Walking into the Army and Air Force Exchange Service at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., people are welcomed with the sight of a new Italian restaurant, owned by a military spouse who made her dream come true.
In fact, they say that the only bad thing about Italian food is that three days later, you are hungry again. Chiara Rutledge’s customers should know. They line up in front of her restaurant during lunch break and patiently wait for their turn to finally arrive while smelling the Vito’s sauce: a mouthwatering ground beef and sausage mix in rich and thick tomato sauce — made even better by the addition of her secret mix of fresh herbs — and the unforgettable trinity that is at the base of every well-respected ragú sauce: onion, celery and carrots.
Rutledge, owner of the Chiara Cucina Italian restaurant, was a military spouse with a dream. She wanted to bring traditional and authentic Italian cuisine to the military customers at Minot AFB. Situated in the Exchange, the small yet inviting restaurant brings uniformed troops, as well as civilians, together to enjoy warm, satisfying and delicious plates of pasta that give them the opportunity to appreciate and taste a world-renowned, home-cooked Italian meal.
Born and raised in Italy’s northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Rutledge learned to love to cook with the freshest ingredients from an early age.
“In my family, we always had a garden and animals, such as chicken and rabbits,” she said. “So, I grew up seeing my family cooking with the produce we had. The ingredients were very fresh, and the food was so tasty! From there, my passion for cooking — and eating — began.”
It was this passion that led her to explore an education in cooking while stationed in California with her husband, Zachary. Using the My Career Advancement Account Scholarship Program, she took an online course about baking, all the while tending to her two children under 2 years old.
“Every week, I’d have to bake something different,” Rutledge said. “While I very much enjoyed doing it, I think Zack and his coworkers loved it even more because they got to eat homemade dessert every week!”
Shortly after arriving in Minot, Rutledge went straight to base housing management and asked them permission to open an in-home baking business.
“After coming up with many different reasons why, they told me I couldn’t do it,” she said.
Determined to make her dream of bringing traditional Italian cuisine to her American public, though, she did not give up.
“I went to talk to the chaplain because I knew they had a kitchen in the church, and I asked if I could use it, offering to share profits. But he said no, as well. However, he put me in contact with someone he knew who had a food truck business.”
After working for the food truck for a while, Rutledge was ready to move on to better things that would help her gain hands-on experience; so, she worked as a cook for a couple of businesses on base. She kept her ultimate goal of owning her own Italian restaurant in mind, saving up for when the opportunity finally came her way. After a vacation to Italy in fall 2018, Rutledge went back to Minot more determined than ever. She made a call and found out that there was finally a spot available at the Exchange.
A few short months later, Rutledge was the proud owner of Chiara Cucina. She finally accomplished her dream of delighting hungry customers with big portions of pasta that keep them full at least until the next day when they are lined up in front of her restaurant once again, waiting for 11 a.m. sharp to come around. Her clients know to arrive as early as possible, too, because Chiara Cucina has had to close its doors earlier than anticipated due to completely selling out of food in a short amount of time.
While Rutledge, as any other respected Italian chef, will not reveal the secret ingredients to her mouthwatering dishes, she is open to disclose the one secret ingredient that led her to successfully accomplish her lifelong dream: determination.
“If I could suggest one thing to other spouses who’d like to start their own cooking business is to never take no for an answer,” she affirmed. “If it’s really what you want, don’t give up. It might not happen at the base you are stationed at right now but keep working hard towards that ultimate goal, and you will find a way or another to make it happen.”
Judging by the many recurring customers who refuse to wait three days to eat her pasta again, Rutledge has certainly proven not only that America’s love affair with Italian cuisine is everlasting, but also that determination is, indeed, the most valuable secret ingredient of life.Read comments