Long before designing meals for the upcoming Republican National Convention as culinary director of Fitlife Foods, Andrew Ruga was stationed in Iraq as a member of the Arizona National Guard. Army Specialist Ruga spent long hours with his fellow soldiers in 2006-07, crisscrossing the barren terrain of Iraq delivering supplies to fellow troops.
To pass those long hours on the road during his 15-month tour of duty, Ruga would ask fellow members of the 222nd Transportation Company what they liked to eat.
“I would always start bugging the guys, ‘Pick a protein. Pick a starch. Pick a something.’” Ruga, who spent his youth cooking at his family’s deli in New Jersey, would then take their suggestions and formulate recipes. He keeps an entire binder of them to remember his time in Iraq. On a whim, while in Iraq, Ruga sent his “Pecan Crusted Chicken over Field Greens with Carmel Citrus Vinaigrette” to the Army v. Navy Cookoff hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
Ruga received word that his recipe had been chosen, and that Lagasse was set to make his dish on the syndicated Emeril Live TV show. Ruga scrambled to get approval from his superiors to make the dish at his Iraq outpost. (Remember, this is not your grandfather’s Army; private contractors now prepare most military meals.) After receiving approval, Ruga remembers hitting another roadblock in the base kitchen. “They didn’t have many of the ingredients in the recipe on hand.”
Nevertheless, he was soon on his way to NYC from the Middle East to appear with five fellow soldiers as a contest finalist on Emeril’s show. The chef whipped up Ruga’s menu right in front of him, on camera. After a few tense minutes, he pronounced Ruga’s Pecan Chicken Salad excellent, and declared him the winner in the salad category.
So why the apprehension? Ruga had never had the chance to try his own recipe. That’s right — he went on national TV with one of America’s most iconic chefs winging it.
To this day Ruga says Emeril has no idea. Bam!