Hunger Games: Seven Up-and-Coming Metro Phoenix Chefs
Anyone can learn to hold a knife. But few have the survival skills required to navigate a restaurant kitchen. The job demands long hours of physically demanding work, a far cry from the sugar-coated version shown on TV. One needs passion, diligence, dedication — and good taste.
Unfortunately, according to James Beard Award-winning chef Christopher Gross, those qualities are becoming harder and harder to find.
"A lot of kids come in and they don't have the dedication," says Gross, who opened his first restaurant in 1990 and now owns Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge in Phoenix.
Taylor Sorenson is Gross' sous chef and has been for the past two years. The chef says that Sorenson, 28, has the work ethic that's become a rarity in the business these days.
"There's just not a lot of intensity. Taylor has it. But it's hard to find," Gross says. "What makes him stand out is what makes everyone else not stand out. It's a great work ethic."
According to some of the city's best chefs — including Gross, Chris Bianco, and Silvana Salcido Esparza — Sorenson and the six other metro Phoenix chefs on this list are all standouts. Some have paid their dues and are poised to step into the spotlight. Others are just barely getting started.
In each case, these young people have the right tools to do something big, be it next month, next year, or five years down the line.
Donald Hawk | Crepe Bar
Donald Hawk is about as close to a native Arizonan as it gets. He was born in South Korea, adopted by American parents, and came to the Valley at about eight months old.
Now 28, he's had a front row seat to the explosive growth of the metro Phoenix dining scene. He still remembers his first fine dining meal at the long-gone Michael's at the Citadel.
"That was an incredible experience," Hawk says. "I remember that place [Mary Elaine's at] The Phoenician, Rancho Pinot, and Nobuo — those were like the big fine-dining spots. Now, pretty much a decade later, it's incredible how many restaurants are here and how much exposure Arizona is getting."
That was back when he was in culinary school. Over the past decade, Hawk's more than witnessed the expansion — he's ingrained himself in the local scene by working at a handful of top restaurants under some of the city's best-known chefs.
When he's not in the kitchen at Crepe Bar, you'll find him dining around town, often with his girlfriend and fellow food lover Van-Lam Tram. He keeps two fingers on the pulse of the Valley food scene and one eye on what's going on in other food cities across the country, taking whirlwind food tours of places including Los Angeles and San Francisco. He keeps running lists of places to visit and to recommend on his Android phone.
And yet, despite his current enthusiasm for the trade, Hawk says, he didn't intend to end up in the kitchen. After graduating from Dobson High School in Mesa, he considered going to school to study music.
"But I decided, you know, I wanted to cook for a living 'cause I'd make money doing that," Hawk recalls with a scoff. "Total joke."
He ended up at Arizona Culinary Institute and then on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship for an internship. He returned to the Valley and took a job at Backstreet Wine Salon in Phoenix before eventually ending up at chef James Porter's Tapino.
"I was only there three months," Hawk says. "I got let go because I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was a mess. Just some 19-year-old punk."
He spent the next few years working a series of short-lived jobs on Mill Avenue in Tempe. After spending a year in the kitchen at Rúla Búla — a longstanding Irish pub but not exactly a culinary hot spot — a friend persuaded Hawk to get back in the game. A different friend connected him with Claudio Urciuoli, who was then heading up the kitchen at Prado at the Montelucia Resort.
He landed a job at the hotel — and got the jump start he needed.
Hawk worked at Prado with pros like Pavle Milic, who would go on to open FnB, and Ross Simon, who now owns Bitter & Twisted. It's also how he met Andrew Fritz, and when Urciuoli left Prado to work for Chris Bianco, Hawk volunteered to help Fritz at his soon-to-open Old Town Scottsdale restaurant, Citizen Public House.
He spent a year at the Scottsdale restaurant under chef Bernie Kantak before signing on to help open Bianco's Italian Restaurant at Town & Country. Both he and Urciuoli were only at the restaurant for a few months, and soon Urciuoli was calling him to come help out at Eliot Wexler's now-defunct Noca.
