Chef Ruben Harley is a big man wherever he goes. Known as Big Rube, Harley’s runs the kitchen at hot spots such as Pitchers Pub and various pop-ups around town, and utilizing his self-created culinary tag, “Blackfolkstylecooking,” he is renown for his signature fried chicken and waffles and his ground turkey lasagna.
Now, Big Rube has taken over the kitchen at Volver (through Nov. 13) for Chef Jose Garces’ second go-round with his local Chef-in-Residency program.
Harley say down with Metro to dish about his signature flavors, inspirations and how family is at the center of it all.
You’re at Volver to represent yourself as a Philadelphia chef, a Black chef and a chef with a certain flavor. How does the menu you’re doing at Volver serve those purposes?
I’m representing the original cuisine of America, “Blackfolksstylecooking.” My ancestors were on the slave plantations in the 13 colonies making the dishes we know today as Southern cooking or Soul Food. Doing this residency at Volver with Chef Garces, I’m doing a prelude to my concept “Big Rube’s Jook Joint” that’s an upscale dining experience of my culture.
How and why did you get into cooking in first place?
I started cooking at the age of 4, watching my grandma, aka Nan, make me turtle pancakes, fried chicken and cornbread. My first dish to cook was scrambled eggs with cheese in a seasoned cast-iron pan at Nan’s house. I really don’t like eggs and the only way I can eat them is that way, so at 4 years-old, I did that.
What is your take on the diversity of your overall concepts and flavors?
Diversity is what makes us all special. Back when I started cooking as a job in 1988 at Bryn Mawr College, all the kitchen staff were black folks and now it is mostly folks of Latin American heritage. Building with those men and women from a foreign country expands your ideas and palate.
What would you say are your flavor signatures as a chef?
My flavor profile comes from using a lot of organic apple cider vinegar and cumin. I love cooking with cast-iron, searing proteins, locking in flavors.
The names of your dishes are great. I love how you have fun with food.
You mean like my “Othello pasta?” That’s my homage to two cultures – Moonsh i.e. African culture, and Italian culture, the spice of my “baby mama sauce” peppers, bucatini pasta, confit garlic butter, ricotta cheese and seared shrimp. Othello is the Blackman in Shakespeare’s famous play taking place in Italy.
How do you know Garces? How do you like Volver and its Chef-in-Residence program? And how will you elevate what you are doing at Volver beyond your usual, to accommodate the experience?
I met Jose photographing his Garces Foundation events 20-years ago and always had great conversations about everything under the sun. We were neighbors at a ghost kitchen in 2021 and talked about collaborating. Now, though, is the perfect time; it’s serendipitous. I’m usually doing elevated bar food at my kitchen at Pitchers Pub in Manayunk, plus Volver gives me the opportunity to dish out the entrees I usually do for private chef gigs.
Why did you choose the items for Volver?
It’s a broad menu for all palates, from cornmeal battered fried whiting fish, Halal beef meatloaf to my famous fried chicken that folks flock from everywhere to come grub on. The vibe is Black culture. When you come over someone’s crib for holidays, graduations to funerals — this is the cuisine we’re serving. I’m just doing it at an uber-organic level flavor profile that I demand from myself — only the best. By the way, blackfolks fried chicken doesn’t have “buttermilk,” never ever.
What should diners understand about you, your culinary heritage and your brand?
The diners should know I coined a phrase, “scraps of glory,” because this cuisine was born out of turbulence, aka slavery. We were given the worst hand-me-downs and made a cuisine the whole world takes from every day. Black Gi’s in the 1950’s taught Koreans how to fry chicken and make hot sauce. It’s a journey of America that get buried or hidden from history books.
One last question — were you ever Little Rube?
Unfortunately no, but the way I’m training in the gym now, and only one cheat day a week, folks say I’ll be Medium Rube soon. I want to be healthy for my daughter, Zsanece, who just turned 19, so I can see her blossom.