Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2022: Rob Rubba

At his intensely sustainable plant-based restaurant Oyster Oyster in Washington, D.C, this chef is serving up one of the nation’s most exciting and affordable tasting menus.


There is exactly one piece of animal protein available on the menu at chef Rob Rubba's D.C. restaurant: a single oyster tucked under a duo of razor-thin sheets of kohlrabi, folded to look as if they were dumpling skins, holding a radically fresh filling of turnip and apple. You have to dig to find it, as it is swimming in a pool of bright green, almost algae-like cilantro oil. It's slippery and salty and tastes of the sea. It's also half of his restaurant's name, Oyster Oyster, which refers to Rubba's passion for both the bivalve and the mushroom (and for their roles in our food systems).

Through moments visible and not, Oyster Oyster is Rubba's love letter to sustainability. Although the restaurant menu is plant-centered, coconut and avocado are nowhere in sight. "There's a huge carbon footprint in shipping those things, and I don't have the right cultural reasons to use them," explains Rubba. His environmental commitment extends to cooking techniques: His team will not boil a large pot of water unless it is to make a soup or a broth. Rubba also refuses to sous vide anything. "To put something in a plastic bag, cook it, and then throw that bag into a landfill — it just makes zero sense," he says. Piping bags must be compostable. Any drinking water that is not consumed by guests waters the restaurant's plants. There are no to-go containers — though, should you have leftovers, the staff might make you a foil swan if you ask nicely. Rubba also values sustainability when it comes to workplace culture and ensures regular weeklong breaks for the staff.

Meet all of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2022

Best New Chefs
Alex Lau

Rubba may wear his values on his sleeve, but his approach is anything but prescriptive or preachy. The mood in the kitchen is lighthearted. "We're telling jokes during service. We're listening to music. If the food is going out great, and the guest is happy, we don't need to be militant back there," he says.

Rubba came to plant-based cooking well into his career: After dropping out of art school, he spent years working kitchen jobs that took him from a casino in Connecticut to Gordon Ramsay's New York City restaurant. Eating meat started to make less and less sense to him over the years, and in 2017, he decided to stop eating meat altogether. It was a complicated decision for Rubba, who at the time was still running Hazel, his now-shuttered D.C. restaurant named for his grandmother, where the most beloved dishes included beef tartare, roast duck, and pork ribs. "It was hard because our guests have an expectation, so [as I was working,] I'd have to put things in my mouth and spit them out, which is the strangest thing."

Best New Chefs
Alex Lau

Over the past year or so, a number of high-end restaurants, most notably Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park, have launched plant-based menus with extravagant price tags. At Oyster Oyster, Rubba executes a deeply seasonal menu with the energy and excitement that restaurants with 20 times the budget and 20 times the staff wish they could do — and for a fraction of the price. (At press time, the tasting menu was $95.) It's a true celebration of the plant kingdom. Each meal starts off with a luxurious riff on chips and dip: Celery root is peeled into thin noodles and shallow-fried (to avoid wasting oil, Rubba does not deep-fry in the restaurant) until it is snappy, and then quickly finessed with a pair of tweezers into a small sphere. The crispy celery root puff is then stuffed with a smoked tofu puree that mimics the flavor of the best sour cream and onion dip you've ever had. It might be the ultimate hors d'oeuvre.

Read Rob Rubba's Washington, D.C. City Guide

In the early spring, Rubba follows this with sheets of purple and orange sweet potato that are cooked until tender and gently rolled, placed in a bowl, and served with a stunning tie-dye broth made of oat milk, peanut miso, roasted local peanuts, and vinegar with verdant swirls of Thai basil oil. A dish of roasted lion's mane mushrooms, bathed in garlic oil and gently smoked, arrives at the table soon after, followed by a delicate shortbread cookie in the shape of a mushroom, infused with shiitake mushrooms.

To avoid evoking preconceived notions guests might have about an ingredient, diners are never given a menu before they eat, says Rubba. "A lot of people have had really bad vegetables in their life. They might think they hate something. We surprise a lot of guests. At the end of the meal, they're like, 'I never knew I liked carrots that much.'" The menu itself, presented at the meal's end, is embedded with tiny wildflower seeds, which feels symbolic to Rubba. "Unlike plastics and other bad things [for the environment], this is meant to go back into the earth. The menu—it's seasonal, it's rotating, it's always changing," he says. "It's not supposed to sit here forever."

Oyster Oyster, 1440 8th St NW, Washington, D.C.,

Meet all of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2022: Warda Bouguettaya | Damarr Brown | Ana Castro | Calvin Eng | Tim Flores and Genie Kwon | Melissa Miranda | Justin Pichetrungsi | Emily Riddell | Rob Rubba | Caroline Schiff

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