Chef Fernando Ruiz on Getting Ex-Cons into the Kitchen

Before Chef Fernando Ruiz beat Bobby Flay on national TV, he was in jail.

Based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ruiz has racked up a trio of Food Network show wins, worked as a private celebrity and event chef, and is set to take the helm as majority owner of his first restaurant in fall 2022. In his early life, he followed a path into gang membership, crime, and jail time. Food was his salvation, and kitchens were his path to redemption. Today, he advocates  for the incarcerated, encouraging restaurateurs to give them a chance in the kitchen.

There are two ways to get into a gang, explains Ruiz. You either get ‘jumped in’, an initiation process that usually involves physical violence, or you do ‘dirty work’. He did the latter. At just 13 years old he carried guns to earn his gang membership in his childhood home of Phoenix, Arizona. “I liked the money, the gold, the women. It was an adrenaline rush — good guys versus bad guys,” he says. “It was basically a game, and it was a dangerous game to play. It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did for me. My story was supposed to end a long time ago.”

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Today, tattoos of the words “barbacoa” and “al pastor” curl across the outside edges of his hands joining the Aztec and Mayan designs crawling up his arms. The ink testifies to his relationship with food. “Food changed my life,” he says simply.

Ruiz was 16 the first time he was arrested. When he was 18, he was arrested again, landing three-and-a-half years for drug and weapons possession charges. While serving time in one of Maricopa County’s notorious tent cities, where inmates were kept outside by corrections officials who argued harsh conditions would deter the prisoners from future criminal activity, Ruiz got a coveted job in the prison kitchen.

Chef Fernando Ruiz smiles next to the Today Show's Al Roker in Time Square, NYC

He’d grown up watching his Mexico-born parents and grandparents slaughter, butcher, and pit cook in the backyard, so he took to his jail assignment naturally, though he was by how long it took to meal prep. Cooking for up to seven hundred people, multiple times a day, was vastly different than the cooking style he was used to.

The prison cooks worked with expired and donated food they received from supermarkets and food banks. He learned resourcefulness, and unexpected ways to blend ingredients, lessons that he would serve him for the rest of his life. “We made what we could. It was like a big ‘Chopped’ basket in there,” he says, referring to the Food Network show he later won.

Working in the kitchen had its perks. The cooks could occasionally treat themselves to donated lobsters and rib eyes when there wasn’t enough to share with the rest of the inmates.

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Ruiz lost his position in the kitchen a few times. It was common for inmates to duct tape Coke cans around their waists and baloney slices down their legs to sneak them back to their bunks. When they got caught, the punishment was lockdown, and a loss of kitchen privileges. But Ruiz always made it back. He viewed the culinary arts as his post-prison plan.

A Fork in the Road

After serving his time and earning his GED, Ruiz entered the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1997. “I hate to say it, but I didn’t learn a lot in culinary school,” Ruiz says. “Culinary school is too much, too fast. You can’t soak it all in. The most I learned was to sharpen a knife and not be an asshole to my employees. All the knowledge I have today was learned from really good chefs and a couple bad chefs.”

With a diploma in his back pocket, he worked in kitchens at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort, in Colorado, as well as the Chama Lodge and Cattle Company, Santacafe, and Palace Prime, all in northern New Mexico. 

A friend’s recommendation led “Guy’s Grocery Games” producers to come calling. But Ruiz hesitated. A Food Network appearance might be a dream come true for other chefs, but for Ruiz, appearing on TV came with risk. His former gang members — or quarries — could bring up his past. To his relief, it didn’t happen that way. “Most of the people I came up with are dead or doing life in prison,” he says.

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After his appearance on “Guy’s Grocery Games” and subsequently “Chopped,” producers approached him for  the ultimate TV showdown, “Beat Bobby Flay.” Again, Ruiz hesitated. This time it was for a different reason. If he was going to appear, he wanted to win, and he didn’t like his odds against Flay. “We cook the same style, the same dishes. We use the same techniques,” he says. Nevertheless, his wife and constant cheerleader encouraged him to compete. In 2018, he won by unanimous decision for his chiles en nogada, a Mexican dish made with chiles, meat walnut sauce, and pomegranate seeds that combines the Mexican flag’s red, white, and green colors.  

The win changed everything. Ruiz made Thanksgiving Day appearances on NBC’s “Today Show,” and was flown across the country to cook private dinner events. Today, he is developing a cooking show of his own, and in the process of writing an autobiographical cookbook. Ruiz also helps to run Nomada Goods, an importer of heirloom chiles, and he recently signed on as chef/owner of Escondito,  a restaurant slated to open in Santa Fe in 2022.

Employing Former Inmates

Ruiz believes that kitchen work could change other inmate’s lives, too. In his experience, many formerly incarcerated people have kitchen experience already. “Just hire them,” Ruiz  says. “At one point, we all grow up. They just want another chance.”

Hiring the formerly incarcerated, especially those recently out of jail who may not have readjusted to life outside, comes with paint points. They may still be involved in their former lives, and at first they may be unreliable, cancelling shifts last minute, or simply not showing up. Ruiz gives people four or five chances but ultimately says, “They have to want it.”

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How do you know if they do? “Watch them when they’re working or someone is teaching them something. If they’re interested and asking questions, that’s the best. Watch their demeanor and body language. Do they want to be there? Are they trying to fit in?”

Ruiz’s team at Escondito will be mostly former inmates. “Put yourself in their position. Imagine what it would be like if it were you. Former inmates need compassion.” He doesn’t see hiring these individuals as risky. They have quite a few strengths, including taking direction well. It’s a side effect of following a military-like system and rigorous schedule they live by while jailed.

“In reality, people who have a criminal background are the best employees. We know the definition of respect. We’re loyal. We know how to work together as a team. And, we’re good at what we do.”

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