“You want to open a fancy french restaurant in Sherman?” said the banker. “I doubt many folks around here would be interested.”
Perhaps Warren Leruth thought, “You might be surprised,” but he didn’t say it. He was in the Grayson State Bank in Sherman on the last day of 1962 to take care of business, and he wanted to get on with it. This idea for a restaurant was not a sudden whim. It was something Leruth had carefully worked out. He believed in the idea, in himself, and he believed Sherman was indeed ready for something more than the usual fare.
The city had always been the center of commercial and educational services in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma, but in the early 1960s, Sherman was on a roll, with the population having increased by twenty percent over the past decade. A strong manufacturing sector attracted well-paid executives, managers, and technicians from around the country. Building contractors and other entrepreneurs found the fast growing economy challenging and profitable, and Perrin Air Force Base, an important and busy training facility for pilots during the Cold War, provided a continuous stream of new people used to the good life. The area’s professionals, doctors and lawyers found strong demand for their services too.
Right Time. Right Place.
Leruth thought there was a need for a place where businessmen could conduct transactions in relative privacy, where the globehopping air force officers from Perrin could romance their ladies, where young lawyers could see and be seen, and where doctors and their wives could spend a quiet evening away from endless demands.
And there was more. Sherman wanted—no, needed—a place where a nervous young man with an engagement ring in his pocket could pop the question, where ranchers and their wives could celebrate their continued success and another anniversary, and where dowagers with closets full of lovely clothes could see and be seen.
No, this idea of a first class French eatery in Sherman, Texas, was not a half-baked idea. Leruth had sweated every detail, and he knew it would work. So when he finished laying out his plans, he was not fazed by the banker’s next question. “How are you going to run the restaurant? You’ve got a full-time job at Anderson Clayton. By my calculation, you’ll be working from 5 a.m. to midnight five nights a week.”
That didn’t matter. After a life already crammed with more than most men twice his age could have accomplished, Leruth was nothing if not supremely confident. He brushed aside the banker’s skepticism. Here in Sherman, he was ready to begin a journey that would lead him to the heights of culinary celebrity, and nothing was going to get in the way.
Leruth arrived in Sherman after a period of unsettled employment, but enormous professional growth. Since leaving home, he had had scores of jobs—later on he told people the number topped three hundred. His passion was food and cooking. One of his first jobs had been as a baker’s assistant with Solari’s in New Orleans, and he had been a baker in the National Guard and later, on active military duty, a mess hall supervisor. His experience was considerable. Eventually, he had landed a job as a bakery service man with Proctor and Gamble, and he leveraged that to a position with Anderson Clayton and Company as a bulk oil and shortening salesman. From his base in Shreveport, he was responsible for a four-state territory.
Eddie Cahan joined Anderson Clayton about the same time as Leruth, and in January 1956, the pair attended a mandatory bakery school at the company’s Sherman plant.
“With his experience as a baker, Warren was the star of the class,” said Cahan. “All the rest of us were rank beginners in the kitchen. He put us at ease because he was so much fun. We loved to tease him by trying to imitate his high-pitched laugh.”
Cahan explained that Leruth was more of an advisor to the high-end hotel pastry chefs and bakeries in his territory than a traditional salesman. “His customers had a lot of respect for him. He understood their production problems, and could solve them. When he talked, you can bet they listened.”
Leruth’s success in Shreveport quickly led to a promotion and a transfer to Irving, Texas, where he had higher sales potential in a smaller geographic area. Warren and his wife, Marie, bought their first home in Irving. Larry, their first child, was born in 1957, and later that year, they took the first vacation of their married life. Reflecting on that modest excursion to the beaches of Biloxi, Mississippi, Leruth later wrote “I think at that point in our life, we were just starting to get our heads above water. We were accumulating a bit of money. Life was good for us.”
After a year and a half in Irving, Leruth was getting restless. “I was starting to get ants in my pants and was anxious to go into some kind of business for myself or to get a job where I could earn more money.” In the course of his job with Anderson Clayton, he had dealt with Charles Dennery & Company of New Orleans, a well-known Deep South bakery and confectionery supply house. Going back to New Orleans appealed to him, so he took a job as a salesman with the company and bid Anderson Clayton farewell.