Hawk has worked off and on for Jeff Kraus' Tempe restaurant, Crepe Bar, since it opened in the summer of 2012. He's now Kraus' right-hand man, helping execute and create the restaurant's ever-changing menu of vegetable-focused small plates. In true Crepe Bar style, the plates are both playful and precise, tending to showcase local ingredients with international influences.
With Crepe Bar's plans for expansion later this year, Hawk says, he's being pushed to take more of a leadership role in the kitchen. He'll have a hand in managing the staff and will, of course, continue to contribute to the menu. After a career of working under big-name chefs in large kitchens, it's a change that Hawk says will take some getting used to.
"You know, I've only been a line cook my whole life," he says. "This whole management thing — trying to be a manager and everything — it's challenging but incredibly fun and rewarding."
Peter McQuaid Jr.
Peter McQuaid Jr. | Cook, Elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort
Even in a button-up shirt and head-to-toe confidence, Peter McQuaid seems young. And he is. At 17, he's getting ready for his senior year in high school, thinking about what he'll do when he graduates and where he'll continue his education.
But a lack of years hasn't stopped McQuaid from naming two of the Valley's biggest culinary names — Silvana Salcido Esparza and Beau MacMillan — as his mentors. For McQuaid, these nationally recognized chefs are more than just idols on a television screen. His Facebook and Instagram pages flaunt dozens of photos of the baby-faced McQuiad smiling next to Esparza in the kitchen. There's one of MacMillan with his arm slung over McQuaid's chef's jacket-covered shoulder.
And believe it or not, it all started with a high school Spanish project.
"I had heard of Silvana on television and in newspapers and had an assignment to do a report on anything related to [Mexican] culture," McQuaid says.
He found the chef's e-mail and asked if she'd help with a project on Mexican food. She said yes, and so began a mentorship that would propel McQuaid into the restaurant industry.
Intially, McQuaid says he told Esparza he "wasn't really a big fan of Mexican food," but one meal at the chef's Barrio Cafe opened his eyes to a whole new side of Mexican cuisine. Esparza took McQuaid under her wing, giving him a look into the pre-opening action of her latest restaurant, Barrio Urbano at The Yard in Phoenix.
"I'd get here at like five in the morning and sit on that curb," McQuaid says, pointing to the parking lot outside the restaurant. "I'd just wait for her to show up — and I'd look forward to it."
Esparza also encouraged McQuaid to compete in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program competition. Though his high school, Tempe Preparatory Academy, doesn't currently offer a C-CAP program, McQuaid competed last year and earned a spot as one of the state's top 10 high school juniors — a particularly impressive feat considering he's never had any formal culinary training.
These days, McQuaid's working pantry at Elements under MacMillan. Esparza helped him get the job, connecting her protégé with the Top Chef star at a C-CAP fundraiser. He started volunteering to help prep in the resort's kitchen and since has moved into building elaborate, meticulously styled plates of food. He credits Esparza for giving him the confidence boost to seize the opportunity.
"She's taught me to go after what I want, not to just wait for the opportunity but to make it and then jump on it," he says.
After graduation, he hopes to attend Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, where MacMillan went to culinary school. The long-term goal will be to open his own restaurant, but for now he's focused on balancing school and his desire to continue learning from his mentors — both in and out of the kitchen.
"I don't want a chef just to teach me how to make something or cut onions," McQuaid says. "I mean, that's great. But I also want someone who will really mentor me and help me get beyond where I want to go."
Taylor Sorenson | Sous chef, Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge
Eight years ago, Taylor Sorenson had just graduated from the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. Broke and without a car, he walked to a French restaurant near his house looking for work, even though he had no experience cooking or serving.
"It was a last-ditch effort," says Sorenson, 28. "I was like, 'Look, I'll do anything. You don't understand. I really need a place to work.'"
The owners didn't offer him a position on the spot — but Sorenson's story struck the restaurant's chef. He followed Sorenson in his car as the young man trudged back home and knocked on the door.
"Did you really mean what you said back there?" he asked the then-21-year-old. When Sorenson said yes, he told him to report to the restaurant the next day.
"I said, 'Well, what am I going to be doing?" Sorensen says. "And he said, 'You're going to be a cook.'"
