Big Brain Awards 2013


Culinary


MICHAEL BABCOCK and JENN ROBINSON

Ask most any food truck owner and they'll tell you moving to a brick-and-mortar location is the ultimate dream. They'll tell you though that it takes money. And time — lots of time.

Unless you're Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson.

The pair hit the streets as Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck just last fall and, by January 31, had found themselves a permanent home. It may have been a step up — and a fast one — but they had done the seemingly impossible and settled into what's got to be one of the few restaurant spaces in town with a kitchen smaller than the one on their truck.

In exchange for the lack of space, however, they took the chance to be the next faces in what's becoming the rich culinary history of the Welcome Diner.

The tiny red and white Valentine diner came to Phoenix by way of Wichita, Kansas, in 1980. Since opening in 2004, the kitchen's served as a stage for chefs including Payton Curry, MF Tasty's Eric Gitenstein, and even Matt's Big Breakfast.

Though they love the historic structure, Babcock and Robinson say, it's not always easy operating in a 68-year-old building.

"The diner is old [and] beat up," Babcock says matter of factly. "She requires a lot of attention."

Babcock and Robinson graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with degrees in environmental science, and they met while she was working at the Phoenix Public Market.

"She was the cute girl behind the counter and I had to know her name," says Babcock, who worked for 10 years at local restaurants including Gallo Blanco and The Duce. He also traveled in search of inspiration, eventually settling on New Orleans cuisine.

When Robinson got a job as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in northern California, they left Arizona and stumbled into an experience that would change their ideas about food forever.

To save money — because finding affordable housing on a sous chef's and hydrologist's pay isn't easy in Santa Cruz, California — they ended up living at Food Not Lawns, a farming and housing cooperative that also serves as a venue for music, workshops, and art shows.

It was while living there with a dozen other people that they learned firsthand about farming, gardening, animal husbandry, and more. Babcock got a job working in the slaughtering section of an organic farm where he learned to appreciate clean eating. They lived for a time with their "hands in the dirt, every day," as Robinson says.  

That was great, but they wanted to be business owners, and life brought them back to the Valley, where Robinson says the dry desert landscape means one can really appreciate what it takes to make things grow. (She still keeps her green thumb in the soil with the two plots of land she's had donated to turn into gardens for the diner.)

Old Dixie's Southern Kitchen food truck was an instant hit, and just months after hitting the road, Welcome Diner beckoned. Babcock and Robinson serve a limited menu (on a limited schedule — go to facebook.com/olddixies for details) out of the space.

Babcock's quick to point out that Old Dixie's presence at Welcome Diner is not really about putting their own stamp on things.

"I think Jenn and I were really people who understood what the diner was about — it's history," he says. "I don't think we really wanted to change it. We wanted to elevate it. We wanted to perpetuate it." Lauren Saria


HAYDEN FLOUR MILLS

If you're a local, the Hayden Flour Mill needs no introduction. The iconic mill for which Tempe's main drag gets its name has stood at the corner of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway for nearly 140 years. And though the long-abandoned building recently underwent a substantial renovation as an art space, the historic mill itself is indefinitely out of order.

But that hasn't stopped Jeff Zimmerman from bringing back the name and the grain that once thrived in the Southwest.

A quality management specialist turned slow food activist, Zimmerman's revival of the Hayden Flour Mills process began with his family's growing interest in the resurgence of authentic foods, "just like people bringing back heritage tomatoes, veggies, pork. We just thought, well, let's just see if there are ancient types of wheat."

Zimmerman and his daughter Emma began their quest to reclaim the heritage grains lost in the age of industrialized farming by enlisting the help of farmers, anthropologists, and organizations like Native Seeds Search in Tucson.

Not long after the Zimmermans' operation launched, they connected with pizza-maker and slow food aficionado Chris Bianco.

"He's probably the original guy for using local ingredients in his food," says Zimmerman, "but the one ingredient he didn't have was wheat."

A champion of the Zimmermans' efforts, Bianco invited Hayden Flour Mills to move in behind his sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, setting up their 1,600-pound Austrian stone mill and sifter and producing the various flours used by Bianco's restaurants and other Valley chefs across town. You can also buy the flour at farmers markets and specialty shops (including Pane Bianco) around town. For a complete list, go to haydenflourmills.com

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3 comments
cennrenn
cennrenn

OK wow, lets roll that beautiful bean footage!


www.GotzMyAnon.tk

naoma4man
naoma4man

He sounds like a future famous designer.  I liked reading about him.  Much luck and success to him in his future in design and hopefully I'll see his clothes in the best shops in the future.

 

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