Xtreme Cuisine

Arizona's cunning culinary wizard Chef Kaz Yamamoto prepares taboo illegal moveable feasts for the elite and über-rich

The warm glow of candlelight suffuses the Wrigley Mansion's grand living room, as George Gershwin's ghost tickles the ivories of an ancient Steinway, belting out the dulcet tones of "Rhapsody in Blue." Seems Gershwin was a guest of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. back in the day, and recorded this ditty on the mansion's Steinway player piano for his host's amusement. The squat antique instrument with its dark-walnut veneer sounds enchanting, those black and white keys responding to expert, unseen hands. One-of-a-kind entertainment for this most unusual repast I am now three courses into.

It's a Sunday evening in late March, and this august chamber, with its gilded roof, thick carpeting, and 18th-century oil paintings in heavy, rococo frames, has been converted into a dining room. Around an oval oak table are seated a dozen individuals, most of whom have paid thousands of dollars to be present. Since we are generally unknown to one another, the conversation is polite and uninteresting, save when it turns to the varied comestibles at hand.

We're waited on by four men in Armani jackets and high collars. A stunning blonde in a slinky black number plays maître d' and hostess, announcing each course and answering any questions that arise. Whenever our glasses run low, a bottle of Voss appears, or a magnum of Mouton-Rothschild, for silent refilling. Save for us, our servers, and those in the kitchen out of our sight, the mansion seems completely deserted, as the Wrigley's restaurant Geordie's, named for the house's late owner Geordie Hormel, closes after Sunday brunch. All the mansion's rooms are available for private parties, you see. And it's rumored that the manse's aged hippie landlord attended previous nights like these before he died, partaking of some of the same exotic vittles we're enjoying at the moment.

Kaz Yamamoto in the storage area of his home kitchen.
Mr. G
Kaz Yamamoto in the storage area of his home kitchen.
He be stylin': Chef Kaz Yamamoto at his Anthem compound, lounging in imported silk pajamas before a bighorn sheep he bagged last year.
Mr. G
He be stylin': Chef Kaz Yamamoto at his Anthem compound, lounging in imported silk pajamas before a bighorn sheep he bagged last year.

Compared to the rest of the night's offerings, there's nothing particularly astonishing about the creamy amuse-bouche that began our collation: a purple taro root bisque flavored with bacon cut from the belly of a wild Indonesian boar. But what immediately followed did raise a few eyebrows: a Southwestern cactus salad, featuring not only sliced prickly pear pad, mustard greens, and roasted corn, but also the spongy, slightly bitter innards of the noble saguaro, all of it drizzled over with a saguaro syrup-vinaigrette, made from the fruit of that legally protected desert flora. This mix of bitter, tangy and somewhat cloying tastes I found immensely intriguing, one of the better salads I've eaten in all my years as a food critic.

A small bowl of ginger-grapefruit sorbet is brought to each of us as a palate-cleanser, and then in turn a plate of four meat medallions atop a port reduction with a streak of saffron-parsnip purée to the side. The meat in question? Our comely hostess enlightens us with a warm and knowing countenance: "Tenderloin of Bichon Frise, medium rare." I have to say, the flesh of this best friend of man is extraordinarily soft and savory, and though I loathe using the cliché, it literally melts in my mouth.

Apparently, this toy breed is favored over other breeds for rather practical reasons. Its lap-dog affability toward humans renders it easy to raise and ultimately to butcher, and the fact that Bichons are small and do not shed their fur also appeals to those who will eventually harvest them for consumption. The diminutive animal is plumped up on cream and chunks of veal for seven months, then slaughtered while still a puppy to ensure its flavor and tenderness. The taboo we Westerners have regarding the consumption of canines aside, I now understand why dog flesh is regarded so highly to this day in many Asian cultures. Like some odd cross between pork and beef, there's nothing quite like it. Can't think of a lovelier way to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Dog.

Before I continue with my description of the evening's delicacies, I should mention that I am here at the invitation of Japanese-born chef Kazuki "Kaz" Yamamoto, the shadowy maestro of an underground and highly lucrative culinary world that's thriving in Arizona, because of Yamamoto's brazen and ingenious use of meat, game and vegetation that's considered off limits, immoral or even illegal. For the past three years, Yamamoto has maintained his moveable feast right under the noses of law enforcement authorities, placating the jaded palates of the wealthy, famous and powerful with such bewilderingly bizarre preparations as monkey brain stew, roasted flank of gazelle, and dry sausage crafted from the pink, lardaceous hindquarters of the great African hippopotamus.

Many of the items the French-trained Yamamoto procures for his mind-bending, edible menagerie can be legally imported into the United States and consumed under little-known loopholes in the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, each of which regulates the harvesting of and trade in exotic animals, both domestically and globally. Most people would be surprised to discover that lions, kangaroos, antelopes, hippos, reindeer and zebras can be brought into the States by reputable vendors and served openly. But Yamamoto takes this one step beyond, skirting the intricate tangle of local, state, federal and international regulations to obtain and cook whatever he damn well pleases.

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