On Sunday, a disturbance in the dining force was felt at Noca, the contemporary American restaurant in Central Phoenix, when it was reported that its executive chef, Chris Curtiss, was leaving.
I had a chance to talk with Curtiss, the culinary whiz who was nominated this year for the Southwest category of Food and Wine magazine's People's New Chef of the Year and the AZ Culinary Hall of Fame, about why he left, his next gig, and a rumor I heard about McDonald's burgers being served to a group of disgruntled Noca patrons.
Curtiss told me he had been feeling like he needed to make a change for the past two months and that Noca owner, Eliot Wexler, knew he was unhappy.
"I knew it was time to move on," Curtiss said, "And I wanted to make a change that would bring me happiness and satisfaction."
He's already found it.
Curtiss is set to be the new catering director for One Step Beyond Inc., a community-outreach program in northwest Phoenix for people with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. In his new role, Curtiss will provide training, culinary development, and employment opportunities in catering to individuals with those developmental disabilities.
"A friend of mine who is in the position now called to tell me about it a while back," Curtiss said about the job opening. "At first, I didn't think much about it, but then it felt like the right thing to do."
Curtiss says his plan is to take on the new role while his fiancée finishes grad school and eventually move to New England or Seattle where, ultimately, the couple could start a family and he could open a restaurant.
"I'm from the Bay Area, and I've never gotten used to the heat," Curtiss said. "I love the climate and culture of those cities, and there's a larger demographic of people who enjoy dining out."
On life at Noca, Curtiss was effusive about his staff, saying most have been with him since day one and remain capable of executing his vision at a high level. This, despite some rumors I'd heard that some of his team were less than happy working with him.
"I'm sure some of them weren't," Curtiss said. "A lot of young people in the industry don't understand the sacrifices that come with starting up a restaurant like Noca. I was working 45 to 55 days in a row, 60 to 80 hours a week. I was tired and burned out.
"A while ago, I went through some personal problems and needed to cut down the time I was spending at the restaurant," Curtiss said, adding that even in his last months at Noca, he was still putting in a lot of hours. "Some of the team may have been resentful that I wasn't there [as much]."
On his replacement, Curtiss said Noca owner Eliot Wexler has a clear vision of whom he wants.
"I recommended to Eliot that he hire from within," Curtiss said, "But whoever it is, I don't doubt Noca will continue to thrive."
And what about the rumor that, at one point last year, Wexler served McDonald's burgers to a group of unhappy patrons?
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Curtiss laughs, "It's true. They were being obnoxious, and some of them were drunk. After one of the women complained they'd have to go to McDonald's after the meal because the portion sizes were so small, Eliot went to McDonald's and brought them back burgers."
While leaving Noca is bittersweet for the chef who made the restaurant one of Phoenix's best places to eat (in addition to earning Noca a James Beard Award semifinalist spot for Best New Restaurant in 2009), Curtiss said that, while he'll miss his crew, it was ultimately the right decision, that he may do a few pop-up ventures in the future, and that he's excited about his new opportunity to give back to the community.
So when does he start?
"I start my training immediately," Curtiss said. "I don't like to lag."