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BBQ & Buttermilk Pie: The Story Behind Rusty’s Southern

News for 04.15.15
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Rusty Olson is a child of the South. His dad’s Army job had him moving around the United States as a kid, but every summer he and his family returned to the Carolinas. It was that feeling of southern hospitality that Rusty wants to bring to San Francisco with the opening of Rusty’s Southern BBQ which, at 750 Ellis Street, is located on the first floor of the new City Hope headquarters and is now open. Francis Rubio, Rusty’s chef and born-and-raised San Franciscan, was a pastor in Portland before his passion for cooking was ignited when he went to work in a friend’s restaurant. I sat down with Rusty and Francis to learn more about their story, their restaurant, and their buttermilk pie.

How did the idea for this restaurant come about?

Rusty: This space had been a Vietnamese karaoke joint in a previous life, so it was set up with a kitchen and equipment and licenses already. In the summer of 2014, I got a call from Paul [Trudeau, executive director of City Hope] asking me to look at the restaurant space on the first floor of the new City Hope Community Center. Going through the restaurant space, I felt like Indiana Jones discovering archaeological treasure. The walls were painted purple, and it smelled like cigarettes and spilled beer. At first, I was just helping Paul see if the leftover equipment was worth anything. He wasn’t so sure, but all I could see was potential. We started to talk about how this could work for both of us--my dream with my wife was to open our own place (I was the Bar Manager at Suppenkuche at the time). This space was great, and it wasn’t long before we had a business plan in place.

Francis: For a while, I was the head chef at Biergarten (in Hayes Valley). Rusty took Paul there to eat one time, and introduced me to Paul, and I got excited about what they were talking about. Rusty asked me to come over and check out the equipment, and I knew that what Rusty and Paul were talking about wasn’t just an opportunity to advance my career, but also to work in a new way.

So how did you guys decide that this was going to be a southern BBQ restaurant?

Rusty: My family moved around every two years my whole life growing up. My dad is from South Carolina and my mom’s family is all from North Carolina, so we did spend every summer in North and South Carolina. It’s one of those things you take for granted growing up—southern cooking, my grandmother’s kitchen, really fresh seafood. I knew I was good at hospitality, and Southern food and ideas are an intrinsic part of who I am. Even back when I was serving German food, it was with those same southern sensibilities.

Francis: A sense of community was always important to us. That’s why we punched out the big window between the dining area and the kitchen, so we could invite people into what’s going on.

Rusty: One of the big drivers of this menu was to get some really tasty Carolina barbeque in San Francisco. The North Carolina style is slow-smoked pork--most of the time over hickory, which we’re using--and hand-chopped and dressed with a pepper vinegar sauce. It’s a little bit of a departure from what most Californians think of as barbeque, but it was a big part of growing up for me, and I’m excited to share that with people.

So you are a different entity from City Hope, but you guys clearly have a relationship. What will that look like?

Rusty: We will provide catering for City Hope’s community events – a meal with singing, worship, prayer, or a video presentation. We will also be the home for City Hope fundraising events that need a space other than their multi-purpose room upstairs. And then we’re always looking to see what we can do together—training classes, teaching folks portions of the trade, knife skills classes, preparation, etc. It’s a complex thing, but we feel called and driven to work with Paul and City Hope to see what more we can give back to the neighborhood and the city.

Francis: The idea of having a relationship with City Hope was really enticing to me from the beginning. We don’t want to be romantic about this, but we do want to fill out the relationship for each other. We want to work with City Hope to provide a framework for people getting out of jail to find employment in our kitchens. If they don’t find that structure, they’ll often return to life on the street. We can’t provide all of that structure, but we can partner with City Hope for some of it.

Last, but probably most important: What is your favorite thing on the menu?

Francis: I really am excited about the pork. And then, because it’s a Southern restaurant, I figure we cannot do anything fancy for our desserts. We’re always going to have a cake, a pie, an ice cream, and a pudding. I’ve grown as a chef and pushed my boundaries a lot.

Rusty: A lot of people haven’t had anything quite like Francis’s buttermilk pie. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, this really well put-together but simple, delicious food, and it’s almost like the vehicle to fellowship with the people next to you. That’s one of the most exciting aspects of imagining this place full of people—I want to see people laughing and connecting and bringing friends. To watch that exchange and know you’re providing the vessel is a special thing.


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