Chef Andrew Nienke of Cafe Monarch on What to Expect When the Restaurant Re-Opens and "No Bullshit" Food
Chef Andrew Nienke
Courtesy of Christian Lewkowicz
Andrew Nienke Chef Café Monarch www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Monarch/305334640321
On Friday, October 4, Scottsdale's Café Monarch will re-open for the fall -- but this time without chef Christopher Van Arsdale. In his place will be a team of Van Arsdale fans looking to carry on the traditional of simple food done well and guests treated like family instead of customers. In the kitchen, you'll find chef Andrew Nienke, most recently of Searsucker, and this week we sat down to find out more about his plans for the restaurant and how he got started in the culinary business.
It's been nearly two months since news broke that Christopher Van Arsdale, the one-man show behind Old Town Scottsdale's Café Monarch, would be leaving the charming spot after six years there. During his time as chef and owner, he built a reputation for on-the-fly dishes that often catered to his guests' preferences. And it wasn't just the food that people loved; it was the beauty of the space and the warmth with which he hosted diners.
In early August, he announced he would be leaving his restaurant in the hands of a new owner, Christian Lewkowicz, who had worked with him for a season the year before.
"[Christopher] built this place more for the love of cooking," Lewkowicz says. "It was never really a business to him, which was cool."
Over the summer, Lewkowicz -- whose history includes time at Bloom, Searsucker, and Stingray Sushi -- brought his friend chef Andrew Nienke into the fold, though the way it happened wasn't intentional. Nienke was working at Top Chef Brian Malarkey's Searsucker in Scottsdale when Lewkowicz asked him to come check out the space and give his thoughts on its potential.
"I fell in love with it," Nienke says. "I was like, 'Uh, yeah, this is happening.'"
For both men, it's fair to say that "this" doesn't just mean re-opening.
"Our main goal . . . is to really pay homage to Christopher," Lewkowicz says.
"Neither of us is so ego-driven that we think we need to fix something that wasn't broken," Nienke adds.
The dining room at Cafe Monarch
So they've kept the model more or less the same. Café Monarch's menu under Neinke's control will still change day-to-day. He will continue to serve three courses for $45 a person. He will continue to be a one-man show in the kitchen. And in Nienke's words, the style of cuisine will continue to be "simple, straightforward, no bullshit food."
"A raspberry should taste like a raspberry," Nienke explains. "Food should taste like what it is."
This will be Nienke's first experience taking the reins at his own restaurant -- though of course, he won't have to worry about overseeing an entire kitchen full of staff. Having 100 dinners to handle alone every night won't be easy, either, but Neinke says he's not fazed by the idea.
"I'm comfortable in my own skin," he says, pointing out that after 15 years of cooking he's more than ready to do things his own way.
Nienke grew up in Bakersfield, California, and moved away at 19 to go to junior college in Long Beach. In November 1998, he started working as a dishwasher at "a short order burger joint" and believe it or not, that's when he discovered his love for the culinary arts.
"I knew what I wanted to do," he says. "I was scrubbing a pot and it's like the angels came down." (Insert angelic "Haaa" sound here.)
In 2004, he moved to San Diego to work with various chefs in the city's restaurant- and bar-saturated Gaslamp District. He started at Burlap, a sister restaurant to Searsucker that's since closed, when the San Diego Searsucker was just nine months old. Then, when Malarkey wanted to take the show to Scottsdale in late 2012, Neinke packed up and headed to the Valley.
One thing most people don't know about you: Well, to be honest, there isn't much people don't know about me. I'm pretty much an open book. Ask away.
The last thing you read: Ferran by Coleman Andrews
The last thing you watched: District 13, it's an awesome French action film. I'm a sucker for foreign action movies.
Your favorite childhood food memory: The time I cooked my grandmother's chocolate pie recipe for a school cooking competition. That was my first real time cooking.
Your biggest influence: A guy named Shane McIntyre, Brian Malarkey's corporate chef. He is an extremely talented chef who I worked with for about five years. He is not only one of my biggest supporters, he is my second-hardest critic. My biggest inspiration is my hardest critic, my biggest supporter, and the love of my life, my wife Sara.
The thing you couldn't cook without: Well-salted love. If you don't love what you do and don't love to cook for people that is easy to taste.
The biggest challenge you've faced: Without a doubt, myself. Early in my career I was headstrong and foolhardy. Later in my career, I had a tendency to over complicate and over think my food because I wasn't confident. Just ask the aforementioned Shane. But let's face it: All chefs are egomaniacal, so thankfully now I feel like I'm right in the sweet spot as far as my food, attitude, and self-control.
Five people you'd like to share a dinner with: [This] is a really hard question. I know I want my wife, Sara, on that list. I also want my son, Jaric, being under the assumption that we can magically make him able to eat it (he is three months old). As far as the other three people, I have no idea what to say. Maybe my dad, my mom . . . and I can't leave my in-laws out; Shane my mentor; my buddy Kevin Ables, who is a chef in the Bay Area; my friend Jason Rea who is a chef at the W in the Bay Area; and Yoda or maybe John Lennon.
Food is like art . . .in the fact that it is completely subjective. It all depends on the person taking it in.
Five words to describe Cafe Monarch: Simple, beautiful, dreamlike, quaint, and romantic.
What can people look forward to on opening night: On our opening weekend, you can definitely look forward to a watermelon salad with parsley pesto, smoked goat cheese and arugula. As far as other menu items, it depends on whatever is at the farmers market that looks good.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.