The Story in Food

04 Apr 2024

Chef Rodney’s creations nourish the soul



There’s something special about cooking for and feeding others, and that sentiment is not lost on Chef Rodney Smith of The Ruffed Grouse Tavern, the full-service restaurant of The Highlander Mountain House. He explained what makes the creative process of preparing a meal so meaningful, “There's just that feeling of creating a dish that will take someone to a level of happiness or bring people together. Food has always been at the center of just about anything important. It's a need to sustain life; it's a restoration of the soul, a transfer of energy from one item or being to another. The science behind it is romantic in its own way. If someone is enjoying the food I create, my takeaway is that they are restored for the next day. It's why we’re always creating, always going to the next step, and asking ourselves in the kitchen, ‘Am I happy with this?’"

That level of excellence and expertise, as well as his approach to creating both beautiful and nourishing meals, was immediately apparent to owner Jason Reeves, and he is excited to welcome Chef Rodney, “who brings years of experience in some of the country’s best kitchens to Highlands and is unveiling incredible new seasonal menus inspired by the bevy of local produce and ingredients available in the area.” The Ruffed Grouse Tavern is an intimate, English-style country pub and Appalachian tavern that has become an important gathering spot for locals and travelers alike. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a delicious locally sourced, seasonal meal, relax over a pint and a gourmet burger, or gather with your friends for Bluegrass Sunday Brunch.

Chef Rodney grew up in the Midwest and graduated in 2010 from the Arts Institute of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Culinary Arts, but his love of cooking started long before that. “It really became evident that I wanted to be a chef in my early teens when I began to write recipe ideas and test them on my sometimes-reluctant mother. She has inspired most of my work ethic and, in fact, has been my biggest supporter throughout my career.” You might even say cooking is in Chef Rodney’s DNA, as he was deeply influenced by his grandfather, who was also a chef and restaurant owner in Wisconsin. “When I was growing up, my grandfather seemed so much like a superhero; he seemed so strong, like the guy you wanted in your corner through the hardest times. One of my greatest wishes is that my grandfather was still around, and the two of us could throw on a couple of aprons and start working up the latest creation to inspire. Unfortunately, he passed when I was still pretty young.”

There’s no doubt Chef Rodney’s grandfather would be proud of his grandson’s career journey, which started in Minnesota and later took him to some of the most esteemed kitchens in the South, before eventually bringing him to Highlands. “After 18 years in Minnesota, I felt I needed to branch out and learn new foods and techniques outside of the Twin Cities. So, I decided to travel and work around the country for the next 3.5 years learning new techniques and ideas, and working with whoever was willing to teach. I landed in Atlanta in December of 2019 for an executive role within Proof of the Pudding.” During his time in Atlanta, Smith also served as a culinary director for Perfectly Portioned Nutrition meal prep, and 5K Hospitality, and he was instrumental in helping 5Church transition to a farm-to-table model.

But one of his most valuable culinary learning experiences was owning and operating a food truck, The Northern Nomad. “My biggest takeaway from the 2 years with my business was really digging in for a budget from nothing. Secondly, I would have to say self-confidence and reliability. I've learned a lot about myself - that if I show up and be honest about what I believe in cuisine-wise, people will believe it as well.” He explained that the creative element of cooking is much like telling a good story, “I'm sitting with you and telling a story and you're following along with every plot twist.”

Smith’s time in Atlanta also taught him the importance of work-life balance, “I nearly worked myself into the ER twice. As a result, I learned to rest when needed, whether that be mentally or physically.”  When he’s not in the kitchen at Ruffed Grouse, you’ll likely catch him outdoors, “In any off-time I allow myself, I'd have to say spending quality time with Micala on our many adventures is my favorite.”

Chef Rodney discussed what brought him and his partner Micala to Highlands, “Inner peace and the Highlander Mountain House itself brought me to Highlands. During the process of getting to know Jason and what he was inspired to turn The Ruffed Grouse into, I visited a few times and honestly fell in love with the area. It very quickly became evident that this would be my next home.”

Smith is grateful that his life’s journey brought him to the plateau, and he looks forward to building a life here. “Being able to start my day overlooking the Appalachians and to take in the smell of crisp, clean air as I'm running to the basement for vegetables really hits home. I'm here to stay for as long as the community will let me. I love this place and I have so many culinary stories to tell.”

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