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Who could conceive of butchering poor Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?
Payton Curry. And he's come up with fancy ways to show off the gastronomic possibilities of feasting on Santa's adorable sidekick.
A couple of weeks ago, when the cheeky, curly-haired executive chef of Tempe's chic Caffe Boa announced he'd be serving a six-course reindeer tasting menu for the holidays, the restaurant was bombarded with phone calls.
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Local and national media (including yours truly, along with MSNBC, Carson Daly, and Bloomberg) were all over the story, and some interviewers even bluntly told Curry that they thought his decision was in poor taste.
Turns out, the meat of choice is actually caribou, the North American relative of reindeer. And although it seems innocuous compared to the sort of gag-worthy things that TV host Andrew Zimmern eats on his popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods — snake, guinea pig, and all manner of icky-looking offal — caribou shocked people all the same.
That's because even though caribou is in the fine print, Caffe Boa's press release and menu deliberately call it reindeer. It's one thing to serve exotic meat, but downright outrageous to sell it as a Christmas mascot on a plate.
This smart-ass clearly knew he was stirring the pot.
Controversy isn't new to Curry. On Easter, he pissed off a lot of pet owners and little kids by putting rabbit on his special holiday menu. It was free-range, all-natural rabbit, he argued — not domesticated bunnies — and rabbit is often on the regular menu at Caffe Boa. Nevertheless, that didn't quell the uproar over him killing the Easter Bunny.
Well, the theme was Alice in Wonderland, but everyone got the bunny connection anyway.
"What did Alice do once she found The White Rabbit?" read the press release. "Why, she ate him, of course. And you can, too, this Easter at Caffe Boa."
Curry actually did the rabbit menu a couple of years earlier, albeit in a more low-key way, when he was the executive chef at now-defunct Digestif in Scottsdale. At the time, owner Peter Kasperski didn't give his approval, but Curry went ahead and served Easter Bunny anyway. With no promotional push and just a bit of insider word of mouth, Curry's special sold surprisingly well.
Rabbit will definitely make an Easter encore at Caffe Boa, Curry insists; he's also considering a heart menu for Valentine's Day.
"And for the gentlemen, we'll be serving beaver," he adds, perfectly deadpan, before cracking a smile. "That kind of shit I think is fucking hilarious."
Call it a publicity stunt, but it's also brilliantly effective marketing. And it was Curry's own idea. Look past the word "reindeer" — and inevitable thoughts of Rudolph — and you'll find a high level of sophistication on Curry's Christmas tasting menu. It reads like something you'd more likely come across in gourmet meccas like San Francisco or Portland than in play-it-safe Phoenix: caribou tartare with pickled quail eggs, caribou tongue bruschetta with pickled watermelon radish and horseradish crema, caribou cotechino sausage with red lentils and quince mostarda, and so on.
While I didn't get to sample any of it before my deadline, I imagine it will be as intriguing as what I ate at Caffe Boa a month ago — luscious Mangalitsa headcheese (made from prized heirloom pigs); duck confit draped in a translucent blanket of lardo (cured pork fat); delicate Tajarin pasta with butter-poached scallops and Meyer lemon-Prosecco sabayon.
So what does Curry get out of carving up Rudolph? And what — if anything — does it mean for the Phoenix food landscape?
"We're having fun — I have to do something to keep people entertained," he says.
Really? On one level, I get it — customers can be fickle, and it takes work to stay in the public eye.
But I think Curry himself is the one who wants to be entertained. He's talented, passionate about food, and perhaps a bit frustrated with the local restaurant scene, where risk-takers come along far too rarely, and the recession has made many restaurants retreat onto predictable culinary territory. I wonder whether he'll stay in town long enough to bring reindeer back next year.
"I don't wanna give up on Arizona," says Curry, who's been here three years. "If this is how I have to get my vision for this restaurant across, I'll do five holidays a year."
The truth is that this Christmas tasting menu isn't about Christmas at all. It's about all the other days of the year.
Curry's causing mischief with the hope that someone might notice — or maybe even appreciate — everything else he's cooking on a daily basis, from homemade sausage and cured meats to quail, sweetbreads, and foie gras. Maybe customers will see his passion for local ingredients, for unusual seasonal items that might make a brief, delicious appearance before their harvest is up. Maybe Curry is confident and creative enough to back up the notoriety with substance.
Curry and Caffe Boa aren't the only ones who stand to benefit. If this gets people interested in Slow Food, in supporting local farmers, in eating something they've never tried before — it raises the bar for everybody.