The sales job was short lived. Leruth resigned almost immediately when the company took away four of his largest accounts. Someone at Charles Dennery saw potential in the young man, and not necessarily as a salesman. They did not want to lose him, so they offered him a job in research and development.
“I worked with a fellow by the name of Fred Smedley, a very fine fellow from Oklahoma,” Leruth later recalled. “Fred was an excellent baker, and he taught me a lot of technical things. While I was working for Fred, I had a chance to learn to make almost everything that the company was manufacturing, which included a lot of prepared mixes, flavors, all types of ice cream products and toppings, jams, jellies and stabilizers and everything that had to do with the bakery supply business.”
Others recognized Leruth was someone special. When the owner of Bakery Service, another New Orleans bakery supply house offered Leruth a chance to buy ten percent of the company and to set up a small manufacturing department, he jumped at the opportunity and left Charles Dennery. Working for Bakery Service, he sold his products during the week and, with one helper, manufactured what he had sold on the weekends.
The travel, the schedule and the added pressure of a growing family took its toll. “I did this for about a year. I worked extremely hard. I had lost sixty pounds, and I really felt good and had a great desire to be more successful. At the end of that year after working so hard, we almost doubled the sales of the company. My reward was a bonus which I felt wasn’t enough.”
Formula for Success
Leruth’s manufacturing experience at Charles Dennery and Bakery Service opened the door for a second career at Anderson Clayton. Mike Deck, head of research and development for food division, knew that Leruth’s manufacturing experience, coupled with his unstoppable energy, could contribute to the success of a new salad dressing product line being developed in Sherman. Rehired by Deck in 1961, Leruth reported to Senior Researcher Carter Harrer, an able, but quiet and reserved scientist. Leruth later credited Harrer with teaching him to scientifically formulate recipes.
R&D had to overcome a scientific obstacle: separation of oil-based salad dressings in the bottle. If dressings were not well shaken before each use, the oil rose to the top and other ingredients gravitated to the bottom. Part of the problem was resolved with manufacturing techniques borrowed from Thomas J. Lipton’s Wish-Bone® dressing and part by employing a shaker top borrowed from Lea and Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce.
But the important breakthrough was Leruth’s. “It was here that I made my first patent on stabilization of high oil-content salad dressings that would remain pourable. The company was very happy with the work, and it gave us a complete edge against all of our competition.” Many years later, when Leruth was inducted into MenuMaster’s Hall of Fame, he stated this breakthrough was one of his top career accomplishments.
The relationship between the product manager and the research chef was critical to the success of the product line. Dick Kuska was plucked from a Philadelphia advertising agency to serve as product manager, shepherding the new salad dressing line from concept through development, packaging, marketing and distribution. Kuska and Leruth immediately hit it off. One of their first accomplishments was a name, Seven Seas®, suggested by Leruth during a brainstorming session. They had great personal empathy, respected each other’s skills and knowledge, worked together effectively and often, in innovative ways.
“I would sometimes write advertisements for products that didn’t exist, and Warren would formulate recipes which matched the advertisements,” Kuska recalled. Although Leruth was the first to propose Green Goddess as the lead in the product line, their collaboration resulted in other flavors, such as Creamy Italian and Thousand Island.
Simultaneously, other Anderson Clayton teams were developing Chiffon® Margarine. Management brought in Arthur D. Little (ADL), a renowned consulting firm specializing in strategy and operations management, to help solve the problem of flavor lost when Chiffon was hardened. ADL’s experts consulted with R&D on this problem and also provided training in flavoring scientifically.
As part of the process, ADL tested individuals to determine how precise their taste was. They found that Leruth had an astonishing acuity of taste and could easily distinguish flavors consisting of one ten thousandth of a gram in a fifteen ton batch. Capitalizing on that sensitivity, they trained him as a flavor-panel leader.
The flavor panel was a group of people trained in the flavor profile method. By the ADL definition: “The flavor profile method is based on the concept that flavor consists of identifiable taste, odor, and chemical feeling factors plus an underlying complex of sensory impressions not separately identifiable. The method consists of formal procedures for describing and assessing the aroma and flavor of a product in a reproducible manner. The separate characteristics contributing to the overall sensory impression of the product are identified, and their intensity assessed in order to build a description of the aroma, flavor, and aftertaste of the product.”
