originally published 12/03/2009
In 1976 the foundation was laid for many endeavors that would, in time, become iconic.The Apple Computer Company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The punk group The Ramones released their first self-titled album, and a couple by the name of Joe and Brenda Rueffert purchased the Woodbridge Inn in downtown Jasper.
Now, 33 years later, the longtime owners of Pickens’ landmark restaurant are handing the frying pan to another chef/owner. But fortunately for the half-German, half-American duo, one of their very own homegrown Äpfel (that’s German for apples) didn’t fall far from the tree.
The Ruefferts’ son Hans, host of ETC’s Hans Cooks the South and author of Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow, has now taken the yoke, and the yolks, from his parents. On October 12, Hans became the face and chief skillet-turner of Jasper’s most recognizable dining destination, the Woodbridge Inn, where German cuisine was introduced to a culinarily homogeneous Pickens County of the 1970s.
“We had talked about it a lot, but my health would not allow it for some time,” Hans said, who has battled cancer for years. According to Hans’ online blog, which can be found at www.hanscooks.net, he hadn’t worked at the Woodbridge for nearly five years. He was, however, able to film over 50 episodes of his cooking show during his illness.
“The TV stuff was great, because I could be involved with food, just not at the same level. I filmed 56 shows while I had cancer,” he said.
Hans said his health has improved enough that he and his family felt confident he could keep up the pace of running a restaurant.
“This is actually the first public announcement of the exchange. We didn’t want to make it until I got my feet on the ground…And it’s been a little crazy,” he said. “I came into the restaurant in the busy season.”
But Hans is familiar with operating the Woodbridge Inn, busy season or not. Beyond growing up at the downtown eatery, quite literally residing with his family in the upstairs portion of the restaurant, he worked as the Woodbridge’s chef and/or manager for a 14-year period from 1990 – 2004.
“Hans is not going in blindfolded. He is knowing what to expect,” Joe said in his pleasant German accent. “Sometimes the family has to take a backseat, and now he’s responsible. The restaurant business is very competitive. You can’t be an absentee manager. It doesn’t work.”
Hans takes the restaurant business very seriously, though, and just as his father said, he seems to be prepared for the challenge. “It’s obscene, almost insulting, when people open a restaurant and try to do it part time,” Hans said. “It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.”
Hans, no doubt, learned this ethic from his father, who made the restaurant business a “lifestyle” so many years ago by fusing his home life and his working life. And interestingly, Joe Rueffert’s motivation to begin cooking, even before the Woodbridge Inn, was just as pragmatic.
“I began cooking for safety,” Joe said. “I was raised in East Germany under the occupancy of German communism. It was hard because we didn’t always have food. Mom was always trying to talk us into going into the restaurant business because you would always have something to eat. Food was not always one of those given things.”
Joe said oftentimes he and his brothers would cry themselves to sleep because they didn’t have enough to eat. “In Germany we would have to wait 12 hours to get potatoes. One boy would get some, and then you would have to wait four more hours,” he said. “But after I began cooking, I loved it more and more as time went on.”
Hans’ personal involvement with the restaurant world was much different from that of his father’s, more of a natural outcropping of his upbringing than an exercise in necessity. “It’s in my blood,” Hans said. “But it was stressful. My sister and I rebelled when we had to do it as kids. Whenever they got busy in the restaurant, we would have to come down, but then again, every other job we had seemed boring, because here we were literally running around in circles.”
Hans said this lack of tedium is also part of what attracts him to the act of cooking––being behind the stove and getting his hands dirtied up. “You never stop learning,” he said. “There’s always a new ingredient, a new tool or a new technique. It’s like an alchemy experiment. It’s never the same thing twice. Even with the same ingredient, you have differences, like sometimes you get a carrot that’s really hard. But what I like about cooking is that it boils down to everybody has to eat, and people are happy when they eat.”
When asked about plans for the Woodbridge’s menu in a Post-Joe-and-Brenda era, Hans said he plans to keep many of the current selections but will trim away some of the elements not in keeping with his German and Southern-American heritages.
“I’m a halfkraut,” Hans said. “I’m going to keep much of the same, but I want to refine the food back to the basics. In an effort to compete, we added some Asian food and curries, which I love, but it’s not where we started. The menu will have dishes like shrimp and grits and Weiner Schnitzel. It’s going to be a little piece of Germany and a little piece of North Georgia.”
And, as you can imagine, Joe is proud of his little “halfkraut,” (who is not so little anymore) and sends Hans and his family the best in their new endeavor.
“I would like to extend my best wishes to this my son,” Joe said, “ I hope he will have a successful life in this business. Hopefully times will get better, and I hope he can bring up his son, Finn, so he finds some interest and takes over as well. I also hope the customers keep supporting him.”
Hans now lives with his wife and two children just a few miles away from the inn and says his family is looking forward to continuing the life of a restaurant family.
Joe and Brenda plan on staying “close by” in their log cabin that sits very near the restaurant, and Joe will focus on the marble carving and sculpting that has become synonymous with the Woodbridge Inn.
So even though the couple that has been such an important presence in Jasper for the last 30 years is finally hanging up the apron, you may very well see them pop in from time to time.
If you would like to honor Joe and Brenda for their service to the community, you are invited to attend a retirement party on December 13 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Woodbridge Inn. Anyone is welcome to drop in and say hello and enjoy some hors d’oeuvres.
Keeping it in the family - After 33 years, Joe and Brenda Rueffert have served their last plate as owners of the Woodbridge Inn. Their son Hans has taken the reins of Pickens' most recognizable dining destination and plans to build on his parents' success while refining the menu to reflect his German and southern heritage.