Were it not for her sister’s wedding, Tarboro restaurateur, sommelier, and brewery owner Inez Ribustello would have likely found herself on either the 106th or 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center Complex on the morning of September 11, 2001. As the Beverage Director and Cellar Master at Windows on the World at the time, Ribustello (then Holderness) would have been high above lower Manhattan preparing for the day’s service or deep below the World Trade Center complex in the restaurant’s cavernous wine cellar. Her soon-to-be-husband, Stephen Ribustello, had just been hired as a sommelier. Both could have very well been two other victims to the tragedies of that historic day.
That sheer coincidence, the randomness of her, and her now-husband Stephen Ribustello, both being off work that day, and her being home in North Carolina, is the backbone that holds together the two seasons of her life, as told in her new memoir Life After Windows. In it, Ribustello traces her journey from naive, privileged Southern belle to becoming one of the most powerful people in the New York wine scene during the dot com bubble. When the September 11 terror attacks destroyed her world, in both a literal and spiritual sense, she found herself back in the very town she vowed to never return to, opened On the Square, one of North Carolina’s most heralded restaurants, and, eventually Tarboro Brewing Company.
Ribustello’s memoir is a microcosm of her personality — fast-paced, bubbly, with the occasional epithet tossed in to remind you that she’s not the proper Southern girl she once was. But it’s also raw and honest and at times gut-wrenchingly sad. For someone who lives and raises her family in the same small town where she grew up, that kind of brutal honesty, about her struggles to return to her Christian faith after 9/11, about how the restaurant industry both brought her some of her greatest joys and lowest lows, about any myriad of issues that “we just don’t talk about in public,” can be terrifying. Ribustello seems to approach the act of revealing her entire life to the world with the same pragmatic optimism she has leaned on to get her through the past 20 years. The book is woven through with opportunities to take a break from the dark stuff and laugh, and one would imagine that’s exactly how Ribustello lives her life. When things get hard, when the world gets dark, there is always family, friends, work, and of course, laughter.
Eater Carolinas sat down with Ribustello in September to talk about her book and her journey from Tarboro to New York City and back again.
On what it was like putting her experience on 9/11 down onto paper:
Umm [very long pause], it just felt honest. I’m not going to lose what that day was like, and yet I’m not adding extra stuff to it either. This is how I remember it. While it was an incredibly dark day, by writing it down and being able to say it was a low spot, one of the lowest places I’ve ever been and I eventually got better.
On both she and Stephen doubting that On the Square would even survive its first year of operations:
I think probably most people were betting that we wouldn’t make it either. Restaurants in Tarboro didn’t have that great of a track record. But people showed up, and in a big way — I mean Tarboro really came through! And it was funny, because two or three years [later] we kind of hit this real stride and people were traveling from Greenville and Rocky Mount and Raleigh. Tarboro said, “You should’ve never told anybody how good it was, because now we can’t get in.”
On what she’s learned from the vulnerability of putting her life experience into a book:
“We’ll see [laughing]. For the past two weeks, maybe a little over two weeks, I have been completely anxiety ridden, not sleeping, having a hard time falling asleep, and then just waking up really early. I mean my fear, my anxiety, is that I haven’t told it right or respectfully, where there could be anyone who feels like it was trivialized in any way. And I am very protective of my family. I mean [the book] is deeply, deeply personal. People could say things about me as a parent, as a wife, and I can’t really control that. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. You know, there’s a part about my kind of exiting from On the Square, which has never been told, and people just speculated.”
On when she and Stephen began to realize that working together while also raising a family was taking a heavy toll on their relationship:
We were just living in unhealthy ways where we might not speak to each other for days because of something that happened in the restaurant that had nothing to do with home, or vice versa. And there was no like — well Stephen and I are huge, huge proponents of therapy. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that until it was almost too late. What happened was, [we were] just breaking down and breaking down and breaking down until the car wouldn’t work. The car wouldn’t start! And I feel like had we both just gone to see a therapist,, well fuck, probably right after 9/11 like right away, you know…[laughing]. But we were just burying all these things. So it was almost too late.
Today Ribustello is full-time with Tarboro Brewing Company while her husband runs On the Square. She splits her days between the brewery’s main facility and taproom in downtown Tarboro and TBC West, a taproom and taco joint in a renovated mill house at the Rocky Mount Mills complex in Rocky Mount. She’s also taken on a new passion project, advocating and raising money for Edgecombe County Public Schools. In many ways, the restaurant industry that gave her life meaning before and after 9/11, and then almost destroyed her marriage, has now helped her rebound as she enters this third season of her life. There are still difficult moments, there are still trials, but Ribustello continues to push forward with her particular brand of tenacity and Southern charm, always ready to laugh.