Ruth Fertel was a single mother who found Chris Steak House in the classifieds, gambled with mobsters, winning 30 grand in one night, and refused to give up her handbag holding the day’s earnings to a robber, even though he shot her.
“Yer mother had balls like zeppole,” one admiring tough guy told Ruth’s son. He didn’t disagree, even though what he heard was “zeppelins.” Now Randy Fertel has written a book about his mother and the Ruth’s Chris chain of steakhouses, such a success she cashed out in 1999 for a sum in “the low 9 figures.”
His father, Rodney, makes an appearance as the rich eccentric who donned a gorilla costume to run for mayor with the campaign slogan, “Don’t settle for a monkey.”
Fertel’s memoir, “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak,” also paints an evocative picture of New Orleans and southern culture.
We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.
Lundborg: What are your earliest memories of Ruth’s Chris?
Fertel: That incredible steak sizzling in butter! But the waitresses and chef Vontel were also my new family.
Vontel would take me to after-hour black bars at a time when desegregation was new, a world I’d never seen.
I was 15, and one of his first lessons was: “Mens drink scotch, not that sweet bourbon.” He also told me I was not getting enough lovin’.
Lundborg: Your mother butchered the meat herself?
Fertel: Yes, even though she was 110 pounds and the meat weighed 30-40 pounds. It was all short loins that came in these oak-staved barrels, wrapped in cheese cloth, dry-aged meat, covered with blackish, greenish mold that you cut off. It was heavenly.
Lundborg: What was the key to her success?
Fertel: She was great in the kitchen, decisive, and a hard worker. She was also very charismatic, and people loved her.
She was tough -- to make sure she always got the best lots, she challenged the suppliers any time the meat didn’t come in right.
Lundborg: How did her steakhouse become such a hot spot?
Fertel: The restaurant was always the place to go when you did well at the track. Then the oil-patch people started to come, and in New Orleans, the politicians follow the money, so they came.
The Bluebloods from uptown control the politicians, so they wanted to be around to make sure the politicians were doing the right thing. So, it became the power lunch, power dinner spot.
Lundborg: The sex booths didn’t hurt either, I take it?
Fertel: The original restaurant had three booths surrounded by wood and a green curtain. There were so many moments of indiscretion the waitresses walked in on, my mom had to install a light so patrons could signal when they wanted service.
Lundborg: Soon, blacks felt comfortable there as well. How did your mother manage that?
Fertel: She was free from racism. The civil-rights attorney Lolis Edward Elie first broke the color barrier at the restaurant, brought there by a man who wanted his support in an election.
Some cracker came up to my mother, and said, “If that boy is going to eat here, I’ll never eat here again.”
My mother replied, “There’s the door.”
Lundborg: Fellow restaurateur Arnie Morton said your mother created the prime-steak business. What did he mean?
Fertel: Steak had been this tiny niche for the aficionado and she expanded it. Her ads said only two percent of the beef in America is worthy of her customers, so she educated people on the value of this expensive product.
Even though it’s not the healthiest trend, the prime market now is huge.
Lundborg: For you, the same qualities that made her a successful businesswoman made her a less-than-successful mother.
Fertel: Mom was determined to feed the world, but had trouble nurturing those nearest to her. It’s not just me -- many of her executives felt they’d gotten short shrift and there were a lot of lawsuits toward the end of her life. There’s a tragic quality.
Her father instilled in her this grandiosity, that she “hung the moon,” so if she had to do it at the expense of others, that was okay. My mother spent the rest of her life proving that she could do anything.
Lundborg: Your mom divorced two husbands, and then never married again. Why?
Fertel: She didn’t want men telling her what to do. My mother also had an incredible track record in surrounding herself with men who were not worthy of her.
Lundborg: You went to work for her, got fired and ultimately sued to protect your interest in the business. Why so much turmoil?
Fertel: My biggest motivation was the fateful decision that I needed to save my mom from herself and the people she had surrounded herself with.
The fact was she didn’t want to be saved. She was loving it!
Lundborg: What was it like, going back to New Orleans after Katrina?
Fertel: It was heartbreaking. The house I grew up in was flooded, the foundation cracked, the facade falling down, and the owner’s goods were all out on the street. The big tree was cut down.
I thought of Louis Armstrong crooning about the “tall sugar pines where mockingbirds used to sing,” but even the birds were silent. Katrina had blown them all away.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)