Today, Sorenson is sous chef at Christopher's Restaurant and Crush and Lounge, the restaurant owned by Christopher Gross. It's a long way to come considering he says he "couldn't even cook mac and cheese, like, out of a box" back then.
It wasn't an easy journey.
In his early days at Theo's Restaurant in Sioux Falls, Sorenson says, other cooks hid recipes from him and gave him incorrect ingredients. Frustrated after a few weeks, he tried to turn in his apron, but the chef wouldn't accept it. Instead, he made the young man a deal: Sorenson would come in every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to learn the basics. He wouldn't get paid, but he would get the education he needed. Over the next six months, Sorenson worked for free in exchange for cooking lessons.
He stayed at the restaurant for six years, eventually earning the title of chef de cuisine.
When Sorenson moved to Phoenix about three years ago, he'd eaten at Christopher's but figured working at the restaurant was nothing more than a pipe dream. He ended up walking into Christopher's and bumping into Gross. They spoke and Gross offered him a job.
After a short detour to work for Morton's Steakhouse, Sorenson's been back at Gross' side for nearly two years now. And he has no immediate plans of leaving the Valley or the restaurant. He's spending his time getting to know himself as a chef and practicing expressing his creativity on the plate, though opening his own restaurant is a goal — someday.
"I've been very lucky, you know," he says. "And that's why the work, the dedication, comes easily to me. Not too many people get the opportunities I have."
Chris Andrade | Cook, the Clever Koi
The four-man crew behind the Clever Koi in Phoenix looks as much like a hipster boy band as it does a talented team of food and beverage pros. Manicured beards, forearm tattoos, and slim-cut button-ups accessorize the foursome responsible for one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2013.
In photos — especially those in taken in the kitchen — you might notice a young guy with jet black hair, intense eyes, and braces. During dinner service at the restaurant, he's riveting to watch. He's laser-focused on every task, and though he doesn't easily crack a smile, he's not too shy to ask customers eating at the counter what they think of the food.
This quiet but confident 21-year-old is Chris Andrade.
His connection to the Clever Koi and its owners goes back to his junior year at Valley Vista High School in Surprise, when chef Jared Porter (then working at the Parlor) came to Andrade's school to speak to students in the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. He'd never heard of the Parlor or its chef, who also is a C-CAP alum, but Andrade was as fascinated with Porter's story as he was with the chef himself.
"The way he carried himself and the way he talked about food, his knowledge — it intrigued me," Andrade says. "It still does today."
He asked to help out in Porter's kitchen for a day, and to Andrade's surprise, the chef asked him to assist at the Devoured Culinary Classic, the Valley's biggest annual culinary event. Porter's dish that year was octopus.
"I'd never seen an octopus. I'd never worked with it," Andrade remembers. "All these ingredients he was working with, I had no idea what they were. It was scary just to touch them because I didn't want to mess it up."
After the event, Porter asked Andrade to help at the restaurant for the night, and a few weeks after the 14-hour marathon stage, the chef called Andrade to offer him a job. While still in school he started working at the Parlor.
When Porter left to open the Clever Koi, Andrade followed. He was still finishing up culinary school at the Art Institute of Phoenix when the restaurant opened, spending mornings there before attending school and then returning to Clever Koi for dinner service. All this while commuting from the West Valley to Central Phoenix.
"It was rough for a good two or three months," he says.
Andrade says it's all been worth the effort. With just four people in the kitchen at the Clever Koi most nights, everyone shares responsibility for every plate. The "free range" attitude gives Andrade a chance to push himself, he says. Plus, the chefs give him a creative outlet in helping create weekly specials. Still, what might be most valuable to the young chef is the encouragement and support he gets from his four mentors.
"It's hard to leave this," he says, looking around the restaurant. "It's hard to leave what I have right now, and it's not just the food."
Robbie Tutlewski | Pane Bianco
Robbie Tutlewski doesn't like things that don't make sense.
He's a practical, logical kind of guy, but with the politeness of someone who grew up in the Midwest — in Tutlewski's case, Gary, Indiana, not far from Chicago.