Leruth’s time at Anderson Clayton in Sherman was the point at which his early ambitions to be a scientist intersected with his chosen profession as a chef. As a testament to his contribution, the Seven Seas® product line, now owned by Kraft Foods, Inc., still ranks among the top in sales of salad dressings in the United States.
In a memoir dictated in retirement, Leruth remembered the years in Sherman. “I guess it was the most important part of my life or, one of the most important parts, because I was able to spend so much time with both of my sons and my wife. It was the first time in our married life that we were able to become part of the community.”
In 1961, the family purchased a home on West College, surrounded by other families of young professional men. They attended St. Mary’s Church, and both of their sons, Larry and Lee, attended St. Mary’s School.
When Mayor Ralph Elliott discovered that Leruth was an Eagle Scout, the mayor convinced him to lead a troop sponsored by the First Methodist Church. “I had two very fine assistants,” said Leruth. “One was a Baptist, one was a Methodist, and there I was, a Catholic, leading the scouts of the First Methodist Church. We had a great organization. In fact, many times we had as many fathers as we had Boy Scouts. It was a very active troop. We did a lot of camping, canoe trips, and we just had a great time.”
The Leruths’ social life was anchored in their home and neighborhood. Neighbor Betty Roberts remembered. “The Leruths were very generous to the families nearby. They had a swimming pool and gave pool parties in the summer. Larry and Lee Leruth were very active, always a part of the neighborhood, always ready for more Kool-Aid and cookies.”
And as Bob Tate recalled, hospitality at home was one of the Leruths’ great pleasures. “Warren was a real chef. On several occasions, we arrived at their home in the afternoon for dinner. We were slowly led through each course, complete with the wines he chose, finally sitting down for dinner after seven. He took a lot of pleasure in sharing his love for food and wine.”
On occasion, Fred Assunto, one of the founders of the famed New Orleans revival band, “The Dukes of Dixieland,” would stop in Sherman on his way from New Orleans to engagements in Las Vegas. After dinner, neighbor Olan Atherton would bring over his trombone to play with Assunto while the whole neighborhood listened in.
With the Seven Seas® product line migrating from R&D to manufacturing, Leruth needed another outlet for his energy and ambition. His friend, Chef Ernest Bertschi of Monsieur Pepe restaurant in Dallas, encouraged him to open a restaurant. Bertschi, a highly qualified chef in the European tradition and president of the Texas Culinary Association, freely shared his knowledge with an eager and attentive pupil. On many occasions, Leruth shadowed Bertschi at work so he could absorb the secrets of a highly successful Continental kitchen.
Leruth planned his restaurant for a year and a half, reaching into his experience for inspiration, dreaming and constantly refining every detail. He chose LeRuth’s as the name because the spelling looked more French. Reflecting lessons learned at one of his first employers, the legendary New Orleans restaurant Galatoire’s, his formula for success was quality, consistency, and simplicity. Every element of the plan would contribute to customer satisfaction and repeat business.
LeRuth’s opened in May 1963, with Sherman Mayor Ralph Elliott presiding over the grand opening ceremony and ribbon cutting. A small group of well-wishers, including friends, Anderson Clayton colleagues, and professional chefs, attended. Father John Duesman from St. Mary’s Church provided the benediction and blessing.
Leruth radiated excitement. As he looked up at the LeRuth’s sign, he knew he was closer to his most heart-felt desire: to provide a better life for his beloved wife and children. The hard work, long hours, the financial uncertainty mattered not if Marie, Larry and Lee were happy and secure.
The restaurant was located at 2116 North Highway 75 (now Texoma Parkway), adjacent to Tate Lumber Company. “The process of designing the building took a long time,” remembered Bob Tate. “Warren had very detailed requirements for every aspect of the building, kitchen and finishes. From the Chicago brick used in the walkway and the ironwork that enclosed the courtyard to the electrical specifications in the kitchen, he had definite ideas about what he wanted.”
