The word about Ritter’s Steam Kettle Cooking has risen like steam during the past few years. The kettles are cooking, and people are talking. Maybe it’s the authentic Cajun and Creole flavors, the secret spice combinations, and the Southern-caught seafood on the menu that’s been getting people’s attention. Maybe it’s the fact that people can watch as their food is prepared in gleaming silver steam kettles. Or maybe it’s the friendly face of restaurant owner and chef Michael Ritter, who arrives before dawn and works each day to deliver a dining experience people remember for years.
Truth be told, it’s all those things. At Ritter’s Steam Kettle Cooking, the ingredients for success come together like a well-seasoned jambalaya. Bold seasoning, fresh seafood, and years of culinary experience equate to food that people are falling in love with here in Orange County. And behind it all is Chef Ritter, who has devoted his career to honing a specialized culinary expertise that now fuels his eponymous restaurant concept. It all started in his mother’s kitchen.
“I learned the craft from my mom,” Chef Ritter remembers. “She was strict, but she was an extremely good cook. She could go two months without making the same dish twice.” Chef Ritter remembers her water chestnut casserole, her traditional German dishes, and how, at age 12, he began to shadow her in the kitchen. “We never measured anything,” he remembers. “My mother would lean over the pot and pull the steam toward her nose, and say, ‘Yep, that’s it.’ She could eat something at a restaurant and then go home and recreate it exactly.”
Upon moving to Las Vegas just before turning 21, Chef Ritter found that his food-centric upbringing helped him to feel right at home at The Palace Station Hotel & Casino, where he worked waiting tables. After a few years, the owners decided to open an oyster bar in the casino. Chef Ritter jumped at the chance to get involved. “I’d been working there a long time, and I thought, I get to cook and be in front of people? Perfect.” Chef Ritter went to the chef, explained his love and talent for cooking, and joined the team. The Oyster Bar opened for service in 1995.
He may not have known it yet, but that 18-seat eatery laid the foundation for Chef Ritter’s entire career. “I called it the ‘Cheers’ of cooking,” he recalls, referencing the interactive, welcoming feel of the counter-service restaurant. Part of the appeal—for Chef Ritter and for guests—was the steam kettle cooking aspect. People sidled up to the bar and placed their order directly with Chef Ritter, who would then cook their individual dishes right before their eyes in specially designed jacketed steam kettles. These kettles are heated by steam enclosed in a metal “jacket.” As the steam cools, it leaves the pot through a different pipe to be reheated and recirculated. The result is even heat distribution that enhances the food’s flavors without the risk of scorching.
“I didn’t invent this style of cooking,” Chef Ritter says, “but I’m one of the original creators of the restaurant concept.” At The Oyster Bar, the customers couldn’t get enough of the steamed seafood and interactive dining experience. “There was a line all day long,” Chef Ritter recalls. “It was exciting to be able to cook right in front of people, to get to know them. It was a chance to perform, and there was instant gratification.”
For 12 years, Chef Ritter put all his energy into the restaurant. During that time, he met people from all over the country. “I had customers from Irvine who would drive all the way to Vegas just to eat.” As he met more people and made more connections, he eventually met his would-be business partners and decided to move to California to open his own restaurant—Ritter’s Steam Kettle Cooking.
“[Steam kettle cooking] is what I know,” Chef Ritter says. “This is what I do. I’m just a really lucky person who gets to do what he loves.”
Ritter’s South Coast Metro opened in Santa Ana in July of 2013. Less than a year later, Chef Ritter opened a second location in Huntington Beach. At both locations, Cajun-style, steam kettle-cooked entrées drive the menu, prepared before your eyes in signature steam kettles. Try the Bouillabaisse, with its aromatic saffron, tomato, and leek broth and heaps of fresh fish. Channel the flavors of New Orleans with Chef Ritter’s Famous Gumbo, brimming with pork andouille sausage and okra in a dark, flavorful roux-based sauce. Another great choice? The Cioppino with white fish, crab, shrimp, calamari, mussels, and clams served in a white Sherry tomato broth.
Part of the delight of these dishes is the authentic Southern flavor. Much of the seafood—the shrimp, crab, clams, oysters, mussels, and lobster—is sourced from the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Louisiana. What’s more, Chef Ritter developed all the recipes with his own secret spice combinations, for which he only purchases the highest quality spices. Aromatic blends of paprika, cumin, clove, bay, cayenne, and garlic blossom into savory, flavorful entrées that come together before your eyes.
“Chef Ritter makes all these dishes himself,” General Manager Matthew Morgan explains, referencing the chef’s dedicated presence manning the steam kettles every day. “He takes great pride in what he does, and it shows in the food.”
Certainly the most popular order is Chef Ritter’s Famous Pan Roast—a traditional Creole dish made with trinity (green bell pepper, onion, and celery), tomatoes, and a spiced cream sauce, topped with rice and choice of seafood or chicken and sausage. In fact, this Chicken and Sausage Pan Roast took first place at the Taste of Huntington Beach in spring of 2015.
“I was really happy about that,” Chef Ritter says, beaming. “I knew our food was excellent, but I never expected my dish to be voted number one.” That recognition has been a long time coming. Back at The Oyster Bar, Ritter used to make the base broth for the pan roast from scratch each time. “Eventually, it became so popular that I developed a recipe to make in larger batches, and that’s what I use at Ritter’s.” Other menu items like Po’Boy sandwiches, salads, and fried dishes like Cajun Calamari or Softshell Crab are prepared in a traditional kitchen, out of view.
Still, the chance to watch the steam kettle chef go to work is part of the appeal. On the first visit, guests often want to sit at the bar and watch their kettle-cooked entrée come to life. Guests chat with Chef Ritter, watch their entrées as they simmer in the kettles, and might even request more heat—if they like it spicy. When they return— which they inevitably do—they bring their friends and family and occupy a more traditional table in the dining room. But they invariably walk up to the counter to witness the cooking process and catch up with Chef Ritter. Later, they’ll tell more friends and family about the steam kettle experience. It’s a Cajun-flavored word-of-mouth marketing campaign if there ever was one.
Since the Taste of Huntington Beach win in 2015, Ritter’s Steam Kettle Cooking has been voted to appear on a late-night cooking show, featured on the local news channels, and highlighted in publications like Westways AAA member magazine. This success has even spurred plans for a third location, set to open in Alhambra in 2016. Indeed, it won’t be long before Chef Ritter becomes a household name in Orange County. Because once you see—and taste—what he can do, you’ll be talking, too.
by Monica Parpal Stockbridge | Editor