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Former Kai Guy Michael O'Dowd on What He's Up to at Renegade by MOD and the Problem with Comfort Food

O'Dowd in front of Lalo Cota's street art
O'Dowd in front of Lalo Cota's street art
Buchanan

Michael O'Dowd Renegade by MOD 9343 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale 480-614-9400

See also: -- Ex Kai Chef Michael O'Dowd Opens Renegade by MOD in Scottsdale this Friday

This is part one of my interview with Michael O'Dowd, executive chef and co-owner of Renegade by MOD. Come back Tuesday when O'Dowd dishes about his favorite cheapo place for a quick bite and offers a few choice words for his headstone.

O'Dowd with custom bike
O'Dowd with custom bike
Buchanan

Michael O'Dowd is having fun. At brand-new Renegade by MOD (an acronym for his initials as well as an apt, '60s-esque descriptor of his playful, contemporary approach to food), he has what he calls a "blank canvas," which is to say the freedom to create whatever he wants without stricture from guys in suits. That's the beauty of an indie restaurant -- O'Dowd's first, which he co-owns with partner Ed Leclere. "I'm not an ACF [American Culinary Federation] guy with the hat and the structure," he says.

But clearly, O'Dowd has done his share of answering to suits, making a name for himself during his tenure at Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, where he set his sights on five stars from Michelin and five diamonds from AAA, both of which were earned a few years later. The restaurant has kept its coveted awards for five or six years running, and O'Dowd admits there's a certain pressure in that. Nobody wants to be the buck-stops-here guy if and when a star or diamond is lost.

He also says that, ultimately, he's all about the cooking, a predilection he picked up from his mom, a great cook and entertainer who threw frequent and elaborate dinner parties at their Los Angeles home. O'Dowd's dad was an executive with Seagram's, so parties with bigwig guests was de rigeuer. As a teen, O'Dowd started working in restaurants to earn pocket money. By then, the family had moved to Florida and O'Dowd landed a job at Harbor Island Hotel, where he fell under the tutelage of John Coletta, a chef who, he says, "really pushed me to the next level." O'Dowd wanted more, and after working at a handful of "no-name" restaurants, he moved to New York, where he worked as line cook and later sous at a handful of prestigious places, including the Ritz-Carlton, Le Cirque , and Gotham Bar and Grill.  

Former Kai Guy Michael O'Dowd on What He's Up to at Renegade by MOD and the Problem with Comfort Food
Buchanan

Somewhere along the line, he audited classes at the Culinary Institute of America, but he never earned a degree there. He was too busy with work, moving from his executive chef position at the Stanhope Hotel in New York to Washington, D.C., to take the same position at the Jefferson Hotel, where he and the rest of the crew toyed around with what they called "Jeffersonian Cuisine," delving into the history and culture of food in Thomas Jefferson's era.

He later became the corporate chef for The Lancaster Group (who owned The Jefferson), moving back and forth between The Lancaster in Texas and the St. James in Beverly Hills (which converted to The Argyle), where he and his crew cooked for Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Steven Seagal.

A few years later, he was ready for a change and moved to Chicago to work at The Meridian and later, The Ambassador West. It was in Chicago that he met the woman he would marry, a woman who was sick and tired of snow. O'Dowd had never worked in the Southwest and didn't know much about the region, but it promised to be warm and dry, so he took a position as chef de cuisine at The Marquesa, where Reed Groban was the executive chef and Lenny Rubin ran the kitchen for La Hacienda. "It was nothing to spend $5,000 per week on produce for our Sunday brunch," he says, and "we had a lot of fun taking the restaurant to the next level."

When the executive chef position at the Scottsdale Hilton opened up, O'Dowd took it, staying on for five years, until an old friend told him things were changing at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa. It was 2002, and O'Dowd knew that being on the reservation would mean he had much more freedom from rules and regulations regarding cooking techniques (ask any chef about sous vide and you'll get an earful).  

Fish Stix with housemade tartar sauce and rouille in toothpaste tube, crab mac and cheese and cole slaw
Fish Stix with housemade tartar sauce and rouille in toothpaste tube, crab mac and cheese and cole slaw
Buchanan

"It was a total, total blank [slate]," O'Dowd says, "and we had the money. Let's do something with this cuisine and tell a story," he exhorted his staff. And they followed his lead, elevating both food and service in a way no one expected from a sweet but faintly hokey restaurant doing "Kai Cones" and other faintly dated Southwestern dishes. It was charming and the views were spectacular, but it wasn't five-star.

O'Dowd stayed for 10 years, surprising everyone by moving to the Sheraton downtown last year. Food folks who care about such things assumed there was some deep, dark secret reason why he left his cushy, prestigious job for a far less cushy, prestigious one in our still-moribund downtown. O'Dowd insists he simply wanted to put "the big tanker" (meaning a hotel with 1,000 rooms and many more demands) on his résumé.

In any case, he soon left it for his new position as co-owner of Rengade by MOD after his friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Ed Leclere (who was struggling with Renegade) asked him for consulting help. When Sheraton owner Starwood nixed that idea (O'Dowd had done the right thing and asked for their go-ahead) and O'Dowd told Leclere he couldn't come out to play, Leclere suggested they become partners instead. Here was an opportunity to do something completely different on yet another blank canvas. Let's hope Renegade by MOD is his masterpiece.

It's your night off. What are you drinking and eating?: An IPA and a pizza.

And what are you listening to or watching?: From Korn to Mozart, depending on my mood.  

Renegade by MOD's entryway
Renegade by MOD's entryway
Buchanan

You worked fine dining at Kai. Will you miss that at Renegade?: Cooking and creating is all good no matter what the book looks like, because within the book it's all about the pages and the story. Some of my dishes are more complex than Kai's anyway -- shh.

And what's up with the street art? Is this an example of midlife crisis?: LOL. Nah, it's just the vibe of a culture that is exploding across the globe and I wanted to splash a few vivid street murals from my friend Lalo Cota's brushes and respect our downtown art scene. It's about coming together as one with local artists from all backgrounds and techniques.

Are you reinventing yourself or is this simply Michael O'Dowd unleashed?: A little of both. I twist up my world all the time to see things differently and through a different lens -- keeps me insane and I want to stay that way.

Your menu sounds out there but fun. Who's your audience for Grouper Fish Stix (with toothpaste of rouille), kale and chard kimchee on braunschweiger pâté and pork belly with peach cobbler?: People that are adventurous yet still want to stay MODerately comfortable.

Would you typify your food as New American or do you hate labels?: Yes, I hate labels. The food [at Renegade] represents re-imagined foods that are seen all over the marble.

What are your thoughts on comfort food?: It's comfortable, an overused label, and it has the image of big portions as well as being fatty and somewhat tone deaf.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles Chris Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco Ehren Litzenberger, BLD Matt Taylor, Market Street Kitchen Kelly Fletcher, House of Tricks?> Kelly Fletcher, House of Tricks?>

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