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Cincinnati Kid: Jeff Ruby
An unvarnished, straight-from-the-heart, utterly raw sit-down with the man who would be kingpin of Cincinnati’s restaurant scene.
It was a booming Saturday night at Bobby Mackey’s country music club in Wilder and the band was setting up. As it did, a muscular guy wearing an open-necked, untucked dress shirt and a fedora was working the karaoke machine, serenading the room with his eyes closed. Perhaps he was just entertaining himself, but he seemed slightly lost, having meandered way, way deep into “Me and Bobby McGee.” Still, to the casual observer, it looked like it was nice to not have to be Jeff Ruby for the night.
Because to be Jeff Ruby, the owner of four fairly legendary restaurants, means to create your own private world, a world that’s part French cuffs, part bloody knuckles. He projects it onto the city, and sometimes others see what he sees. Being Jeff Ruby…comes with accessories. There’s the pin-striped Jersey wiseguy style, the politics and social views at home on Bill Cunningham’s show, the pneumatic ego. Now he has published his autobiography, Not Counting Tomorrow: The Unlikely Life of Jeff Ruby, in which he condenses all the Rubyness into one well-done slab of braggadocio. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—though surprise seems to ratchet up with the turn of each page—that his claims to fame are outsized. He says he all but created nightlife in Cincinnati; is responsible for downtown’s revival; helped settle the 2001 riots; and once had the power to get players traded from the Reds. He even boasts that he’s responsible for getting Survivor played on local radio. Just being Jeff Ruby.
Why a book now?
People were always telling me I should write a book. After a while, you believe that you have a story. The longer I put it off, the more trouble I kept getting into. You know, bad decisions make for good stories.
Did Robert Windeler, your cowriter and editor, ever say, ‘Jeff, you can’t say that!’?
Oh yeah. We didn’t see eye to eye on much, but we got along. If I got in a fight with a black guy, he wouldn’t let me put that the guy was black, ’cause that’s not politically correct. Well that’s accurate. The guy was black. But we couldn’t put “the guy was black,” he was just “a guy.” He kept me from getting in trouble legally I guess, because I didn’t have my attorney look at it.
You write that you know all about being a chef, but that you don’t consider yourself a chef. I took that to mean you view yourself ultimately as a mogul.
I taught myself the business and I didn’t become a legend by following the rules. I learned them, yeah. I’ve been hanging around restaurants since I’m 8. I know how to cook. I’ve made every chef that’s worked for me a better chef. I don’t make the food; I make the food better. Just like the way I design my restaurants. I’ve got a great designer but I tell him, “Here’s what I wanna do.” But he has to draw it. Without him they wouldn’t be as good, but without me they wouldn’t even be close to what they are. It’s a team effort on everything you see in the restaurants, a collaboration—of me and that artist.
In the book you talk about being a high school wrestler, about how you didn’t necessarily know all the technical moves and holds—
I didn’t have the moves. I used what I call “brute force and fuckin’ ignorance.”
I don’t think you put that method aside after high school.
Yeah. I don’t know anything about computers, I can’t type, I’m not a tech guy, I don’t e-mail. But I have people. I don’t know a hell of a lot about wine, but I have people. This is my philosophy.
But you do tweet quite a bit.
My daughter would not let me have a Twitter account, nor would my attorney, because I have no filter. It took a couple years for them to let me go on Twitter.
You talk a lot in the book about “my propensity for fighting.” There is an amazing story about a guy staying at your house in Loveland who you became convinced was sleeping with your girlfriend. You went a little bit ballistic. “Blood spattered the walls and ceiling and all over me. His pretty face was unrecognizable,” you write. Then it turns out there was a misunderstanding, and he never actually slept with your girlfriend. Did you ever apologize?
He apologized to me. I apologized back. He understands. Hey, he wanted to [sleep with her], so...I mean here I am, being nice to this kid. I’m letting him stay at my house rent-free, you know. I’m like a prostitute—if you fuck me, I’m gonna make you pay.
Dusty Baker says you have “a warm heart and can be open-minded and all for the equality of the common man. But he can also be an autocrat and you never want to have political discussions with him.” Sounds like you guys have had some political discussions.
It was probably over Obama. And I don’t even want to talk about Obama.
But you’re not a fan.
I do not want to talk about Obama.
What about another guy from Jersey: What do you think of Chris Christie?
He and I met in Indian Hill and we had a nice discussion. The first thing I said, 30 seconds into meeting him, was “You have to lose some weight.” First thing. He said, “I lost 40 pounds.” I said, “Lose 40 more.” I said, “Listen, I’m born and raised in Jersey, you’re our only hope for president, the Republican Party’s only hope, but I’m telling you as a friend...” I talk to celebrities the same way I talk to my dishwashers.
What’s the deal with the pinstripe suits, the goombah jewelry, the way you talk? You seem a little fascinated with a mafia style.
[Long pause as he checks his Twitter account] Huh—someone just tweeted “I wish I was as cool as you.” I’m just Jersey born and raised and that’s the way I am. But Chris Christie is Jersey born and raised and no one says Chris Christie reminds them of Tony Soprano. He better not, he’s in politics. Johnny Cash once said, “You get in trouble when you stop acting like from where you came.” I just act like from where I came.
