By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When it was done, Cavanagh recalls, he poured himself a glass and tasted it. But he didn't know what to think. He realized he'd never tried plain tonic before.
So he poured himself a G&T.
"It was for a cause," he shrugs, laughing.
These days Cavanagh makes about 120 bottles of syrup a week — enough to keep the restaurant and his growing number of mail-order customers happy, as long as he doesn't get a mention in, say, the Wall Street Journal.
That week got a little crazy — more than 25,000 hits on his website, johnstonic.weebly.com. Cavanagh designed his own site, designed the elegant label on the bottle, and crafted the recipe, though he has no formal culinary training. The only place he needed professional help: trademarking the name "John's Premium." Luckily, he has a cousin who's a trademark attorney.
"John's Premium" hardly feels like a back-pocket business. The stuff tastes so good — rather, it'll make your gin or vodka taste so good — that it's got a cult following. Cavanagh insists it's nothing fancy, explaining that he used Phoenix as his test market.
But that doesn't mean it isn't something special. — Amy Silverman
Whether chef Esther Mbaikambey is serving up creations such as her Caribbean jerk chicken or the Nigerian thick soup eugusi, she often responds to her grateful guests with the phrase, "It's my pleasure."
The words are spoken slowly, always with a smile, and in Mbaikambey's thick African accent. Her mannerisms and movements suggest a calmness not typically found in the restaurant business, especially from first-time chef/owners like Mbaikambey.
"People are surprised that I am so calm," she says, "but I'm a hard worker — I don't like to give up. I like to push through."
Mbaikambey's years of quiet determination eventually led to the opening of her restaurant, Fu-Fu Cuisine. The fun-to-say name may mean little to the average American diner, but the moniker, referring to the starchy food staple of Africa and the Caribbean (where it is sometimes described as mofongo), speaks to the restaurant's offerings of cuisine from both areas of the globe.
Mbaikambey grew up in Nigeria. The oldest of six children, she took to cooking almost immediately, watching her mother prepare meals for the family. After attending high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Mbaikambey came to the United States, where she spent two years in Atlanta before coming to the Valley to attend Phoenix College. Without giving herself any time off, Mbaikambey finished college in three years and with three degrees in business, food service administration, and culinary arts — this in addition to several hours of volunteer work. She said the idea for her own restaurant came at various parties in college, where her friends would talk about her flair for cooking and tell her what dishes she should put on her imaginary menu.
But new restaurants don't just materialize out of ideas and goodwill. They take money and planning. And once Mbaikambey settled on her dream, she set about to make it happen, in her deliberate manner, by working at Applebee's for a staggering 12 years. For nine of them, she also ran a personal catering business.
Finally, late last year, Mbaikambey opened Fu-Fu Cuisine on the city's west side.
Fu-Fu Cuisine's well-prepared Caribbean fare — such as meat pies, jerk chicken, and soup dumplings — may be most familiar to the Western palate, but it is Mbaikambey's flair for food served in her home of Nigeria and throughout the African continent that is the most unusual and a joy to experience. There is the exotic yassa chicken topped with a sauté of dijon mustard, peanut oil, green olives, onions, and bell peppers; fried, doughnut-like dumplings called pof-pofs; and eugusi, made from the seeds of the same name. Of course, most of Mbaikambey's African dishes are accompanied by fu-fu, a staple of the continent. White and sticky, it is eaten with the hands and used as a utensil for scooping up seasoned stews and soups.
Although a restaurant on the city's west side specializing in both Caribbean and African cuisine is an anomaly in the Valley, Mbaikambey doesn't seem concerned. Her ever-present calmness seems to override any anxieties.
"It's just something I love to do," she says. "I want it to be different." — Laura Hahnefeld
When you consider the Garfield neighborhood, thoughts turn to its rough-and-tumble history or recent popularity among artists and hipsters. But it hardly inspires visions of bucolic landscapes and vegetable gardens.
Unless you're John Milton. Milton, who prefers to be called Farmer Woody, has a goal for Garfield: Turn back the clock nearly 150 years, to a time before the area was divided into residential plots. To transform the neighborhood into "The Garfield Gardens."
The project unites his biggest passions: food and farming. Drawn to the kitchen at an early age, Woody began working at the Wigwam Resort on the west side of town at 16. On a trip to a local farm to pick vegetables for the night's dinner service, he realized farming's fundamental role in food production. Not long after, he left the kitchen to pursue a job at Sun Fresh Farms in Litchfield Park.