The untold truth of Food Network star Carl Ruiz

Food Network personality, restaurateur, and chef Carl Ruiz just had one of those faces. You never knew when it was going to pop up, but whenever it did — and it did often — you just knew that this was a guy who would be fun to hang out with. He was a chef that even food critics loved: when he passed away, critic Tony Johnson had this to say about him: "He made people laugh who'd forgotten how to laugh. He set rooms on fire. He was the match and the kerosene." 

There's not too many people who can have their entire life's philosophy summed up in a single hashtag, but Ruiz's fans coined one in his honor long ago. #Ruizing is something all can — and should — aspire to, as it simply means that you're living the best life you can. And at the end of that day, that counts. 

So, who was he? Let's take a look at the life of this chef with the infectious sense of fun, laughter, and adventure.

Carl Ruiz's tragic death

On September 22, 2019, Ruiz's restaurant, La Cubana, made a heartbreaking announcement on social media. It read, in part, "No words can fully express our sadness at the sudden loss of our dear friend and brother. … He was a mighty force of down home Cuban cuisine, and lived life to the fullest, just as he cooked — with 'dancing always' as the most important ingredient."

Ruiz's death came at the shockingly young age of just 44, and while his restaurant and his family didn't immediately reveal the cause of death, PopCulture reported that his friend Matt Farah did. According to him, Ruiz "passed peacefully in his sleep of a suspected heart attack…."

Farah paid tribute to him on Instagram, saying that whenever they hung out, three things always happened: Ruiz taught him something epicly interesting, Ruiz introduced him to someone interesting, and they laughed — a lot. 

It was PopCulture who also reported on Ruiz's eerie final post. In the hours before he passed, he posted a picture to Instagram. It was a photo of a dish of crab cakes, collard greens, red beans and rice, a dish he described as "Heaven."

La Cubana has already announced that his name and his legacy will live on, with their plans of establishing The Carl Ruiz Scholarship Foundation, which will give aspiring chefs a helping hand.

Carl Ruiz was good friends with Guy Fieri

Of all the Food Network stars, it was Guy Fieri who most closely associated with him. Ruiz appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy's Ranch Kitchen, and 25 episodes of Guy's Grocery Games, says PopCulture (along with making appearances on Dinner: Impossible). It was Fieri who introduced him Opie Radio, too, who in turn introduced him to so many other people through his podcast and, later, helped push Ruiz's own podcast.

After the news was announced, Fieri took to Twitter with this to say about his friend: "I'm heartbroken that my friend chef Carl Ruiz is gone. I have no words to describe what a great friend he was to me and my family. His ability to make me laugh and smile under any circumstances was only outshined by his talent as a chef…. Over the years, I've met a lot of great people but a friend like Carl is one in a hundred million. Carl 'The Cuban' Ruiz will forever live on in my heart and in those of all who loved him."

Carl Ruiz was widely admired, respected, and loved

Ruiz's friends and family weren't the only ones to take to social media to share their heartbreak and memories of him, and numerous celebrity chefs paid tribute to their friend. 

Alex Guarnaschelli tweeted, "This man was somehow fatherly, comforting, wise, reckless, brilliant, wickedly funny & unique all in 1. My life will be lonelier without him. Love you Carl. I'll make sure no one puts pineapple on pizza best I can without you here." Amanda Frietag posted to Instagram, saying, "There is a hole in the culinary world and in our hearts."

BBQ World Champion Myron Mixon, chef Richard Blais, chef Michael Symon, and even Guy Fieri's son, Hunter, were among those who paid tribute to him on social media. 

Not all comments were welcome or appropriate, though. USA Today reported that Paula Deen was making an appearance on The Big J Show when she was asked if she knew Ruiz. She said she didn't, that she was sorry to hear about his passing, then added with a laugh, "You know, they say the restaurant business will kill ya."

Carl Ruiz stayed true to his Cuban roots

It's important to remember where you came from, and Ruiz always did that. According to The New York Times, he credited his mother and grandmother of his love of food and cooking; after Ruiz's death was announced, it was his brother, George, who told them that his brother had gotten his start experimenting with food and ingredients at home, long before he ever thought about going into business. 

When it came to his work ethic, George Ruiz says that came from their father, a Colombian mechanic who ran the New Jersey shop where the young Ruiz brothers also worked. He was the one who taught them it wasn't just about the service, it was about the sense of community. 

When Ruiz opened La Cubana, he talked to Diced — the magazine of the Institute of Culinary Education — about it. On the menu were old favorites he first had when they were made by his mother and grandmother, and "stuff that I picked up in Miami and Orlando, some old-school dishes that were disappearing. The traditional stuff is really satisfying to make." 

Carl Ruiz knew his way around Italian cuisine, too

In 2014, The New York Times ran a largely favorable review of Marie's Italian Specialties, a deli-style restaurant Ruiz opened with then-wife Marie. The idea, they said, was that they were going to keep hours traditional for that kind of restaurant, and close precisely at 6 p.m. That ended on the very first day, when a customer walked in at 6 p.m. on the dot to place his order. Ruiz told them that he continued to be a regular, but they never told him that he was the reason they stayed open late.

