Chef Chris Smith Dishes on Maynard James Keenan’s New Restaurant in Cottonwood
Chef Chris Smith with a plate of his house-made pastas at Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria in Cottonwood.
Merkin Vineyards & Osteria
For Chef Chris Smith, cooking in a couple of kitchens in an Arizona art colony and small town turned into a big opportunity. After eating at Asylum Restaurant in Jerome several times when Smith was chef there,
multi-platinum-selling musician turned Arizona winemaker Maynard James Keenan picked him to lead the culinary team at his new concept,
in Cottonwood. On the morning of the osteria’s opening on December 2, we caught up with Smith to talk about the pasta standouts on the Italian menu, what it’s like working for Keenan, and wine pairings.
What are some of your favorite pasta dishes on the menu?
The signature is the Merkin Mac and Cheese. And the cheese, it’s not like your regular Velveeta or Kraft or whatever. This one has heavy cream and mascarpone, white pepper. And the pasta is a prickly pear and wine – that’s what I put in the pasta, so the [pasta] is a pink-ish color. And another one I really like and that’s going well is just a regular, traditional gnocchi. In that one, I do a prosciutto and sage cream sauce.
Where are you sourcing your ingredients?
The meats and cheeses, right now, I’m importing those from Italy. I am trying to source local. I’m getting my hands on the prosciutto that’s going to be local, and produce is local — down in Phoenix, I’ll mess with Blue Sky Farms, McClendon's [Select] Farms, or Pinnacle Farms. We also have our own Merkin garden. We have our own greenhouse on one of our vineyards, and we’re adding two more greenhouses to another vineyard. So we’re growing our own stuff. We have Merkin orchard, as well, which produces plum, apricot, peaches, pomegranate, three kinds of figs, almonds, apples, all that stuff. The flour for the pasta that’s coming is Arizona-grown; the wheat is milled at Hayden Flour Mills.
What’s it like working with Maynard James Keenan?
He keeps me on my toes, and makes me better. Makes me better with every dish. He basically gave me free rein, so that’s what we did. I guess he trusts me.
He asked me what I needed, and we made it happen. The mixers I wanted, the pasta extruder I wanted, anything that I wanted. All the equipment … like I said, he gave me free rein and put things together.
Can people see the pasta being made in the kitchen from the dining room?
Yeah, it’s almost like a sushi bar. There are actually seats at the pasta bar. So someone’s making pasta there – they’re making the raw pasta, they’re not finishing the dishes. The main kitchen is upstairs. And downstairs, they produce the pastas, mix the bread [dough], all that type of stuff. And then behind where they’re making pasta is the walk-in, and it has a glass window, so you can see all the produce, you can see the meat hanging. It’s a pretty cool concept.
What food and wine pairings would you recommend at Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria?
All the dishes on the menu go specifically with the Merkin wine … maybe a rosé for a charcuterie board. For the bruschetta with the pesto, I like going with the malvasia bianca. That wine really pops with basil. The ragú, you go with something like the Tarzan red. Or if you just want to come and hang out, we have these bread baskets, and we make our own bread and preserves. You’re gonna have to come check it out.
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.