The first time I talked to Mad Coyote Joe, I asked him how he got started as a TV chef."To tell you the truth, here's what I think happened. I think they just said, "You know that fat motherfucker who's desperate to be on TV? Let's give him a chance.'" He wanted to call the show Cooking for Rednecks, but it ended up being called The Sonoran Grill, which is also the name of his brilliant first book that has just been published by Northland.
His account of how he got the TV gig is typical of him. False modesty isn't one of his traits -- he knows how good he is -- but he laughs at himself and seems cheerfully bemused and amused by the cult that's sprung up around him. He describes himself not as a professional chef with a culinary degree, but as a regular guy with a passion for Southwestern foods and a knowledge of grilling. "There is not a dish in this book that the average person cannot cook, if they just take their time and follow the recipe," he says.
Mad Coyote Joe is not about persona. He's the real thing. Some people looking at the cover of his book, seeing a fat guy with a beard, ponytail and baseball cap and wearing a denim shirt and suspenders, might grin, admiring the cleverness of the look. But it's not a look -- it's how he always dresses, whether he's hosting his show or performing music at open-mike spots in bars around town.
His Sunday morning cooking show on Channel 15 may be the best cooking show broadcast by any station in the country. It is certainly the funniest, even though some of his best jokes have to be edited out. When he was cooking a whole pig, he remarked, "This is Babe's stunt double." The line wasn't broadcast.
His personality also effervesces through the text of his book, which is one of the best cookbooks outside of those by the legendary James Beard. Mad Coyote Joe has something in common with Beard other than a love of American cuisine: The recipes are for real. This is less obvious than it sounds. Many cookbooks are generic lists of ingredients, compiled by people who have never actually made the dish described. But, like Beard, Coyote Joe has cooked everything he describes in his book, and he tells you -- in easily understandable terms -- how he does it.
It really would be difficult to overstate just how good this book is. It presents more than 130 of Coyote Joe's best recipes; the writing is excellent and the photos are culinary pornography. But his good-natured plan for world domination isn't limited to TV and the printed word. Two weeks ago, he started doing five-minute segments on NPR, talking about Arizona eating spots.
"You know, that's very important," he says. "There's so much culture here, in food as well as other things, that you just don't hear about. For example, did you know that there's a freshwater shrimp farm here? People talk about places like San Francisco or Louisiana, but Arizona has everything that those places have. I want to let people know that, tell them what they have right where they live. Look at Pepe's Taco Villa on Camelback Road -- it's been there for 25 years, and it's out of this world."
The Sonoran Grill with Mad Coyote Joe airs at 5 p.m. Saturdays on KNXV-TV Channel 15.