The figure you cut—larger-than-life, brawling, opinionated—is that kind of person getting rarer on the landscape?
Yeah, because the whole country is politically fucking correct. What people either love or hate about me is—they respect me for saying what I believe is right. And most tell me, “You say how we feel but we can’t say.” I hear it every day. People come up to me at Kroger and thank me: “Just be who you are, don’t change.”
Well, if you enjoy speaking your mind, why won’t you talk about Obama?
The difference between me and Obama is that the truth comes out of my mouth.
Do you ever feel trapped by the character that you’re playing?
What do you mean?
Well, I’ve interviewed pop stars and actors and sometimes they say “I’m really tired of being that guy.” Or, you know, “You don’t really know what I’m like when I’m home.”
You can’t relax. When I sit down at a table at my restaurant, or even when I go out, I’ve got to be careful because I have such a public image now. You’ve got to be careful, you always got to be nice. If I stop at a red light, I can’t pick my nose. And when I go around town I’m always nice. When I go down there in the ’hood, down in Over-the-Rhine, the brothers all know me. And I love ’em. I’m in my comfort zone when I’m with regular people, you know. I’m better with kids than I am with adults.
Why is that?
Because they don’t have an agenda, you know, and they’re not trying to get anything out of you. I didn’t have a childhood. I am getting in my childhood before it’s too late and I’m deciding to do it now. And I was pronounced dead on July 13 of ’87, so I’m 65 going on 27.
As you write, you stepped out of a moving car, fell, and hurt your head. That led to a coma and surviving brain trauma. How are you different now?
Listen, nobody’s going to tell me what I can do and what I can’t do. I left home at 15 in the ’60s and I was raising myself with no parents. I went from an F-average student to straight As. I survived the Beverly Hills fire—I was one of the last 10 people to get out of there alive—[and] two riots. I have been declared brain dead. I’ve been in plane crashes, fires, [had] five angioplasties, a heart attack, a couple of earthquakes. I’ve had a gun put to my head at a Holiday Inn with nobody there but me and the guy who said “Take me to the safe or I’ll blow your fucking brains out,” and I said, “Fuck you, I’m not.” I’ve been called everything you can be called. The FBI told the Bengals I’m in the mafia at a team meeting, so my son-in-law didn’t want to marry my daughter because he’s an ex-Bengal and heard from the Bengals that I’m in the mafia. I don’t let anyone tell me what the fuck to do. I’ve been through it all.
Something else you’ve been through: Your ex-wife Rickelle had you committed. What was that like?
Oh, it was wild. I was depressed and I felt after [problems with] The Waterfront that I was going out of business. Plus I was flying off the handle like crazy and my brain was damaged from the injury. So I went to Holmes Hospital. And, man, they are really insane. It was just like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Let’s talk about The Waterfront, which you are about to revive. Three years ago, it broke loose and floated down the river; it’s been hit by barges, it practically sank. Are you sure you want to do it again?
I don’t even know why I’m doing it again. I said the next time I’m going to be on the water I’m going to be in an inner tube in the freakin’ pool.
What happened with Bootsy’s?
Bootsy wanted to do a place with me somewhere and the only reason I did it downtown is that place was available and I wanted to try to get Cincinnati to have a legitimate entertainment district. I figured if I open up across the street from my other restaurant, [and] across from the Aronoff, other developers, investors, restaurateurs would say: “You know, if Jeff Ruby is opening a second place downtown, maybe it’s OK to put a bar or a restaurant downtown.” But [when I got together with Bootsy] I said, “Listen, I don’t expect to make money.” And it didn’t work; it’s a tough space on the second floor. But Bootsy’s was the first time that anyone came downtown after midnight and partied and celebrated and drank. That was the motivation behind it, so it was mission accomplished pretty much—to get everyone to come down there. And they’re still doing it.
So what’s next?
The Waterfront. We’re working hard on that, it’s going to be magnificent. Lexington wants us. And we’re renovating every one of our places.
And from what you say in the book you’re getting into New York.
We got an offer, my friend has a hell of a location, and he has a business there. I don’t want to say what it is or anything, but it’s near Carnegie Hall. We’ll see.
Your daughter Britney has been named the director of operations. Are you grooming her to take over someday?
Yeah. In May I have a new senior VP of operations coming in; right now, he’s the GM of a major hotel in Chicago. He’ll be in for two or three years. And he’ll work and groom Britney as well to take over.
When do you see her taking over?
As Director of Operations she’s helping me run the company now. My son Brandon does a really good job running The Precinct; Dillon has become the assistant GM at Louisville. He’s doing a good job. So the kids have really taken off, all three of them.
You are a tough act for any kid to have to follow.
I think they’ll be better than me, because they won’t get into as much trouble. They didn’t come from my background. They didn’t come from Jersey and they didn’t come with such a chip on their shoulder, so I think they’ll be better than me. They’ll be me without an edge.
Photography by Jonathan Willis
Originally published in the March 2014 issue.