Carol Steele Is the Godmother of the Phoenix Culinary Scene

The drive to Aravaipa Canyon isn't long, as far as road trips go. Ninety minutes, and you're in another world.

From Phoenix, head east on the 60. Take a right at the old ice cream stand in Superior onto Highway 177, pass the giant open pit of the Ray Mine, then hang another right at the Shell station in Winkelman. One more left, and you're on a dirt road.

This is sacred land, near the site of one of the worst Native American massacres in Arizona history — in the mid-1800s, a group of soldiers attacked a camp of Apaches (mostly women and children), scalping and killing almost all of them. There are no markers of the incident, and today it's peaceful, expansive, beautiful land with spectacular hiking at the federally protected Aravaipa Canyon and much nicer homes than what you typically see in rural Arizona.

Carol Steele
Jamie Peachey
Carol Steele
Steele at work in the kitchen
Jamie Peachey
Steele at work in the kitchen

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See video of Carol Steele in action.

To learn more about Aravaipa Farms ‚ÄĒ including room rates ‚ÄĒ visit www.aravaipafarms.com. For info about the sale of Steele‚Äôs property, e-mail her at carol@aravaipafarms.com.

Chrysa Robertson will host a benefit dinner for Steele on Sunday, September 23. As of press time, no other details were available. Check Chow Bella (www.phxfood.com) for info after September 1, or e-mail ranchopinot@hotmail.com.

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It helps to have four-wheel drive for this trip, if only for the giant dip you'll hit at the entrance to your destination, Aravaipa Farms, a flat hunk near the creek, beneath a mountain, marked only by a small, hand-painted sign. This is fertile land; you'll pass an orchard packed with Meyer lemon, pecan, peach, apricot, and Asian pear trees. This is where you'll find Carol Steele.

If you lived in metro Phoenix between the mid-'70s and early '90s — particularly if you ever lunched in Scottsdale — the name should sound familiar, though you might know her best as C. Steele, proprietor of C. Steele & Co. and a number of other ventures, all related to gourmet food in one way or another. Steele left almost two decades ago, but her influence still is felt in the Valley — whether it's through food cooked by the chefs who trained with Steele or via the produce and jams her disciples drive three hours round-trip to fetch for their restaurants.

Steele is widely considered the godmother of the local food scene in Phoenix — part mafiosa, part fairy. Long before we were inundated with terms like "organic," "locavore," and "slow food," she was refusing to compromise on quality, celebrating farm-grown produce and artisanal foods.

For nearly 20 years she's put her considerable talents to work here at Aravaipa Farms, an orchard and bed and breakfast. For anyone who remembers Steele's stores and restaurants, a trip to Aravaipa is a trip down memory lane — the place is tightly packed with collections (everything from rocks to drawings, including several portraits of Carol by various artist friends), cookbooks, photographs, terra cotta pots of red geraniums, and most of all, Steele's own brightly colored, quirky folk art — paintings on tiles and plates, handmade bird houses, jewelry (all for sale). With every bit of it, you get a sense of the Southwest — but without the howling coyotes.

At 75, Steele runs the place with minimal assistance, providing not only breakfast (rooms are stocked with fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, and more) but also lunch (a picnic packed in a basket) and a sit-down dinner as well. Depending on the season, you can take a canning class (Steele puts up her own preserves), check out the greenhouse and the chicken coop, or take a swim in the sparkly blue pool.

Best of all, you get Carol herself — teaching classes, holding court on the porch at cocktail hour, presiding at the dinner table in her signature peacock blue eyeliner, bright red lipstick, jeans, and Crocs.

Nothing is fancy or ordered at Aravaipa Farms. The place lacks the pretense that's crept into even the Phoenix/Scottsdale food scene. Steele proudly pours "two-buck Chuck," and the trail mix in your picnic basket isn't homemade. But her carrot cake is; the lettuce in her salad came from her garden; and months later, you'll still find yourself wondering what she put in that spicy Thai sauce on the fish at dinner.

As her former employee Chrysa Robertson puts it, Steele arrived "post-Julia Child, pre-Martha Stewart." She came of age, culinarily speaking, in a time of gourmet cheese and caviar. A time of excess, Robertson observes, that's given way to the local- and slow-food movements under way at restaurants like Robertson's own Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale. Another Steele fan, Chris Bianco, is perhaps the best-known chef in Phoenix these days. He calls Steele "an incredibly wise woman" and "a fucking great pioneer."

