In the Kitchen with Aaron Chamberlin, Chef/Owner of St. Francis
Roasted chicken with red veined sorrel. Aaron Chamberlin, chef and owner of St. Francis, focuses on fresh, local ingredients in his cooking.
Photo by Lauren Saria
Aaron Chamberlin chef/owner of St. Francis and his girlfriend Lee del Real have only been in their petite, 1950's red brick bungalow in the Coronado Historic District for about 4 months -- though you wouldn't know it.
The 1950's-era house has a charming red brick exterior and minimalist decor on the inside. We entered the home over a door mat adorned with a silhouette of a pig.
Even with minimalist modern decor, the home is not without tons of soul and style. His carefully curated collection of French, antique copper cookware and massive cookbook library (including Picasso's cookbook that our photographer Lauren Saria didn't think she'd ever catch a glimpse of in person) are truly impressive.
Like something you might find on Pinterest, his cupboards and refrigerator are full of just enough food to make something delectable. We didn't see a packed freezer or a huge spice rack. Each ingredient in the kitchen has earned itself a special container. We adored the fragile white rectangular plate holding garlic cloves and fresh herbs set on the windowsill above the sink. It's evident that Chamberlin respects food by the way he stores and displays it, along with tools and equipment.
"I don't hold back on ingredients," the tall, fair-haired chef says.
On the kitchen island were platters of tart, red veined sorrel, that amazing glacier lettuce he introduced us to at Devoured this year, and washed and dried local chickens, all from Two Wash Ranch in New River.
It was clear that he cherishes his relationship with farmer Dave Jordan of Two Wash Ranch. Chamberlin shared that they have gotten to know each other's family and text almost daily about happenings on the farm and at the restaurant. Chamberlin believes Jordan is really stretching the boundaries of the already bountiful choice in produce that's grown in and around Phoenix. Jordan's the one producing the glacier lettuce that looks like something you'd find only on an expedition in the rain forest. It's being grown right here in the desert.
For Chamberlin, locally grown produce is the highlight of Arizona cooking. With such few frosts and tons of sun, there's have the ability to grow so much.
"That's where we shine," he says.
Produce isn't all that's fresh in this chef's home. The chicken we ate for lunch on the Saturday we visited Chamberlin's home was processed on the previous Wednesday and brought to Chamberlin on Thursday -- feet, gizzards and all.
"I know just by looking; I can see how fresh it is," he says with a grin. "Simple, fresh food like this makes you vibrant."
Talk turned to the restaurant business. Chamberlin's proud of his popular and profitable restaurant. We're crazy for his fried egg sandwich, St. Francis' design, and the fact that it appeals to all ages (kids eat free, a practice that continues despite some complaints from patrons).
Chamberlin says it's about giving people what they want. While developing the menu for St. Francis, he asked a neighboring homeowner (who was mowing his lawn at that moment) what he would want to see in a new restaurant. The gentleman thought for a minute and announced he'd want a good pork chop. Chamberlin took that neighbor's desire and made it happen. He put pork chops on the menu and that's a signature dish.
Glacier lettuce from Two Wash Ranch.
Photo by Lauren Saria
Recently, Chamberlin's brought on two new partners to help run the day-to-day operations at St. Francis. This is affording him some time to work on new projects.
"I don't have a family and I really feel like I want to be giving back," he says.
So he's working with edible gardener Greg Peterson. Peterson and partners Heather Taylor and Shannon Boomer have recently taken over the nursery on 12th St. just north of Northern, and in addition to selling what you need to plant and maintain an edible garden at home, they're introducing the Home Ec Department (love the name) featuring classes in horticulture, cooking and growing and eating food at home.
Chamberlin is in discussions about teaching a series of classes about how to prepare the food grown in your home gardens or from the produce found at local farmers markets.
He likes cooking at home because, "not everything has to be perfect." And he'd "like to see more people put energy into it," he says.
Chamberlin's putting more energy into it himself, too. He's prepping his home so that he can grow (almost) all of his own food. A large side-yard herb garden with lemon verbena was just about to be planted -- the soil ready for seeds and seedlings. He also has two very nice looking compost piles from restaurant scraps and Two Wash Ranch chicken poop (complete with thermometer to make sure it's hitting the 140 degree sweet spot for proper decomposition).
Chamberlin wasn't always on such a health food kick. "I owe a lot to my girlfriend, Lee," he says. He grew up in a family of seven where it wasn't unheard of to eat pizza rolls and ice cream for breakfast. Lee, conversely, ate healthful food -- fish and vegetables.
"I've always struggled with my weight," says Chamberlin.
He explained that eating healthy was a decision they made together, but choosing to not have any treats in the house has been challenging. Late at night, when he's hungry and wants a snack, almonds and a couple squares of dark chocolate just don't cut it. He wants a big scoop of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream.
The guy who craves ice cream at night also looks forward to juicing in the morning. He lists pears, beets, and citrus as favorites to push through his Breville that is "so worth the money," del Real shouted to us from across the room. This way, he doesn't feel as guilty about occasionally sampling cake from the restaurant since he knows he's gotten in his nutrition.
While Chamberlin is comfortable in the spotlight and making decisions, he insists he doesn't want the focus of his efforts to be about him, but rather about the food and the people who produce the food, like local farmers.
But we're grateful he took center stage for an afternoon, to cook for us.
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