our food systems as a whole and realized that with my voice being what I cook that if I wanted change in the world we live in then I had to ‘give the change you want to see’.
What was that change you wanted to see?
I want to see restaurants that were thinking about everything from the equipment they use, to how they source ingredients. We started to look for practices that are better and more sustainable for a better future with something that’s very creative, but equally beneficial for the environment.
This included questioning our kitchen culture. What could we do to help our team enjoy a longer life and not get burned out as much.
What role do broadline and specialty distributors play in how you source items for your menus?
It began with us looking at local food systems. We cut out almost all the middlemen and began working directly with farmers. That enabled us to build relationships with the people who are growing and delivering our food. That rep dialogue has given me and my team much more flexibility. Could be something as simple as every week we need this veggie with this color cut this way.
We know what’s growing on the farm, we know that they are practicing organic practices and regenerative food practices. We know that people who work on the farm are being treated well. It’s our way of helping to make sustainable change.
What was the timeline for how Oyster Oyster came to be?
My business partner and I were looking and we had already found a space in 2018. It took a couple of years for agreements and permits and just before we were going to open, COVID hit. We weren’t able to open, and we had to hit the pause button and figure out how we were going to open this restaurant. We spent the Pandemic pause regrouping. What was going to be a tasting menu quickly evolved into very cool vegetarian and vegan pizzas and mushroom bakes.
It was all about comfort food. Then luckily, in June of 2021, we were able to open indoors as the restaurant we always intended it to be. And it’s been a great ride. I mean, we just celebrated two years.
What’s the customer experience you’re after that you’re trying to produce every day?
It really begins with my love of restaurants. I love the experience of the magic they can provide.
Hospitality done properly creates a real connection with our guests. We want to produce food that is delicious and has some soul to it. We want food that when you smell it, you can tell a little bit about what our farmers are doing. That kind of practices what we’re doing in the restaurant, but not in a preachy way.
We really want guests to come and have that escapism and celebrate those milestones with us. That’s really important to us. If we can get you to sit down, eat a whole meal of plants and vegetables and then tell us and your friends that it was as good as any other top-tier restaurant, then that’s a big win for us!
What impact has the growth of the plant-based marketplace had on how your guests look at the Oyster Oyster experience?
Everybody knows what a salad is and everybody has eaten a roasted vegetable before. Our approach is different. The key is to focus on the depth of flavor you can get out of things. Then it’s playing with texture.
Believe it or not, one of the advantages I have in trying to reinvent how we look at vegetables is that I come at this as a chef who has cooked every type of meat in my career.
Let’s start with the eggplant that we have taken to the next level. We cover it in aromatics and roast in the oven. Then it’s pressed and brushed, with vegetable reduction and smoked. Then it’s breaded and pan fried. Even when the most diehard carnivore bites into that, it pops!
I think the thing that makes me nuts is that we support our plant-based show in NYC and yet we can’t seem to get that kind of creativity onto local menus.
Look, you needed faux burger patties and hot dogs and nuggets to start a conversation. I’d like to see these shows help to find the beauty in the actual natural ingredients themselves. Trust me, what you are really after are quality ingredients that are good for the environment.
The goal is to create products that give back to the earth as well and give you the nutrients you need. Crazy but to a certain extent like grass-fed, grass and pasture-raised meats.
All we seem to hear about are the challenges with staffing. What is your approach to building teams?
I take my time and try to hire individuals who care about what we’re doing.
I don’t really look at a skill set as much as I would in my younger years. I always ask myself when I’m interviewing: Would customers come to this restaurant to see someone else rather than me. I also want to see that person cares about sustainability.
I also love when you find someone who wants to run their own restaurant at some point in their life. You need to be a good person, a good soul. I can’t begin to tell you how many great cooks there are out there that are jerks. I want to make sure everyone who comes into the kitchen can work together with one another. And that’s the most important part.
Right now, we have such a wonderful team that I’m so proud of, and they’re proud of the work they do. They really gel with one another. For a long time that kitchen was only just three people counting myself.
What’s the relationship between oysters and vegan? How did that happen?
Oysters don’t have a central nervous system. Technically, they would not feel pain. The way they grow is more similar to a plant. We are deeply involved in the Conservation of the Chesapeake, it’s really important to us because what happens in water affects what happens on land and vice versa. It’s really something we want to make sure is preserved and repaired.
Twenty feet from our kitchen is our oyster garage, which is a small little wine bar and oyster bar. Real oyster lovers can enjoy a couple of dozen before or after eating in the restaurant.
What went into creating a menu strategy that features tasting and a pairing menu vs. a la carte?
A couple of reasons: first, it gives us more control over waste. Second, and the big one, is a lot of people have these experiences with vegetables from their youth. Vegetables that were improperly cooked or canned mushrooms etc. There’s simply no way a guest would sit down and be presented with a menu with just veggies. We decided to do something about that.
The idea was to just sit down, and we would start sending out the food and ask you to take the ride with us. At the end, we present a menu, and you can see everything turned out great because a lot of guests said I hated mushrooms. But after coming here, I’m going to give it a shot.
Always curious how operators view technology?
No question that the right reservation app helped us minimize cancellations. Another one helps us control purchasing, waste management and staffing.
Induction cooking technology is really great for a little more precision, cleanliness, and has environmental benefits as well. We use the Rational combi oven because it is just fantastic. It has eliminated so much water waste and saved energy from big pot blanching.
Where’s the next generation of restaurateurs going to come from?
There are really fantastic people out there creating restaurants that are paying their teams well, taking care of them and producing really good food. I think that’s making the industry more attractive again.
We’re in a time where everyone is so much more conscious of what we’re buying, whether it’s the clothes we are wearing, which type of shampoo we use, the soap we put on our bodies, I think we’re very, very aware of where these things come from. With that consciousness, the next generation is going to seek out and really want to make good food and a better place for everyone to be able to dine and that’s healthier and still delicious.
What are your thoughts on being honored by the James Beard Foundation? Do you use this to become yet another chef who leaves the kitchen and turns into a brand?
There are options, but given our approach to things in a restaurant, a lot of extra partnerships don’t really make sense. It’s easy to take the check and I’ll just be honest, there’s a lot of offers out there, but they don’t fit into what I want to be. There’s still so much more we can do at Oyster Oyster that I’m not ready to leave.
My definition of success will be when we get the opportunity to help make a dream come true for someone from our team. I can’t wait for that day when someone who has been with us for a while comes to us to be their partner with a concept that they are passionate about.
If we can partner and expand the tree that way, there’s real buy-in and someone else is going to get an opportunity to do something fantastic within the same ethos and protocols that Oyster Oyster is all about.
Learn more about Rob Rubba and Oyster Oyster at their website.
All photos courtesy of Oyster Oyster; photography by Rey Lopez.