Bianco's constantly one-upping himself in the "local" department — one of his latest obsessions is flour ground from wheat grown in Arizona and processed behind his sandwich shop, Pane Bianco. For her part, Steele raises chickens, maintains a greenhouse, and preserves fruit grown in her orchard. If you hurry, you can pick up a few of her Asian pears at Bodega, the gourmet market in Scottsdale run by chef Charleen Badman.

Like Carol Steele herself, Aravaipa Farms is a true Arizona treasure, her longest-running venture. She bought smart — 300 acres, including water rights.

And now the whole thing's for sale.


Lizards scurry across the flagstone by the pool at Aravaipa Farms on a breezy April day, looking for a drink. The only noise is the wind getting caught in the branches of giant eucalyptus trees and the chimes on the porch. It's sunburn weather by the pool, though the temperature's so perfect you won't realize it for hours, 'til your skin starts to sting. It's easy to get distracted, listening to Carol Steele talk about her life.

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6 comments
Richard1980
Richard1980

This was a really fun "date night" dinner. We had planned on going to 560 for cocktails and sushi in the bar, but apparently everyone else in Dallas County had the same thought, so we ended up at Steel. We were able to get last-minute reservations on a Saturday night, which was fortunate as the place was quite busy. The sushi was good, but not life-changing. They were out of Toro, which probably in my best interest because I really don't need to be paying $9 for a bite of fish. http://bleacherreport.com/users/1607102-buy-cheap-cialis-online-mastercard-visa http://bleacherreport.com/users/1607136-buy-viagra-soft-tabs-online-mastercard-visa http://bleacherreport.com/users/1607596-buy-cialis-soft-tabs-online-mastercard-visa http://bleacherreport.com/users/1607662-buy-cheap-kamagra-online-mastercard-visa

Karen Stone
Karen Stone

I remember C Steele restaurant. Long before there was a foodie scene here.

greg.moss
greg.moss

greg.moss

We used to say "Mom's here" when she would walk into the store and back to her table.  We never skimped on quality, even as she was signing checks, to pay vendors because her credit was....not so good.  7303 E. Indian School was the cash cow that helped finance all of the side projects.  

 

The Mercado was only open for about 6 weeks.  And I think you forgot Mark Tarbells space at 32st and Camelback.  That store had a beautiful oven where they made pizzas.  Should Tom Kaufman be mentioned now?

 

You wrapped up Carol's move down the street...."they raised the rent...." to easily.  There was a bankruptcy, Fife Symington and Old town Scottsdale revitalization that played into it.

 

Great story.

 

And why didn't Nikki Buchanan write this article....she worked there for a few months in the 80's.  In the cheese department I believe.

 

laurienotaro
laurienotaro

Great story! I loved going to C. Steel's in the 80's and so many of my friends worked for her. I hope it all works out for her beautifully. Carole Steel is indeed a pioneer of culinary Phoenix, if not THE pioneer.

anacleta
anacleta

I just stopped reading when I got to the indian massacre thing, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and went to read up on the savage nature of the apache tribe. I especially liked the parts about how the apaches brutally raided other indian tribes. those other tribes deserved it.

Sumosommelier
Sumosommelier

 @anacleta I could not agree more...what a goofy way to go into an article honoring Carol Steele.

 

C'mon Amy..you frankly are better than that to allow your own liberal ideals to invade every aspect of feature "food" articles. Do we have to relive the Apache Wars to appreciate the culinary contributions of our State's beloved Culinary Curmudgeon.

 

Here let me write an article for you.

 

A culinary mine exists in old Prescott called the Gurley Street Grill. It is pure gourmet gold. Speaking of gold, in the spring of 1863, Apaches attacked several small parties of prospectors and miners. When gold was discovered in the Weaver and Walker diggings near Prescott, miners flocking to the area found themselves much closer to Apache homelands than was prudent. The Apaches decided to brutally kill them and savagely stab them in them in their hearts. Speaking of hearts, the buffalo lasagna at the Gurley Street Grill is pure love.

 

I have been to Aravaipa Farms and drank several bottles of Carol's favorite Yellow Tail Chard with her, and I wasn't distracted by ghostly wailing Apache chń≠dn. Just the soothing Deadhead cover tunes of the Shimmy's and birds chirping!

 

Enough with all the over-sensationalized food drama it causes indigestion

 
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