"The whole tough kitchen and the whole brigade, it just never really made sense to me," says Tutlewski, 28. "It never made sense."
Nor did menus that didn't reflect seasonal availability of ingredients. Or bringing in ingredients from other places when you could find better products made locally. These aren't topics he formed opinions about for ethical reasons; Tutlewski says the typical way of doing these things just never made sense from the day he started cooking. For a long time he couldn't articulate why. Then he found someone who could: Chris Bianco.
"Chris is definitely an anomaly," Tutlewski says. "He's definitely the future of forward-thinking chefs. I remember my first week working here he was saying things that I always thought of and I was like, 'Wow, this dude's just done it.'"
If world famous James Beard Award-winning chef and all-around pizza genius Chris Bianco is the creative left brain of the Bianco restaurant empire — an empire that now includes four restaurants in Phoenix and Tuscon — then Tutlewski firmly inhabits the right brain.
Since joining the Bianco team on January 1, 2011, he's helped Bianco expand. He started by opening Bianco's sandwich shop, Pane Bianco, for dinner, then got the pizzeria in downtown up and running for lunch. Next, he had a hand in opening Italian Restaurant (now a second location of Pizzeria Bianco) at Town & Country and, most recently, helped open Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson.
The job requires "cooking everywhere, sampling, tasting, and doing menus every week" — and that's on top of the days when he works the line at any one of Bianco's restaurants.
The good news is Tutlewski brings solid experience to the gig. He graduated from the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and knocked around a couple of kitchens in the Second City before moving to Arizona in 2007. Once here, he worked at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa and at Prado under Claudio Urciuoli, who eventually would introduce him to Bianco.
"I saw it immediately, that me and Chris see eye to eye," Tutlewski says.
He's always working with Bianco on new projects, be they new breads or new dishes to feature at the restaurants, but Tutlewski says food is just the "catalyst." He's driven to use the restaurants to make changes in the greater community, which means reaching more people than just those who dine at the Bianco restaurants.
"I dont want to feed just the people who can pay for it, just the people who have an opportunity to make enough money to buy our food," Tutlewski says. "And that's how Chris feels, too.
"I mean, obviously I don't want to open up a food kitchen, but almost. I want to try to feed the masses."
Garrison Whiting | Chef, Counter Intuitive
If you've been to restaurateur Peter Kasperski's newest concept — a late-night, weekends-only cocktail spot called Counter Intuitive — then you might have noticed that the bar effectively serves as a stage for a rotating lineup of the city's top bartenders. The staff list draws from restaurants and bars all over town, with bartenders happily and regularly picking up shifts behind the stick to execute a menu created through a collaboration between two of the Valley's best booze-inclined minds.
In short, it's a team effort.
Well, the opposite couldn't be more true in the kitchen at Counter Intuitive. Technically, the bar's menu gets executed in the Cowboy Ciao kitchen (Kasperski also owns the restaurant, which is located next door), but the only person back there, putting out plates until 2 a.m., is Garrison Whiting, 28.
"I do everything myself," he says. "I don't let anyone touch my food."
The lanky, light-eyed chef, who often sports a bandanna and a man bun, is somewhat of a renegade. Before getting involved with the Counter Intuitive project, he served as sous chef at Cowboy Ciao for five years, but his history in the kitchen goes back much further than that.
Whiting's mom owned Kitchen Classics, a Central Phoenix cooking class and food equipment store that closed its doors in 2009. His culinary education started with stocking shelves and escalated until, by 17, Whiting was leading classes in the store's educational kitchen. He doesn't exactly have a traditional formal culinary education, but, Whiting says, he spent his teenage years learning over the shoulders of the many chefs who would come to the store to host classes.
"It was the best training I think somebody going into the restaurant industry could possibly get because I was learning from hundreds of chefs, and I was there every day," he says. "I was right behind them washing dishes while they cooked."
He started his career at Zest Spirited Dining in Central Phoenix, where, through a string of fortuitous events, he got his first opportunity to run a restaurant kitchen. From there he had a string of jobs around town, including a stint with LGO Hospitality at the short-lived restaurant Radio Milano in Arcadia. He left that company under less than ideal circumstances and, after a few months, decided to apply for a job at Cowboy Ciao.
