German fare at Jasper's Woodbridge Inn

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Celebrity chef and cancer survivor Hans Rueffert dishes up culinary inspiration

By KATIE VanBRACKLE

katie@northsidewoman.com

Want a taste of Oktoberfest in the North Georgia foothills without having to deal with the crowds in Helen?

Head northwest about an hour to Jasper, Ga., and the Woodbridge Inn where Chef Hans Rueffert serves up authentic German fare and Southern fusion food in the same kitchen where his father taught him to cook.

To fully appreciate a meal at the family-owned Woodbridge Inn, you need to first learn the story of Chef Rueffert, whose life has been as full of unexpected twists as the culinary creations emerging from his skillet.

A self-described “restaurant child,” Rueffert’s early memories all revolve around food.  His German father and “Elvis-loving, Georgia peach mother” purchased the historic Woodbridge Inn in 1976.

The family moved into the upstairs guest rooms and set to work turning the restaurant into a North Georgia dining landmark. Rueffert remembers running to the kitchen to get math homework help from his dad in between pickups, and washing dishes and shucking oysters in his pajamas. The inn was “my playground, my boot camp, my sanctuary, my first job, my hardest job…my home,” he said.

In later years, as an adult helping to run the family business, Rueffert honed his cooking skills and appeared on local cable television cooking and news shows. His easy manner in front of a camera and talent in the kitchen led to a third-place finish on “The Next Food Network Star,” a 2004 nationally televised reality show and cooking competition.

But Rueffert’s culinary climb came to a screeching halt in 2005 when he was diagnosed with gastric (stomach) cancer the day before his 33rd birthday.

After multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and serious infections, Rueffert’s entire stomach and 95 percent of his esophagus were removed.

Now cancer-free, Rueffert is able to eat only very small meals which travel straight to his intestines. He remains very thin, but with characteristic humor, instructs his dining guests to “just forget about this ‘never trust a skinny chef’ business.”

The irony of becoming a chef without a stomach is not lost on him, but as is the case with so many cancer survivors, Rueffert’s battle with the disease gave him a new appreciation for not only his life, but food and the way it makes people feel.

He threw himself back into his work, eventually starring in a new television show, “Hans Cooks the South” for Georgia Public Broadcasting.

That show led to a cookbook, “Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow,” – part recipe collection, part tribute to Georgia’s unique culinary resources and part personal memoir.

Many of the book’s recipes are featured daily on the menu at Woodbridge Inn, such as German specialty schnitzels, Bratwurst and Knockwurst, homemade spätzle (German mac n’ cheese) and Bavarian red cabbage.

But the menu is not exclusively German. Rueffert’s Georgia roots are evident on the menu as well – like the pecan-encrusted rainbow trout or fresh heirloom tomatoes melted into a three-cheese Panini.

Each dish served at Woodbridge Inn is made in-house using as many local ingredients as possible. Diners enjoy their meals in a cozy room with a wall of large windows overlooking the inn’s terraced lawn.

A greenhouse behind the inn yields ingredients for a delicious fresh herb dressing featured along with feta cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds in the Green Goddess Salad.

After all, Rueffert points out, not all German food is heavy.

“Wild mushrooms, berries, spring greens and fresh fish are common on the spiesekarte, though we rarely hear about these specialties here in the States,” he said.

In addition to running the kitchen at Woodbridge Inn, Rueffert shares the importance of eating light and healthy through frequent cooking demonstrations at Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground – just down the road from Jasper, sponsored by the Cancer Wellness Center at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

In a public class to be held Saturday, Oct. 12 at Gibbs Gardens, Rueffert will introduce recipes, cooking methods and herbs that provide the most benefit for your immune system.

“It’s about time we recognized that what we eat directly affects the way we feel,” he said.

Rueffert may have lost his own stomach to cancer, but he is determined to help other food lovers make the most of theirs.

When visiting the Woodbridge Inn, note the restaurant hours are a bit unusual – open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., and dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Reservations can be made online at woodbridgeinn.net. The menu changes often, featuring new specials daily.

Woodbridge Inn

44 Chambers Street, Jasper, Ga. 30143

706-253-6293 | www.woodbridgeinn.net

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