By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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"They have so many law, no one know what law is right law," the handsome, haughty chef asserted during an interview at his private compound in Anthem. "Not even government know all the law. I take lot of precaution. People tell me to worry about [Maricopa County] Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He have animal-protection department. But he too old and stupid. They never catch me."
Officials would have to prove that Yamamoto acquired the species illegally, and that the chef's animal imports are indeed of the endangered variety, a tough task for overworked U.S. port inspectors more concerned about catching ostriches with avian flu or cattle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. mad cow disease.
Moreover, Yamamoto boasts scores of sources for his illicit eats, both inside and outside of the country. He prides himself on hunting many of the animals himself, and having their carcasses shipped to his Arizona address in specially devised containers via an unsuspecting FedEx. And there are other extra-legal arrows in his quiver; bribery and the black market being two.
Yamamoto's sub rosa restaurant, referred to as "Le Menu," is in constant rotation throughout the Valley. Yamamoto uses third parties to rent out places like the Wrigley, dining rooms at posh hotels such as The Phoenician and the James or high-end sites such as the Taliesin West's Garden Room, once Frank Lloyd Wright's private gathering space. Yamamoto's contacts in city government helped him secure for one night all of Tovrea Castle, the abandoned wedding-cake-shaped structure that sits on seven and a half acres of city land across from the Stockyards Restaurant on Washington Street. Once he used the now-vacant, but for a while still-furnished, Beef Eater's Restaurant on West Camelback Road, and, of course, there have been innumerable private residences, either on loan or for a fee. Sometimes, Yamamoto utilizes the abodes of his clients, who turn over their quarters to Chef Kaz for one evening, in trade for a free seat at Le Menu's coveted table du jour.
Additionally, the chef has friends in high places, if he needs them. A host of Hollywood stars and other notables have supped at Le Menu, including chef and author Tony Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel show No Reservations, Tinseltown bad boy Colin Farrell, humorist and Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, media mogul Ted Turner, eccentric thespian John Malkovich, troubled hip-hop star DMX, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. African-born Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo once stated that Yamamoto's chimpanzee stew "is better than me mum makes back in the Congo." And actor/director Vincent Gallo has recently expressed interest in filming a documentary on Yamamoto after supping on the grilled intestines of a brown bear poached from Yosemite National Park.
(It's worth noting that the chimpanzee is listed as an endangered species by both U.S. and U.N. agencies. And despite proposals to downgrade its status, the brown bear is still listed as a threatened animal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
Phoenix's power elite are also regular guests of Le Menu. Charles Barkley and Jerry Colangelo once shared a meal that included the skewered genitals of a barbecued rhino, reputedly an enhancer of stamina and virility. (Colangelo's prostate had recently been operated on, and the rhino feast was an aid to his recovery.) Mayor Phil Gordon was allowed to dine gratis in exchange for the chef's use of Tovrea Castle. Other well-known local fressers include Barry Goldwater III, Iron Mike Tyson, Shawn "The Matrix" Marion (he partakes twice a year when his friend Mutombo is in town to play the Suns), and car dealership titan Tex Earnhardt. During a private party at his residence, ASU President Michael Crow reputedly dined on Gila monster (absolutely verboten to take from the wild), served medium rare and smothered in a green chimichurri sauce. And NBC Channel 12 news anchor Lin Sue Cooney delighted, on a separate occasion, in none other than the same luscious canine dish that has so engrossed yours truly.
Yamamoto's Le Menu is but the most extreme example of America's ever-increasing obsession with food, and the collective hunger we have for ever-more-outrageous taste sensations. Celebrity chef Bourdain's entire TV career has been built upon the question, "What outlandish thing will Tony eat this week?" And popular television shows like Fear Factor have added a dare-you-to-eat-that element to the equation, while ethnic eateries have helped make such heretofore rare comestibles as tripe, tongue, beef head, fried insects, chicken feet, and so forth much more common. Haute cuisine peddlers regularly prepare quail, partridge, boar, squab, elk and buffalo. And numerous Web sites explore items previously forbidden for consumption. The site www.weirdmeat.com discusses eating everything from duck's blood soup to fish excrement. And www.deliciousdogs.com actually advocates porking out on pooch, because, as the Web forum states, "Let's face it, dogs are good food."
If those mouth-watering medallions of Bichon Frise did not teach me why entree to a Le Menu dinner is one of the hottest and most exclusive tickets in town, subsequent courses most certainly did. After another intermezzo, this one a ramekin of Key lime custard, made with sea-turtle eggs, and garnished with lime zest, we're brought what at first resembles a petite Cornish game hen or a quail. It is in fact a ferruginous pygmy owl, roasted with the head intact so that we can see, despite its denuded state, that what we're noshing is one of those endangered cactus dwellers, so beloved of Arizona environmentalists that the creature's mere presence has halted the construction of schools and roads. The tiny, browned bird body before me could fit neatly into the palm of my hand.