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Chicago Magazine’s Jeff Ruby has an awesome job. 


Jeff Ruby

As a kid growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Ruby thought Chi-Chi’s was the height of culinary excellence. And a little over a decade ago, he had a job interview with  Chicago Magazine’s  dining editor Penny Pollack that went a little something like this:

Pollack: Do you know anything about food?
Ruby: No, not really, I had Taco Bell on the way over here.

Pollack: Do you know anything about Chicago?
Ruby: Well, I just got here last week, so, you know, I don’t claim to know anything about Chicago either.

He doesn’t exactly possess the typical Jewish obsession with food, nor is he the most likely candidate to write what are arguably the most trusted dining reviews in Chicago.

And yet, for the last 11 years, Ruby has worked his way up the totem pole from fact-checking restaurant hours and addresses and being hazed with assignments to review Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Café – “the amphibian and guitar beat” – to his current position as Senior Editor for the magazine, not only writing about food and dining, but also penning a monthly column called The Closer about, well, whatever he wants. And that includes testing whether Ferris Bueller really could have fit all of his legendary Day Off antics into a single school day.

Ruby is the first to admit that his job is a pretty sweet deal for a guy who tried to do as little traditional reporting and as much writing in his own voice as possible during his two years of journalism school at the University of Kansas: “I’m getting paid to sit in a corner office in a big city, overlooking the river, with a blank screen in front of me and people just waiting for me to fill it,” he says.

Not that his writing is a completely solo project; a lot of his ideas for The Closer come from his wife. Together with their one- and three-year-olds, the couple spends a good amount of time traveling back and forth from their home in Andersonville to Hyde Park, where his wife grew up and where they are both active in creating an engaging synagogue life for other young families at Rodfei Zedek. It has become pretty common practice that right around the Oak Street curve on Lake Shore Drive, Ruby will ask his wife if she has any ideas for the column, and by the time they get home 15 minutes later they’ve come up with a few.

“The problem is when my boss doesn’t think any of the ideas are funny. Then I have to back them up by saying that other people on staff liked them, so he doesn’t think I’m just some dumb kid shooting my mouth off – which I pretty much am,” Ruby says.


"The Lonely Critic," Ruby's bubble-gum pop ode to "the life"

There’s evidence to suggest that Ruby may be selling himself short, though. A few years ago, when rising star chef Grant Achatz first came to Chicago, he worked at Trio, a restaurant in Evantson. As a year-end bonus of sorts, Ruby got to take his wife to Trio and spend as much money as he wanted; Chicago Magazine would pick up the tab, no writing assignment required, no strings attached.

It was during this mind-blowing five-and-a-half-hour meal that Ruby learned he had finally made it as a writer. Sitting a few tables away, an older couple was quoting something Ruby had written in Chicago Magazine, but saying it as though it was their original thought.

Though his wife was incredulous that her husband wasn’t going to call them out on their source, Ruby opted to remain anonymous. “It was a real ego boost,” he recalls. “I was the youngest guy in the restaurant by far, and this snobby guy is over there quoting me. All I ever wanted to do was have people read my writing; it was a real moment of arrival for me.”

Not only did he want to bask in the glory of the moment a few years ago at Trio, but Ruby also believes that anonymity is paramount in his profession – even in this age of online social networking. With all of his friends on Facebook, he created a fake profile, and furiously polices friends’ photo albums to make sure he remains untagged in pictures.

So far, it has paid off. There is only one meal during which he knew the restaurant knew who he was, and he cringes as he remembers how awkward the experience was. “They were so nervous… this guy poured salad dressing in my wine or something, and he looked like he was about to shoot himself.”

Though he has learned a lot about food over the years – he has even written two books, about drinking and pizza – Ruby’s overall opinion of the topic hasn’t changed much. Sure, he has opinions about how his wife’s challah compares to his aunt’s (very favorably), and how one should eat a latke (neither applesauce nor sour cream; a latke is supposed to taste like a latke!), but in the end, it’s not his passion for the edible that inspires him in his daily work. It’s all about the writing.

While his own culinary background may be less than epicurean, Ruby is in good company among Jewish food writers – for example, Alan Richman from GQJeffrey Steingarten from VogueGael Greene, formerly of New York Magazine and Oy!’s own Stacey Ballis. With a nod to prevailing cultural stereotypes, Ruby jokes, “there’s that Jewish thing that we love to eat and argue,” and food writing is just that: eating and voicing an opinion about it.

It’s the arguing, or at least the chance to write an argument in his own voice, that Ruby really loves, even after all these years. “If I was writing about hockey, or anything else, I’d put the same oomph into it,” he says, “I almost feel guilty.”

Ah yes, the third essential trait of Judaism: guilt.

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