San Ramon's Worth Ranch barbecue joint an empire's worthy addition
By Lou Fancher
If the food chain breaks down leaving only bananas and brisket, Rodney Worth is likely to open the first-ever bananas-and-brisket restaurant. The 43-year-old serial restaurateur loves to build on his gastronomic imaginings. With the Jan. 4 opening of Worth Ranch in San Ramon, he stands astride a seven-restaurant mini-empire.
Worth Ranch catapults the jovial, Danville-based chef and father of three into the slow-cook environment of barbecue. Refining sugar-chili-and-salt rubs or perfecting sous-vide-prepared food -- the process involves bagging and vacuum-sealing -- has Worth enthralled.
"I thought sous-vide was a fad," he says. "But it's opened my eyes. It's harder to make, but it's better for you."
Seven years ago, Worth was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and says his former, 12-pack-of-cokes-per-day habit is probably to blame. Recently shedding 65 pounds, he's fighting-trim. A history with food that reads like a Wild West rodeo show -- zigzagging between healthy and hard-to-believe -- explains much about Worth's passionate culinary explorations.
Growing up in a family of five kids in a 1,000-square -foot home in Hayward, he says jalapeños, spoon bread and buttermilk were staples. For dinner his father would cook enough liver-and-onions or steak chili to feed a dozen people.
"We overate, but it was delicious," Worth says. "Mom used to make hash brown sandwiches for lunch."
During his teens, Worth and his buddies tailgated, firing up a Weber in the school parking lot to barbecue sausages purchased at a favorite Hayward butcher shop. A health kick after high school had him stir frying vegetables and chicken breasts in the family garage.
"I had a cheap red wok. I'd set it on the washing machine, crank it up high and get cooking."
Following his father's footsteps to Safeway -- his dad recently retired after 40 years with the grocery operation -- Worth packed trucks at the Fremont warehouse. Encouraged by a manager to "get out, you're meant for more than this," he took a service job, driving alone hundreds of miles a day, before finding himself in an unlikely position developing new products for Applied Materials. "I had no education in that (semiconductor) area," he recalls.
But that job and a decision to enroll in Diablo Valley College's culinary program set the stage for Worth's rapid rise. While in school, he worked at Wente Vineyards, moving on to study under chef Loretta Keller at San Francisco's Bizou (now Coco 500) and gaining an appreciation for sustainable, local and organic products.
In an oft-repeated story that has become a bit of Worth legend, he opened his first restaurant, a sandwich shop in a San Ramon strip mall, in 2004 with just $58 in his pocket. Eight years later, he'd added five more restaurants reflecting simple and eclectic taste: California "peasant" cuisine tinged by Mexican, Italian and New Orleans-style influences and located in Alamo, Danville and Napa.
"I love building restaurants. I love the fight, climbing the mountain -- more than getting on top," he says.
Staying on top of seven restaurants, however, he acknowledges, is worrisome. "I think about that all the time. I communicate daily with my sous chefs. It scares me when I walk into my own restaurant and a host asks me if I want a table."
Trusted employees are key to consistency. Sous chef Nacho Bravo is "telepathically" connected and "like an extension of me," says Worth. Bravo, 40, started as pantry chef at $10 an hour and says, "I've learned loyalty and commitment from him. You find your person, you stay with them."
Jennifer Murray's nine years working for Worth Group leaves her with a blurry job title but her boss's bountiful respect. Natalie Worth, his wife, handles finances and catering. Worth says hiring is the hardest aspect of the business.
"I want passion rather than skill. We can train anybody, but kids today think they should be top chefs. They don't know that they should first be peeling carrots for months. At Wente, I cut 20 pounds of carrots wrong. They threw them in the soup. I had to do them all over again."
That uncompromising standard applied to his restaurants means he's a stickler about seafood -- all of it is Monterey Bay Aquarium-certified. Fresh produce other than root vegetables is organic.
At Worth Ranch, starters include deviled eggs, "burnt-ends-crispy onion rings," drunken gulf prawns and pork belly. Southern-style soups and salads lead the way to pulled pork, baby back ribs, "Santa Maria rubbed tri tip" and entrees offering fried chicken, chipotle-honey glazed salmon and more.
The "Rodzilla Burger," a slouchy and succulent certified Angus beef patty draped with cheese, smoked bacon and those signature crispy fried onion strings, is a knockout ($14). Sides are no surprise: cornbread, sweet potato fries, maple yams, buttermilk biscuits and more.
Worth says all cooks should own "The Food Lover's Companion." His primary culinary influences are chefs Bobby Flay, Joanne Harris and Alice Waters. At home, his favorite meal to cook is paella. "It's one pot, lots of flavors. I like stews -- peasant food."