LeRuth’s was designed for fine dining. The interior, calming and soothing, was decorated with great care in a sophisticated, neutral color palette. A courtyard garden and fountain were visible through a glass curtain wall year round. In winter, a fire danced in the fireplace. Original art by local artists graced the walls and was rotated regularly. Contemporary French music, heavy on the accordion and evocative of another place and time, played softly in the background.
Leruth located elegant Thonet® bentwood chairs in Dallas, but when he could not find tables of the right size, he built fifteen of them himself. Everything about what went on the tabletop was important. He agonized over the selection of dishes, glassware, silverware and linen. Was the glassware beautiful and light enough? Was the silverware balanced and heavy enough? Would the linen hold up to daily use and laundering? Could he afford what he wanted?
The kitchen was his domain. As a food supervisor in the US Army, he had been responsible for weekly inspections of eighty mess halls and their supervisors. He understood the need for order and cleanliness, and he wanted his kitchen to be a model. Months before the restaurant opened, he chased down leads on commercial stoves and other used equipment, and having once sold pots and pans, he knew where to buy the best equipment at the lowest price.
The menu was limited to classic dishes, such as Filet Mignon, Filet de Boeuf aux Champignons, and Filet de Truite Amandine. The entrees were chosen based on ready availability of quality ingredients, simplicity of preparation, and potential for profit. Missing were the heavy sauces and complex dishes which demanded too much time and labor.
Every item on the menu was thoroughly tested and re-tested until optimal flavor was achieved. The recipe and presentation steps were documented and locked away, but never shared with anyone on paper. He found a competent and trustworthy sous chef in Maude Holland Young, the former cafeteria manager at Carver and Fred Douglas schools. She was responsible for long lead-time tasks, such as desserts, and other daily preparations. He trained Young and Janetta Davison Bowens, a part-time worker, to prepare the recipes he perfected.
From his early days as a baker at Solari’s and the New Orleans County Club, Leruth understood the importance of fresh bread to the French menu. At his restaurant, bread was baked every afternoon, only hours before the restaurant opened for dinner. Even a Frenchman would have been impressed with the perfect crust and crumb of the small baguettes
To ensure quality, Leruth bought meat and fish from quality purveyors and then personally inspected every delivery. “Warren was not only quality conscious, but he was also very frugal. He weighed every piece of meat that was delivered to LeRuth’s. If he paid for an eight-ounce steak, he made sure he got an eight-ounce steak,” recalled Bob Tate.
French vanilla ice cream was the most important dessert. The ice cream was flavored by the forerunner of Leruth’s Pure Vanilla Extract, a product he developed in 1957 and brought to market after retirement.
Sherman was dry, so the restaurant could not sell wine or spirits, but customers could “brown bag” it, bringing in their own alcoholic beverages and paying thirty cents for the use of glass and ice. As a convenience for frequent customers, Leruth installed lockers to store their liquor. But the customer who ran short and thought he would borrow liquor from another person’s locker was quickly set straight. LeRuth’s followed the local liquor laws rigorously.
The front of the house was the responsibility of his wife Marie, called “Snookie” by her family. Marie was the perfect hostess: beautiful, poised and gracious. Educated at St. Joseph’s Academy in New Orleans and a department store model in her teens, she was the 1954 Queen of The Krewe of Okeanos during Mardi Gras. Always perfectly groomed and stylishly dressed, she set the elegant tone of the restaurant.
Before LeRuth’s opened, Marie was briefly trained by Olga Bertschi, a graduate of Schweizerische Hotelfachschule Luzern (SHL), a prestigious hotel school in Lucerne, Switzerland, and wife of Leruth’s mentor, Chef Ernest Bertschi. Olga was a perfect role model. From 1958 to 1974, she raised five children while managing everything but the kitchen at Monsieur Pepe.
The restaurant phone was switched to the Leruth home each day until 4 p.m., so Marie could take reservations and coordinate deliveries before her day officially started. Shortly before 4, she would turn her children over to the babysitter, Jill Buccy, and go to work.
Leruth wanted the restaurant service to be as uncompromising as the food. The waiters were selected on the basis of their experience and were expected to be committed and disciplined, or they would be replaced immediately. They wore black jackets, starched white shirts and black bow ties and were subject to inspection daily. The busboys and dishwashers, often high school boys, experienced or not, had to meet the same criteria. Leruth personally trained them and allowed no deviation from his standards. He expected the demeanor of all employees to be confident yet deferential, unobtrusive yet attentive.