He started on the line working saute, a position he held for about a year and a half before being promoted to sous chef under long-standing executive chef Lester Gonzalez.
These days, Whiting works at Ciao only sparingly throughout the week. Most of his time goes toward preparing for Friday and Saturday nights at Counter Intuitive. On those two days a week, Whiting might be at the restaurant until as early as 6 a.m. the next day.
Still, he says, he's happy to have "my own project that's completely mine." Plus, with the bar's theme and menus rotating every few months, Whiting gets nearly constant opportunities to learn and try new things.
He's not planning to leave Counter Intuitive, Cowboy Ciao, or Arizona anytime soon, but if he does, he dreams — not surprisingly — of a solo project. Whiting says his ideal would be to open a "destination spot" where he could host pop-up-style dinner events and private parties. Perhaps there would be a garden or farm attached. Maybe it'd be in Virginia, South Carolina, or Sedona.
"I don't know where this came from, it was probably just being in a family with three other kids and a working mom," Whiting says. "I just like feeding people and making people happy. So if I can just sit people down, shut them up, and give them food that they like, that's all I need."
Sacha Levine | Co-chef, Ocotillo
At 30 years old, after spending more than 10 years working under a handful of the Valley's best chefs, Sacha Levine knows what she wants — and what she doesn't.
"I'm kind of at the point in my career where I don't want to be working 70 hours a week for someone aside from myself, you know?" Levine says.
Best known as the right-hand woman of Charleen Badman of FnB in Scottsdale, Levine has spent years honing her skills in kitchens including Rancho Pinot, Quiessence, and Prado. She's sold pickles, opened restaurants, worked at Singh Farms, staged at Prune and Annisa in New York, and currently runs lunches at FnB.
Next, her journey will come full circle, bringing her back to the side of one of her first mentors, chef Walter Sterling, to take on a role that's bigger than anything she's done before.
She and Sterling met in the mid-2000s when she worked in Aaron May's then-burgeoning restaurant empire, for which Sterling served as the hands-on, behind-the-scenes chef.
"Probably the only reason I have any of the technique I have now is because of Walter," Levine says. "He taught me how to cut fish and stuff like that."
Later this year, the duo will open a new restaurant, Ocotillo, located on the southeast corner of Third and Flower streets in Phoenix. As co-chefs, Levine and Sterling have collaborated on vegetable-heavy lunch and brunch menus of seasonal New American cuisine. Local ingredients are a focus, of course, and the wine list is curated by sommelier Dave Johnson, whom Levine knows from when they both worked at Atlas Bistro more than a decade ago.
It's the breakout project for which Levine and her many fans have been waiting.
The building, which was built from the ground up, will house "several different entities," Levine says. These include the actual restaurant, Ocotillo, as well as a coffee shop, a beer garden, and a "drop down lawn" they're calling "the media area." It's going to be huge, in both the literal and figurative senses.
"Hopefully it will have the synergy of Pane [Bianco] and Lux," Levine says. "Or, you know, if the Yard wasn't for douchebags."
This frank attitude is pretty typical for Levine, who sports a lip ring and an impressive collection of tattoos. She's made a point to study under strong female chefs throughout her career and isn't afraid to make bold statements such as: "That's the biggest problem with the Phoenix dining scene: Mediocrity rules."
Raised in Bullhead City in a family without a lot of money, Levine says, she ended up cooking out of necessity. Her school offered a strong culinary arts program, and she won a scholarship to attend culinary school. Before she knew it, cooking had become an obsession. A few years ago, she says, she struggled with deciding whether to stick with the industry, but today Levine says she knows she'll always be cooking.
Still, she's realistic about the decision. Levine doesn't aim to open her own fine-dining restaurant, saying instead that she'd want a small sandwich shop she could operate alone or with minimal help.
"I think that in order to really be a chef, you have to devote so much of everything to that," Levine says. "I don't think that's what I want. I think I want to have a girlfriend and friends and throw weird house parties. That's what's important to me.
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