Rutabaga Café in Chattahoochee opened a little more than six years ago at 23 Jackson Street, in the little house where chef and co-owner Billy Austin lived for a time as a young man going to Keiser University’s culinary school.
He grew up in Jackson County, but his mother, Wanda Spooner, later lived in Chattahoochee for a time as owner and occupant of the house. She still owns it and her son said she is “thrilled to death” to see him using it to further his dreams.
It’s a pretty small place for an eatery, but it has drawn big praise from customers and reviewers since its beginnings. Many of the regular customers are willing to travel from Tallahassee, Panama City and Dothan, Alabama, to dine on Austin’s Southern American/French fusion fare. And “Star Wars” movie maestro George Lucas once dined there.
The tiny kitchen was a hive of activity Wednesday as the dinner service got underway, and Austin’s staffing choices show he hasn’t forgotten his Jackson County roots — he’s tapped into them to find Angela Douglas, for instance.
The Jackson County resident describes her position there as “chief yo-yo,” doing whatever and being wherever she’s needed in a given moment. The café not only has dine-in but a thriving catering concern as well, and she serves many roles in both those aspects. Weddings are big business for Austin and his crew. He estimates he does 130 weddings a year, including a big one for the Milton family in Marianna not so long ago.
Staffer Dillon Galloway is also from Jackson County, the grandson of the Johnny Howell. Howell’s name is iconic here as the owner of Howell’s fish camp in Sneads for decades.
Galloway, a native of Grand Ridge, is the manager of the eatery, often tending to minute plating details as the food leaves the kitchen for the front of house. Galloway said he got his humble start in the business as one of Austin’s dishwashers and that he found his boss willing to teach him all about the service side. But he doesn’t touch the stove: “If I’m cooking, something’s going wrong,” he joked.
You’ll usually find Cindi Riano bringing the plates forward and doting on the customers as she tends the front of house. Riano grew up in Chattahoochee and has an all-in commitment to Austin’s business. And, with his blessings, she’s started a side business of her own with skills she honed there: She creates her own cheese-and-meats party platters, an offering that Austin has on his menu as well and something he taught her the fine points of as she came on board just a year into his opening.
Back in the kitchen “Big Ron” Williams serves as sous chef. His rise to that position is the classic story: He started as a dishwasher. He’d watched his grandmother, Mary Jones, cook all his life and learned as much from her as possible. One day when things were extra busy at Rutabaga, Austin asked him to lend a hand on the food side. From there, his responsibilities behind the stove began to grow and soon someone else took over the majority of the cleanup.
He often finishes what Austin starts in the kitchen and helps in the prep as well. For instance, on Wednesday Austin started a grouper-with-truffle sauce dish and Williams saw it through to its finish, topping off the entre with the café’s signature three-shrimp crown.
Just prior to that, Williams had helped keep an eye on the cast iron skillet that Austin would use to cook two filet mignon servings. The skillet was handed down to Austin from his grandmother, Lula Jane McCoy. It was smoking hot by the time Austin dropped the meats in, and alongside it was a gravy being prepped. Austin had also just pulled a big pot of mixed greens off an eye, where flames could be seen licking hungrily up around the base of the pot.
The kitchen is a place where no one is idle for more than a few seconds at a time, and the bodies dodge each other constantly as service continues for diners inside and at a small outdoor section. The restaurant may also soon open a larger outdoor space where customers can view the sometimes stunning sunsets across the Apalachicola River.
Austin said he’s glad he chose to open and stick with his café through the tough times brought on by Hurricane Michael and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve fought and fought and fought for this place,” Austin said. “I love it. It’s tough — you have to find your niche and you have to believe and work very hard. I think I’ve found mine and everybody here works very hard. We do it together.”