JACKSON — It was a great moment for the young chef from the Bronx — a compliment from the President of the United States on his cooking.
Chef Luis Bruno got the chance to cook for former President George Bush when he served as executive chef for Gov. Kirk Fordice in the Governor’s Mansion. Bush, who was fastidious about his health, was known to cut the food on his plate in half, then eat only one half. On a visit to Mississippi, he dined at the Governor’s Mansion and tried one of Bruno’s signature dishes. After dinner, Bush went back to the kitchen and told Bruno he was mad at him. The food had been so good, Bush had splurged and eaten everything on his plate.
Former First Lady Pat Fordice said delicious dishes like this were common at the numerous parties, dinners and receptions hosted at the mansion during Bruno’s tenure as chef.
“Besides the wonderful food and the beautiful way he presented it, (Luis) was always in a good mood,” said Mrs. Fordice, whose favorite party fare was Bruno’s grilled shrimp. “He used to sing to me when I came into the kitchen. He was a joy to have around.”
Of course, the Fordices preferred more traditional fare on regular days, and Bruno served it up — barbecue, steak and onion rings for the governor, lighter fare like salmon or lobster salad for Mrs. Fordice.
Bruno considers his time with the Fordices the pinnacle of his cooking career, so when Fordice left office, the only place for Bruno to go was his own restaurant. On Feb. 7, 2001, Bruno and his wife, Kathleen, also an accomplished chef, opened Bruno’s Eclectic Cuisine in Jackson.
Eclectic is the perfect word for the fare offered by the Brunos. Bruno, who is Puerto Rican, cooks up Spanish and Caribbean dishes like Paella Mixta with shrimp, lobster, chicken and mussels and Caribbean Pasta with saffron. Thrown into this mix are Thai dishes created by the restaurant’s Thai chef, Suvadee Kennedy, or Miss Su as she is called. The Brunos have a large staff of 30, but so many people are needed because everything served in the restaurant is made from scratch.
Except for the New York pizzas, everything on the menu also has an ethnic touch. The Brunos do serve more traditional dishes like ribeyes and filets, but even these are not what some diners might expect. For example, the filet is served not with a baked potato, but with yuca mash, which is similar to a buttery potato.
“It gives it some flair,” said Kathleen Bruno. “Some people don’t like it. They say, ‘Why can’t I just get a potato with my steak?’ That’s fine. We knew we wouldn’t please everyone. We have a lot of people who say, ‘We appreciate you for being daring enough to try something different.’”
The Brunos say they have been warmly received by diners in the area who were looking for a restaurant off the beaten path. The restaurant has also received good reviews from The Clarion-Ledger, The Birmingham News and several other publications.
Married for six years now, Luis and Kathleen Bruno met at PTEC, a culinary school in Clearwater, Fla., where both were pursuing their dreams of becoming chefs. Luis Bruno already had plenty of experience with food, having worked since age 13 in his family’s restaurant business. Kathleen Bruno, a native Mississippian, earned a degree in business from the University of Mississippi, traveled around the world for a year and decided to become a chef.
After graduation, the Brunos married and went right to work in the food business, but they eventually moved to Jackson to be near family. Luis Bruno worked for MMI Dining Systems, among other jobs, and then was hired by the Fordices. Kathleen Bruno taught culinary arts at Hinds Community College from 1996 until this year. Last year, she was named Hinds’ Distinguished Vocational-Technical Instructor of the Year. Many of her former students work for the Brunos in their new restaurant.
Opening a fine dining establishment has been a challenge — much harder than they expected, 32-year-old Luis Bruno admits. He works at the restaurant from early morning until closing and does double duty if another cook is sick. On a recent rainy morning at 4 a.m., Kathleen Bruno was called to the restaurant when the security system gave a false alarm.
Still, owning a restaurant of their own is a lifelong dream for this couple. The goal-oriented Luis Bruno decided at a young age that by age 30 he would be married, have a child and own his own business. He is married, he has two-year-old Emma, and he had his dream restaurant, at least on paper, by his 30th birthday.
“That’s pretty good for a poor kid from the Bronx,” said Kathleen Bruno.
Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1027.