Ruiz described the food as "lay-down-on-your-couch-for-three-hours-afterward Italian," and reviewers agreed, saying it was pretty much the place to go for the heavy, hearty, and perfectly prepared dishes you're familiar with when you think of Italian food. The mussels were particularly impressive, which they found harkened back to Ruiz's days working as a chef on Canada's Prince Edward Island. That's where he learned to keep mussels in distilled and salted water before serving them, and it's the little things that make all the difference. 

The homemade mozzarella, the generous portions, the (free) mini cannolis… all made for a dining experience that still speaks volumes about the care Ruiz took with his food, no matter what the type.

Carl Ruiz appreciated all food

It's easy to imagine professional chefs and Food Network personalities might have a tough time going to your favorite fast food joint and swinging through for a meal on the run, but that absolutely wasn't the case for Ruiz. When Matt Farah shared some stories about him after the announcement of his passing (via The New York Times), he shared one about Ruiz's appearance at Farah's wedding in April of the same year. He described the chef as "dancing with everybody, 20 people, none of whom really knew him," then added something equally neat. 

It wasn't until the after-party that Ruiz decided he was going to feed everyone — with pizza from Domino's

Domino's might seem like the last place a celebrity chef would choose for a late-night pizza fix, but Ruiz spent $300 to feed everyone on pizza that, he insisted, was just as important to the cultural landscape of America as pizzas of the fancier, trendier variety. From the finest mussels to the pizza you order when you can't be bothered to cook dinner, Ruiz was brilliant in his acknowledgement of it all as important. 

Carl Ruiz had a series on YouTube

If you've ever wondered what a professional chef would think of your favorite fast food, fast casual, and sit-down dining chains, Ruiz hosted a YouTube show where he would tell you. OMG Carl's Food Show gave viewers exactly what they wanted, a trained chef's take on places like Applebee's, Cracker Barrel, McDonald's, Subway, and Five Guys. He was honest, too, and no, he didn't hate everything. 

Skip the cheeseburger egg rolls at Applebee's, for example, but their artichoke dip was a win. So were their quesadillas, which he considered among the best chain quesadillas he'd had. 

How about Cracker Barrel? He found the decor weird, admitted they were off to a "rough start" with his first bite of country ham, but went on to say that it was real ham, and he hadn't been expecting that for the price. He lauded their eggs and their orange juice, and if you're starting to see a pattern here, you're right. Even dishes he wasn't super fond of he still tried to find something good to say about them, and that says a lot. 

He was less thrilled with Subway, using the word "spongey" quite a bit.

Carl Ruiz caused a minor social media scandal

Ruiz was perhaps the last person to cause a scandal, but he did kick off a minor one when, NJ.com says, he shocked Florida by declaring it wasn't a southern restaurant who made the best Cuban sandwich, but La Pola in West New York. 

He lauded them for their perfectly proportioned and flavored sandwich, and he acknowledged that he's had plenty to compare it to. Out of the 500-odd Cuban sandwiches he'd had, he gave credit where he thought it was due — to Belarmino Rico, the one man behind the counter making the sandwiches, the same man who opened the restaurant in 1978. 

When the sentiment popped up on social media, it wasn't just residents of Florida who took issue with it. Protests went all the way up into the governments of cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg, who weren't swayed by Ruiz's insistence that La Pola's hand-sliced ham and pork, coupled with bread from Union City's Cuba Bakery, made for the perfect sandwich. (Which, he adds, should never use pulled pork and weren't actually made for Cubans, they were made by Cubans looking to cater to the palates of visiting American tourists.)

Carl Ruiz owned and worked in several Cuban restaurants

When it came to Cuban cuisine, Ruiz knew his stuff. After growing up surrounded by the cuisine, he went on to have a long career cooking and bringing it to others, starting with his time in the kitchen  at the Latin and Peruvian restaurant Sabor Peru as well as Montclair's Cuban Pete's (via NJ.com). 

Then, there was Son Cubano, a New York City restaurant Ruiz opened and styled after the sort of supper club you might find in Havana, bringing traditional dishes and drinks to a classy city location. According to Diced, he was forced to close that restaurant when an increase in rent made the business unsustainable, and opened La Cubana 15 years after closing Son Cubano. There, he honed in on exactly what it was that set his restaurant apart, and it was starting with the basics. Making the perfect stock and bases might not seem exciting, but that — along with sourcing ingredients from Spain and Cuba — made all the difference. Along with, he said, "time and experience." 

You can make Carl Ruiz's burger sauce recipe

It's expected that a chef might guard their recipes pretty closely. It's their livelihood, after all, and there's a lot of work that goes into perfecting each and every one. Take KFC. Their dedication to keeping their top secret recipe for fried chicken, well, top secret is legendary, but Ruiz was the opposite. 

He once tweeted, "I'll give anybody my recipes. The difference between me and them is that I can make new ones." 

And he wasn't just saying that, either. He also took to Twitter to give out the recipe for his burger sauce, much to the delight of fans who quickly made it then just as quickly sang his praises. It's a super simple recipe you can make, too, probably with what you have in your kitchen right now. The secrets? Just 4 ounces of ketchup, 3 ounces Lugers (or cocktail sauce), 2.5 ounces of horseradish, 3 ounces of mayo, 1.5 ounces of cherry pepper vinegar, then the following to taste: salt, pepper, Tabasco, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, onion powder, and a bit of Accent. 

Backyard BBQs? Changed. Thanks, Chef Ruiz.