Executive Chef Rodney Scruggs has come full circle. Over three decades ago, at just 18 years old, Scruggs walked into The Occidental as a line cook and discovered his calling; the impressive career that followed – including eight years as executive chef at The Occidental – has given him a unique perspective as he leads the iconic restaurant once again: this time, with new menus that mirror the chic renovation of its dining room, lounge, and expansive patio.
Scruggs was born in South Carolina, moved to Pennsylvania, then settled with his mother in northern Virginia as a young teen. Both his mother and grandmother were great home cooks, and a high school class in culinary arts confirmed his inclination to pursue a career in cooking, so he headed to Newbury College in Massachusetts for a degree in Culinary Arts. From 1986 until 1993, he worked his way up in The Occidental kitchen from line cook to Executive Sous Chef, gaining knowledge and discipline from then Executive Chef Jeffrey Buben. Ready to explore, Scruggs sought broader experience working in some of the region’s most demanding kitchens: with Chef Roberto Donna at his acclaimed restaurant, Galileo; at the historic Imperial Hotel on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; and with Chef Francesco Ricchi as the chef de cuisine at Cesco’s Trattoria. From there, he reunited with his mentor, Chef Jeff Buben, to open the renowned Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill. Scruggs then served as private chef for the President of American University for four years before coming back to where he first began.
He returned to The Occidental as executive chef in 2005, bringing with him a wealth of new experience. For eight years at the helm, Scruggs created innovative, approachable menus while balancing the demand for time-honored favorites in a restaurant that’s been a beloved DC institution for well over a century, a challenge he happily embraced. Then, an opportunity to run a high-end restaurant in South Carolina came tugging at his heartstrings: he had long dreamed of returning to his birthplace. Alas, the situation didn’t come with the creative freedom that Scruggs had expected, so he returned to the Washington area, in the capacity of ‘mentor-chef’ of the Mindful Restaurant Group, working with the chefs of all eight of its DC establishments. After about a year, The Occidental came looking for him.
“The Occidental is an essential stop for those visiting DC, and at the same time, is a place that many locals have a called a favorite for generations. We are approachable for everyone, and that’s why The Occidental remains so successful and relevant,” says Scruggs. In his latest tour of duty, he is committed to expanding that accessibility by adding substantial vegan and gluten-free items to his menus.
Scruggs values local and sustainable ingredients, spending countless hours sourcing produce and proteins; the farms he favors are listed on his menus, to raise awareness among his guests. His quest for excellence earned him recognition by the American Lamb Board for his award-winning Lamb Dagwood Sandwich in 2014. Scruggs won “crowd-favorite” at that year’s national competition for his take on the sub sandwich made of finely shaved lamb, Caromont Farms goat cheese, local strawberry preserves and Heartland Farms arugula.
Scruggs can be seen at charity fundraisers and events throughout the year, leveraging his talent and long-standing relationships with the culinary community in DC to support organizations like the Capital Area Food Bank and Washington Humane Society. After so many years, Scruggs relishes his role at The Occidental, and recognizes his good fortune. “I love this place,” he says, “I’m so thankful to be here in the kitchen with smart and hard-working colleagues – some of whom I’ve worked with for decades– and a very supportive ownership that shares my standards and values. We look forward to serving each and every guest who joins us in the long proud history of The Occidental.”