Jeramy Ouart’s first experience cooking was eventful, to say the least.
“My first job was at a country club in Dallas when I was 16. It was a summer job, and I worked at a poolside grill at a nice club. My first day on the job was during a Member-Guest event, and we were cooking poolside. I remember not knowing what I was doing, and I had a big grill, so I put a whole bag of charcoal in it. When I lit it, there was a tower of flames, and it caught the bushes next to the pool on fire. I figured if I survived that, I must be destined to be a great cook,” Ouart said. “It was all up hill from there.”
Now as corporate chef in research and development with Ruby Tuesday, Ouart is hoping the venture he rolled out Wednesday will catch fire. Ouart has introduced menu changes to Ruby’s new concept in Maryville, Marlin & Ray’s. The new brand has been on his plate, so to speak, as Ruby’s launches the seafood concept, now open in four locations. Ouart develops and manages the core brand culinary initiatives, menus and platforms of Ruby Tuesday’s restaurants and concepts.
Ouart said the concept was born out of a need for the company and the customer. “There was a big gap in all of seafood,” Ouart said. “You have Red Lobster, and they’ve been around for a long time. They are, for many people, a special occasion restaurant.”
On the other end, he said, were the fast-food type seafood restaurants, but there wasn’t a concept in between, except for the Joe’s Crab Shack and Bubba Gump restaurants, which Ouart said were more geared to tourists.
“We wanted a family kind of restaurant you were able to go every day,” he explained.
Marlin & Ray’s was designed to fill that void, and has a price point that is a little bit lower than Ruby Tuesday, said the chef. “We opened the first week of March, and the initial goal was making sure there were a lot of offerings across different price points, so that no matter where you end up on the menu, there is going to be an exceptional value,” he said. “We have continued to add more non-seafood items to enhance the value we give without having to charge extra.”
Seafood initially made up 80 percent of the menu. “Based on what we sell, guests go to seafood 70 percent of the time. So we have added ribs, and we’ve expanded and added non-fish sandwiches, so the ratio should fall to 60 / 40,” he said.
Ouart said they are taking a few under-performing offerings off the menu and, more than anything else, adding new options in terms of new dishes. “We’ve added oysters and tuna and a gumbo. We’ve changed our entire bread program,” he said. “We’re baking bread in the commissary and moving away from hoagies to ‘over the top’ sandwiches. It is really exciting stuff.”
Ouart has his own favorite additions to the Marlin & Ray’s menu. “I like personally the calamari. It is my favorite thing on the menu,” he said. “I’m excited about the tuna we’re introducing on the new menu, and also excited about the Mediterranean Chicken.”
Customers to Marlin & Ray’s should also soon be able to enjoy locally grown produce as they mix in fresh, local produce. “We’ve been working on a pilot program with farms in East Tennessee. We get a lot from Grainger County,” he said.
Ouart said freshness is a priority at any Ruby Tuesday concept, because it is something customers value. “What we’ve discovered is a lot of people push the fresh angle, particularly when it comes to fish,” he said. “The way technology is progressing and modernizing how fishing is done, our suppliers are able to catch, clean and pack fish on the boat as it is caught. With these kinds of techniques, what is technically ‘frozen’ is fresher than a catch that has been packed in ice and trucked across the country.”
A new item Ouart said folks will enjoy at Marlin & Ray’s is the new corn on the cob. “We are really excited about our corn on the cob. We have sweet corn that we have hand breaded and buttered. Fried corn on the cob - it is truly decadent,” he said.
The new menu, said Ouart, is the first evolution for Marlin & Ray’s. “We’re going to learn a lot as we go into the holidays, and that will help us in knowing how we serve guests in the future,” he said.
Ouart said one thing that hasn’t changed is the fish taco bar in the bar area on Thursdays and Fridays. “We have our taco bar out so guests can come in and watch some games, make a taco, enjoy a cocktail or have dinner at the bar,” he said.
The whole reasoning behind Ruby Tuesday fostering the growth of restaurants apart from their main brand has to do with serving the customers, said Ouart.
“My perception is that it is important, not only for the core brand, to find what makes sense in each location,” he said. “Whether it be because of demographics or competition or whatever reason, a certain location may be the perfect fit for Wok Hay or Marlin & Ray’s or Truffles, or another new concept called Lime, which is a walk-up, quick-serve, build your own burrito. This gives us options we can take to any location.”
Ouart said he appreciates the atmosphere at the Marlin & Ray’s restaurants, because they are different from the other Ruby Tuesday concepts. “Everything is different in some way,” he said. “We wanted to make sure our brands weren’t the same, and we think it is important they each have their own identity.”
Ouart said that each Marlin & Ray’s restaurant has a similar theme to create a fun, seaside atmosphere. “We wanted guests to feel that, even though they are in Knoxville, they are at a seaside restaurant getting great fish with an atmosphere where you can sit down, relax and have a great meal,” he said.
Ouart was asked to share his expertise on cooking seafood, a dish many at-home chefs tend to shy away from. Ouart said most who are afraid to cook fish at home are concerned about the freshness of it. “Freshness, more than anything, is what puts people off with fish. There are now good places to get really fresh fish, so there is no need to not try it at home. Fish is easy and simple, as simple as just adding a little salt and pepper and sauté it in a pan,” he said. “Just let it be a light delightfully, simple preparation.”
Ouart said a good starter dish for beginning cooks are shell fish like shrimp, crab or lobster. “They are the most forgiving. Fish like tilapia, tuna or salmon can be more forgiving than those in the flat fish family. Those can be more challenging,” he said. “Salmon is great fish to get started with, and it has good nutritional value. It is one of the best you can get, and one of the most forgiving in terms of preparation.”
Ouart said the biggest mistake people make with seafood is overcooking it. “Once it is overcooked, it get really tough. Fish is really lean. Even fatty fish like salmon or tuna don’t need to be cooked beyond 145 degrees, or they dry out quickly,” he said.
Ouart said preparing fish is also a good value for the price. “There is more fish available now than there has ever been. In the time you wait for a pizza to be delivered, you could have made a fresh fish dish and have it ready to serve,” he said.
In his own family with wife, Laura, cooking responsibilities are often shared. “I let my wife do the baking, and I find, more often than not, I’m left with the pleasure and responsibility of cooking,” he said. “Holidays are a good time to be Laura Ouart.”
Originally hailing from Texas, Ouart’s love of wine brought him to Tennessee when he became the assistant sommelier at Blackberry Farm in Walland. He managed an 110,000-bottle, Grand Award-winning wine inventory, including ultra-rare and cult wines.