Before the restaurant opened, Leruth and Dick Kuska developed a small brochure about the business. They knew their clientele would not be limited to locals, so the brochure included a map to Sherman. Marie mailed the brochure to hundreds of potential customers. When Leruth read about the upcoming visit to Dallas in November, 1963, of President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, he sent them a letter and brochure, inviting them to be his guests.
The marketing campaign brought the curious, and word-of-mouth quickly spread the restaurant’s reputation. Maude Holland Young recalled that “the clientele at LeRuth’s included many people from Dallas, chefs, owners of restaurants and other food businesses, people who loved fine food.”
Repeat business, the key to restaurant survival, developed immediately. Once they experienced LeRuth’s, customers returned. “LeRuth’s was unique among North Texas restaurants,” said Bob Tate. “Every time you walked through the heavy, paneled doors, every detail was perfect. Even though the prices were high for the time, people appreciated the quality.” Within the first year, LeRuth’s made a respectable profit for a dinner-only restaurant.
In late 1964, Leruth was inducted into the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque, established to “give recognition to chefs of at least twenty years service, who have achieved professional attainment of high estate, abiding interest in professional progress and devoted and distinguished service to the Culinary Profession and Arts. Membership is restricted to One Hundred life-time members.” At the time, he was thirty-five years old, the youngest member ever elected to the order. The singular honor reflected not only his success with the Sherman restaurant but his accomplishments at Anderson Clayton, as well.
A Sherman Democrat article about Leruth’s Golden Toque induction caught the eye of Harry E. “Larry” Carter, owner and general manger of Woodlawn Country Club.
Many country club members were regulars at LeRuth’s, drawing business away from Woodlawn. He also knew that LeRuth’s had to be under-performing in a dry town like Sherman. The Woodlawn liquor license and the potential for greater profitability would be a great enticement to any restaurateur. Carter knew a professional of Leruth’s caliber could elevate the quality of Woodlawn’s dining room and undoubtedly increase revenues.
Carter approached Leruth with a business proposition. If Leruth would assume responsibility for Woodlawn’s food service operation, Carter would buy Leruth’s business and assume the lease. Carter argued that Woodlawn was a great opportunity to repeat the success of LeRuth’s on a bigger scale.
The Leruths had already been discussing their future. They wanted to replicate LeRuth’s in a more robust restaurant market. Warren argued for Houston or Atlanta, but Marie argued effectively that New Orleans was where they had advantages of family and long-standing professional contacts.
Although the details of Carter’s business proposition are not known, Leruth liked the Woodlawn deal. The club had a large membership, predominantly golfers and card players. It would be a bigger job, with around-the-clock demands: lunch, terrace and pool service, banquet and tournament catering, parties and receptions, and even coverage of late-night card games. At a minimum, the deal would wipe out the debt incurred to open LeRuth’s, release him from his lease obligation and free him to make another move. In the spring of 1965, LeRuth’s was closed—Bob Tate later demolished the shared wall and incorporated the building into his existing business—and the operation migrated to Woodlawn Country Club.
The 19th Hole
While Leruth concentrated on the Woodlawn food and business plans, the staff cleaned and organized the dated kitchen and dining room. Art Stimple and Wayne Cannon, waiters at LeRuth’s, made the move to Woodlawn. Former LeRuth’s busboys, Bill Jones, Don Beckham, and Steve Abb, all members of the Sherman High School class of ‘67, lobbied for promotion to waiters, and Leruth acquiesced. Soon, another classmate, Gary DeAtley joined the group as a waiter. Steve Abb recalled, “It was a lot more work, more hours and pressure, but we loved it. Of course, we had to wait on a number of classmates now, which brought on quite a few laughs, mostly for them.”
Leruth shared their excitement, but the novelty wore off quickly. He was forced to make compromises at every turn, the kitchen, the décor, the furniture, the tabletop. None were his choice, and he did not have the resources to make wholesale changes. Because most members settled their accounts monthly, Leruth was hard pressed to stay ahead of operating expenses. Most of all, he saw the independence he so craved and that he thought Woodlawn would provide, slipping away.
