Ruth Miller (Head Chef)
Head chef wears many bonnets at Amish Acres
By KAREN RALLO
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer
NAPPANEE -- A buzzer suddenly signals the end of a cooking session and Ruth Miller turns abruptly from one station — where she’s been hand-mixing a batch of meatloaf in a three-gallon stainless-steel bowl — and bustles over to the pressure-cooker across the room.
Pulling off her plastic gloves, she reaches for a lever and carefully releases the hissing steam from the cooker. “The chicken’s done,” she says with a cheery smile. Both hands firmly on the basket’s handle, with a heave she pulls up the basket filled with pieces of golden chicken.
Amish Acres Restaurant head chef Ruth Miller, seen mixing up a batch of meatloaf.
As head chef at Amish Acres Restaurant, Miller doesn’t have any trouble multitasking in this enormous, 8,000-square-foot kitchen. Apologizing as she hurries to get around a co-worker, Miller seems to go about her kitchen duties effortlessly. Wearing a snug, plain, burgundy-colored dress, her gray hair tucked under a bright-white bonnet, she doesn’t even break a sweat.
You’d think Miller would get tired of serving up broasted chicken, sometimes cooking as many as 1,300 pieces per day. When asked how she’s come to master serving as many as 1,700 diners in a single day, she lets out a brief but hearty laugh. Her bright blue eyes sparkling, she says, “I’m the oldest of 11 children. I learned if I wanted anything to eat, I had to be the one to cook.”
In her wildest dreams, Miller probably never knew what she signed up for when she first came to cook at Amish Acres in 1987.
Working side-by-side with Dick Pletcher, Amish Acres’ founder and CEO, the head chef helps to coordinate themed dinners. Two themed dinners, in conjunction with each of the Round Barn Theatre season’s shows, are served buffet-style in the Barn Loft/Wine Tasting Room on select Fridays.
“We just put together a menu to go with ‘Hello, Dolly,’” Miller explains. “I told Dick, we have to have Buffalo wings, for New York,” she says with a knowing twinkle in her eye.
Miller never married; she’s just been too busy. Besides, she says, “I have over 20 nieces and nephews,” not to mention some 1,500 guests she recently managed on a single holiday. “I enjoy it when we get busy. It keeps me on my toes. That’s when I’m just too busy too worry.”
Miller has also shown she’s on her toes when it comes to changing things up. The menu, with its family-style, all-you-can-eat signature dinners that have been offered ever since the restaurant opened 41 years ago, now includes specials. Using family recipes, she prepares meatloaf, barbecued ribs, Salisbury steak, or pork chops on any given night. And, when groups like the Road Scholars (a bicycling group) come to visit Nappanee for an extended stay, Miller is happy to cater to their particular dietary needs.
Admittedly, the typical Amish fare that’s served in the large, country-deco dining room with its rough-hewned timber ceiling is what has Amish Acres’ diners charmed. The hearty meal, like that served to Amish farmers after a hard day’s work in the fields, includes beef and noodles, mashed potatoes with gravy, fried chicken, beef, homemade bread and butter and pies.
Miller’s sister, Frieda, oversees the baking aspect of the business. As many as 200 pies, including old-fashioned pecan and chocolate or peanut butter cream, are baked daily. Two rotating ovens, which can hold as many as 90 loaves of bread at a time, are put into motion every morning.
The German-Amish heritage is alive and strong as the Miller siblings (including a third sister, Kathy, historical area manager and brother Al, historical preservationist) devote their lives to the farm.
A modest woman, Ruth Miller doesn’t say much about her cooking career. For as long as she can recall, cooking has just been a way of life. Then, with a bright smile, she reflects on something her father used to say: “There are people who eat to live, and there are people who live to eat.”
It’s clear, Miller’s joy comes from making sure that diners at Amish Acres are going to just plain love to eat.
Chef notes: In staying true to her “keep it simple” philosophy, Miller uses local food products, including Harrington Noodles, Bremen; Liz’s Honey, LaPaz; and Miller Orchard apple butter and Koontz farm jams and jellies, both in Nappanee.
Ruth's Barbecued Meatloaf
3 pounds ground beef
1 can evaporated milk
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup cracker crumbs
½ cup finely chopped onion (
½ teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoons chili powder
1 jar Walnut Creek Applebutter Barbecue Sauce
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using your hands, mix ingredients well. Shape into either two loaves (that will be baked for a total of about 75 minutes) or eight mini-loaves (baked 45 minutes).
When there is about 10 minutes of baking time left, pull the loaves out and top each large loaf with 1 cup barbecue sauce or the eight mini-loaves with ¼ cup.
Option: This recipe can also be made into meatballs that can be baked on a cookie sheet until done.