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July 25, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Former Seattle restaurateur is back with a song

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The years since Danielle Philippa left Seattle have been filled with enough drama to inspire an album of songs and enough recipes to fill a cookbook. This week, Philippa’s back in town with both.

The former owner of a trio of well-loved Latin and Mediterranean-influenced restaurants — Tango, Bandeleone, and restaurant/market La Tienda Cadiz — Philippa now goes by Ruby Dee (Ruby is her middle name) and her main job is her band, Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers. Philippa’s been based in Austin since 2006, frequently touring the country with rockabilly and roots music that’s won her kudos as “a pinup heartbreaker of yesteryear with thoroughly modern attitude.”

She’ll be at The Elliott Bay Book Co. at 5 p.m. July 27, then playing a gig at The Highway 99 Blues Club at 8 the same night.

Phillipa had left Seattle and the life of a restaurateur after construction work on the Fremont Bridge tanked business at Bandoleone.

“I was struggling to make ends meet… I thought I’d have to sell my house, I closed down my retirement account,” she said.

Unexpectedly, a buyer made an offer on Tango and another offered to take over the Bandoleone lease. “Heartsore,” but with what had been a musical sideline turning into a serious touring gig, she decided to change her home base to Austin.

Most people in the food world she knows “do something else artistic, whether it’s writing or photography or painting, their creativity comes out in different ways,” she said. Her other outlet had always been music, and she was ready to try it full-time.

Then, disaster. A car pulled out in front of her while she was riding her scooter in Seattle, shortly before the planned move. She swerved, hit a pothole, and “did a head plant.” Even wearing a full helmet, she woke up five hours later in the hospital with a severe head injury.

She went forward with the move, but suffered from vertigo and short-term memory loss. Hardest for her, as a songwriter and communicator, was that she struggled for words.

The world of food, which she thought she was leaving behind, helped bring her back.

“As part of my cognitive therapy, I used mnemonic tools to remember things,” she said. But she would find herself “cheating” a bit; using one word to substitute for another. Recipes, she realized, were a foolproof way to make herself find the right words again.

“You can’t say ‘the red powder,’ you mean cinnamon,” she said.

It would take her hours, sometimes the better part of a day, to complete a single one of the recipes that friends and family had been asking her for years to write out. But she went on and on, from Sweet Tea to Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie, until her language skills were substantially restored. She had enough food and accompanying stories “about how each recipe is connected to me” to fill a full cookbook. She found a publisher and the final book, “Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook,” marries her two worlds, including a CD of her favorite modern Americana musicians (including her own band), “so people can get a little smorgasbord of music as well as a smorgasbord of food.”

For the most part, instead of Tango or Bandoleone specialties, look for recipes like Currant Griddle Cakes and Lamb Pies and her mom’s Coca-Cola Baby Back Ribs, along with stories of feeding the band or cooking on the road.

“I didn’t want to take credit for what my chefs had created or interpreted over the years. Even though some of the recipes in the restaurants had been mine, they were really the restaurant’s recipes; they weren’t what I’m doing today,” she said.

What she cooks now boiled down to a mix of influences — similar to her music. “I realized my flavor, my palate, is all over the board. It’s not just Northwest and it’s not just Southwest, I have ingredients there you’d consider to be Northeast ingredients, it’s a little of everything.

“(For instance) one of my recipes is a chowder pie. It’s not soup, but the ingredients that would go into an oyster bisque, you have cognac and butter and oysters, but then you’re making a pie out of it… I guess you could call my cooking style of ‘you put all those together’ Americana.”

At times, she misses the restaurants — “the camaraderie” and the energy and the joy of seeing satisfied customers. The book is dedicated in part to those who miss them too. But she’s delighted to be excited about food once more and sharing her love of it. (She also hosts a radio program, Ruby’s Kitchen Radio Show.)

As for as her health, she’s “as recovered as I’m ever going to be,” sometimes still struggling to find a word, but much better than she was. After a three year break, she’s finally back to writing new songs.

“One of the side effects when you have a permanent injury is that depression goes hand in hand with that… you’re always thinking about what you can’t do anymore,” she said.

“The message I like to put out there is rather then think about what you can’t do, I’m personally grateful for what I still can do, and I’m amazed at the things I keep pushing myself to do that I’m able to get done still. I guess the message is to keep trying and keep being hopeful,” she said.

“No matter how hard things are, it’s going to get better.”

It’s a recipe — or a song — for inspiration.

Interested in seeing her behind the mike? Here’s a video clip of Phllipa in fine form:

Photo courtesy of Ruby Dee Philippa



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