The daily grind of responding to demands of members quickly got old. “Hey, burn me a steak” was not the kind of order Leruth cared to fill. And he missed the customers whose well-developed tastes truly appreciated his sophisticated cuisine. “Chef Leruth missed the Dallas clientele who were essential to LeRuth’s success. They could not be accommodated at members-only Woodlawn,” said Maude Holland Young.
Accustomed to “the chef is always right,” he bristled under the give-and-take of partnership. Leruth recalled, “I was there one summer and part of a winter, and I decided the country club work wasn’t for me, because it was too much controlled by them and the members. You cooked for the same people all the time.” It was time to go home to Louisiana.
Winds of Change
“It is an ill wind that blows no good.” It is an old saw, but in Warren Leruth’s case, a true one. Leruth’s decision to return to New Orleans was made easier by a hurricane. In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy made landfall at Grand Isle, Louisiana, as a Category Three storm. Traveling upriver, the storm pounded New Orleans with 110 mph winds and caused the Mississippi to rise ten feet there.
Telephone service was knocked out, adding to the desperate uncertainty of friends and families. When the Leruths finally reached Marie’s sister, they learned the Gentilly neighborhood home of Marie’s parents, Vincent and Margie Rizzuto, had been all but destroyed. Having weathered the storm at home, the Rizzutos were evacuated by boat two days later and taken to a shelter at a local school.
Leruth immediately left for New Orleans to help his in-laws. When he arrived, he was horrified. In Louisiana alone, seventy-six people died. The damage was unprecedented. When the estimates came in, the hurricane was called “Billion Dollar Betsy”. It was ten days before the water receded enough that citizens of New Orleans could return to their unlivable homes.
There was no question where their priorities lay. The Leruths decided to return to New Orleans as soon as possible to help their families recover from the storm. The circumstances of Leruth leaving Woodlawn are not known. Perhaps he simply took an emergency leave of absence and later resigned. The exact circumstances are a mystery, but that is the way it worked out. Leruth was going home.
While in New Orleans, Leruth accepted a job with John Sexton & Company, a wholesale grocer that serviced restaurants, hotel and institutions. The Leruths sold their home and the company moved them to New Orleans, but he did not like the job and stayed with the company for only three months.
Leruth then approached a classmate from Jesuit High School and owner of the Andrew Jackson restaurant, who hired him as a chef. “He treated me very well. I told him it would be temporary while I found my own restaurant. It was during those months that I searched and found the property where LeRuth’s would be located in Gretna and began to plan the restaurant.”
Leruth’s dream was to house his restaurant in an old, architecturally significant residence in the Garden District, but he quickly realized that he was priced out of the market. Since Marie firmly dashed his hopes of living above the restaurant, he had to worry about the expense of a new home as well as the new restaurant.
By the time he extended his search to Gretna, he was discouraged. After crossing the Greater New Orleans Bridge and traveling through a down-at-the-heels neighborhood, he assumed he was wasting his time. His market was New Orleans. It was crazy to even consider a location on the west bank of the Mississippi.
And then he drove up to the vacant house in the McDonoghville Historic District, and he knew the Queen Anne cottage with the wrap-around porches was what he wanted. The house was dilapidated. “When I first saw the house, I thought he was kidding,” recalled Marie. “Weeds pushed through holes in the floor, birds flew through broken windows.” Even so, Leruth could see his restaurant shining through the rubble, so he bought it.
LeRuth’s opened in Gretna on July 10, 1966, “with no advertising and little fanfare,” Leruth later wrote for a brochure. Within three months, there was a waiting list almost every night. In the fall, Holiday magazine gave LeRuth’s a Distinguished Dining Award, the first of more than one hundred awards for culinary excellence the restaurant would garner over the years.
During the next twenty years, Warren LeRuth revolutionized fine dining in one of the country’s premiere restaurant cities. His recipes, service and reputation also helped re-invigorate Louisiana food culture and lead to the explosion of Cajun and Creole cuisine worldwide. But the man behind it all, the restless “genius among us,” truly earned his reputation as one of the “Great Chefs of New Orleans,” and it all started on New Year’s Eve 1962, when he walked into a Sherman bank and said, “I want to start a restaurant.”