During a 50-year foodservice career Warren Leruth has done many things. Indeed, he has developed products, fostered innovation, operated a restaurant, written cookbooks, consulted for food organizations and been a taste specialist. But that is not all he's done; he also has given generously to charity and come to the aid of friends.
Now he's been tapped by Nation's Restaurant News as the first inductee into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame. "I love R&D and always have," Leruth says. "It's creative and involves a lot of calculations and numbers, which I enjoy."
Throughout his varied career the 69-year-old Leruth has been first and foremost a food product developer. "Research is a much calmer field than running a restaurant," he says, recalling his years as owner-operator of the famed LeRuth's Restaurant in Gretna on New Orleans' West Bank. "With R&D you have your hand in food all the time but at a different level."
The new Hall of Famer continues to set a brisk pace through life. From his well-equipped home kitchen in Pass Christian, Miss., he develops and consults on products for Outback Steakhouse, Boston Chicken, Brinker International, Burger King and many other restaurant chains.
Always outspoken, Leruth says: "One of the toughest challenges in foodservice today is the American hamburger. There's light years of work to be done with the quality and grind of meat and the overall fat."
Leruth's philosophy is that "whatever you eat must have a happy ending. You don't want a heavy or greasy after-taste. More meat doesn’t make a better burger."
Doing it better has been at the top of Leruth's foodservice agenda since he first started in the business as an apprentice chef in the 1940's at Solari's, a renowned New Orleans grocery/charcuterie/patisserie. Here he learned most of his baking skills.
Later at the New Orleans Country Club, pastry chef Jacques Harte would become a mentor. "He was a great gentleman who knew all the fancy pastries and was tremendous with pies," Leruth recalls.
From Solari's he moved on to become a saucier at Galatoire's in New Orleans. Other stops included the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas; Diamond Jim Moran's and the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter; and the Shamrock Hotel in Houston.
After those stints Leruth joined the National Guard and entered the Army's baking, cooking, and supervisory schools. In 1952 he was drafted into the Korean War and served as personal chef to Gen. Bruce C. Clark. During his tour of duty he also cooked for then-Vice President Richard Nixon, Cardinal Spellman of New York and Korean President Synghman Rhee.
Back home, Leruth worked in the research kitchens of Proctor & Gamble; Chas. Dennery & Co., a well-known Deep South bakery; and the Texas firm of Anderson-Clayton. While at Anderson-Clayton, he developed something that's taken for granted today -- a pourable, non-separating dressing, which eventually became the Seven Seas line of salad dressings.
Today he looks back on that breakthrough as one of his top career accomplishments. He also credits Carter Harrer, Anderson-Clayton's director of R&D, for teaching him how to formulate recipes.
In 1963 Leruth became the youngest member of the national chef fraternity, the Order of the Golden Toque. Three years later he opened LeRuth's Restaurant. With little advertising or fanfare the place soon was packed night after night. For five consecutive years LeRuth's was honored with the prestigious Travel/Holiday Award.
His dream realized, Leruth sold the restaurant to his sons in 1982 and retired. "But I got bored," he says. He was spurred by a remarkable initiative, and the projects quickly mounted up. He started the LeRuth Extract Co., making and marketing his Vanilla Bean Marinade and pure vanilla extract. And as if that weren't enough, he developed Chelsey's Frozen Custard, a soft ice-cream emporium.
He has written two cookbooks and today continues his work with the Chefs' Charity for Children, a foundation he established two decades ago to benefit the St. Michael's Special School. The charity has raised more than $1.2 million, and Leruth says, "I'm very proud of the New Orleans chefs who contribute their time and products each year to our fund-raising event.
Anthony Athanas, the famed Boston restaurateur and owner of Anthony's Pier 4 restaurant, recalls a time when Leruth was there for him. In 1978, when a blizzard sank the antique riverboat that Athanas had anchored alongside Pier 4 as a cocktail lounge, Leruth was quick to help. Although Athanas never accepted the generous offer of money, the Boston restaurateur remembers the gesture every time he talks to Leruth.
Making the journey with Leruth for 43 years has been his wife, the former Marie Rizzuto, a New Orleans native, like her husband. Leruth says she's the cook in the family, and he still enjoys the traditional New Orleans food that he grew up on. "You know, red beans and rice on Mondays," he says, chuckling.
The birth of their children is the first thing that comes to Leruth's mind when he is asked to review his life and career. Their son, 41-year-old Larry Leruth, is chief meat inspector for Outback Steakhouse and a part-time associate in Leruth's consulting operation, LeRuths' & Associates. Another son, Lee Rene, committed suicide at 29, a blow that still resonates in Leruth's mind. "That's so painful," he says. "You never get over it."
On the brighter side, Lee Rene's marriage produced two children. And with Larry's child, the Leruth's now have three grandchildren.
"Ahh," he says, looking back, "I wish I were starting all over again with all this knowledge."
If that were the case, who knows how many other different ideas, products, and ventures would emerge from his creative mind?