Above: Fernando Ruiz. Photograph by Douglas Merriam.

BY 13, FERNANDO RUIZ WAS RUNNING WITH A GANG, carrying guns, and delivering drugs in Phoenix. He spent his 21st birthday in one of former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tent cities, the place where he first learned to cook and earned his GED. Upon his release, he attended culinary school in Scottsdale and soon excelled, whether he was private cheffing, cooking at Santacafé, or leading the kitchen at the luxurious Chama Lodge and Cattle Company. In appearances on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, and Beat Bobby Flay, he bested all comers, and now he is testing a possible show of his own, has plans to open Palace Prime, a steakhouse in Santa Fe, and helps run Nomada Goods, an importer of heirloom chiles.

I did Beat Bobby Flay last March. Since then, it hasn’t stopped. I gave up cheffing at the Chama Lodge, worked on opening my own fine-dining steakhouse. I’m working on a spice line, steak rubs, everything we can sell out of Nomada. I’m working on a couple of books.

One is a salsa cookbook. Another is an autobiography telling my story from when I was young, getting shot at, running drugs. I’d also like to integrate the evolution of prison food from the 1920s to where we are now. No one’s ever talked about that. What were they eating in San Quentin in the 1960s?

When I was in a gang, we were fighting for something that wasn’t even ours. I remember thinking, If we own these streets, why are the cops breaking down our doors? We were fighting for nothing.

I didn’t want to be on TV. Rocky Durham [the chef at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort] had been on Guy’s Grocery Games, and they asked him for other chefs’ names. My wife said, “You have to do it.” She said there’s so many chefs that try to get on. What they wanted was my story. I totally lied on the application. “Were you ever arrested?” Nooo. They called me back and convinced me that’s part of my story and I should do it.

I almost gave up in round one. It felt kind of surreal. I’m not supposed to be alive; I’m supposed to be in prison. But I really got into it and made it to the third round. And I won $14,000. Rocky called me that night. He screamed and yelled.

I said, “I never want to do that again, I’m done.” Then it aired and I got all this good publicity. A year later, they asked me to do Chopped. That application sat in my inbox for six months. One of my buddies was like “Dude, just let me fill it out for you.”

Then they said, “Let’s do Beat Bobby Flay.” He’s been to two of the restaurants I worked at—Inn of the Anasazi and Santacafé. I look up to that guy. He cooks the same way I do—Southwestern fine dining. I said, “Hell, no,” but my wife was like “I know you can beat Bobby Flay.”

My goal was just to beat the first chef, which I did. Then I had to tell Bobby Flay what to cook that I can do better. I chose chiles en nogada—Mexican flavors, chiles, meat, walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds. There are 60 people on each side, everyone yelling, booing, and cheering. The host is coming up and talking to you.

I won by a unanimous decision.

I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be comfortable, have a little piece of something, take my wife and kids to Disney World for a week.

I have six kids. The first was when I was 16. He’s 25 now. At home, they’re 11, 9, and 5. The older two, they’d see about my past at the watch parties for the TV shows. I didn’t want them to know what I did growing up. I don’t want them to think, It’s okay—see how he turned out? I had to explain to them that jail’s not cool. It’s not fun. You want to stay away from it.

My biggest regret was not being the father I should have been to my three oldest kids.

When I cook for myself, I make barbecue beef ribs. But I don’t eat a lot of my cooking. A lot of chefs don’t. We’re tired of it. We taste it, smell it, we know all the flavors. We eat junk food. I like to eat other chefs’ cooking.

My tats are mostly Mayan and Aztec designs. The one on my neck is the Aztec dragon Quetzalcoatl. I have Santa Muerte on my left shoulder. I’m gonna get my neck done soon, but it’s gonna have to do with food. I don’t have any food ones yet. At some point I want to get a big pork chop tattoo. Foie gras or something.

Story Sidebar

Learn more about Fernando Ruiz and his upcoming events on his website.