Joe Absolor of Clever Koi in Phoenix: "I'm Having to Hold Back a Little Bit."
Joe Absolor of the Clever Koi in Phoenix.
Joe Absolor Chef, owner Clever Koi www.thecleverkoi.com
You might already have heard the story behind the other half of Clever Koi's culinary team. Chef Jared Porter, formerly executive chef of The Parlor, has been in the business since age 15. He won a full ride to culinary school at the Art Institute of Phoenix and has had gigs in well-known kitchens such as Vincent on Camelback, Michael's at the Citadel, and LGO.
But a lot less known about Porter's co-chef at the sleek, modern restaurant, which opened in December. And it's partially because Joe Absolor hasn't been in the kitchen for all that long.
The 33-year-old chef worked in construction here in Phoenix until 2007, when health issues prevented him from continuing that career. After spending a summer at home in Washington to recover, Absolor knew he wanted to do something different. But wasn't sure what.
At the suggestion of friends and family, he decided to pursue culinary school and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale.
Absalor quickly found out that being a culinary student doesn't mean you'll find a job. But it did help him become friends with Eytan Zias of the Phoenix Knife House. And it was Zias who helped the enthusiastic but inexperienced Absolor land a one-night stage with chef Payton Curry, then at Digestif. It was Absalor's first "real" experience in the kitchen.
Eventually Zias would also help Absolor get his first real restaurant job, opening Prado at the Montelucia under Italian chef Claudio Urciuoli. The gig wasn't as glamorous as it sounds. Absalor was a food runner.
"He wouldn't let me anywhere near the kitchen," Absolor says of Urciuoli.
Clever Koi's Joe Absolor stands in the restaurant's work room.
The silver lining was that the job connected him with Logan Stephenson, who was also working there at the time. The two became friends and when Stephenson left Prado to open The Parlor with Porter, Absolor went too.
"Logan pushed me so hard," Absolor says of his mentor. "He taught me everything I needed to know to be a chef. What to read, what to eat, what to watch."
Absolor would eventually step into his mentor's position as sous chef under Porter, after Stephenson left the restaurant to move to California. (He returned to The Parlor last October as executive chef.)
Meanwhile Porter and Absolor - along with front-of-the-house business partners Joshua James (beverage director) and Nick Campisano (general manager) - ventured into the world of restaurant ownership.
"It's a lot harder than I ever expected," Absolor admits.
In the past four months since opening the restaurant has seen mostly positive reception from both the media and the public. But there are those who say the restaurant's food can be overly complicated. Dishes like the Kung Pao Brisket, which Absolor calls "...an ode to Mission Chinese," win points for innovation but not for taste, at least with some.
You can bet the criticism hasn't fallen on deaf ears.
"I'm having to hold back a little bit," Absolor says. "It just didn't work."
The chef says he's been pulling back on the menu, trying to simplify things and make them "more pedestrian." The goal isn't to be boring but rather to do simpler fare more consistently. And thereby, earn diners trust so hopefully, someday, he can let loose a menu of really progressive cuisine.
"If we take the right steps here, I think it will work out," Absolor says.
Favorite childhood food memory: My birthday is in July so every year my mom would BBQ steaks, make twice baked potatoes, and we would drink Henry Weinhard root beer on the patio. For dessert she would make a mud pie with chocolate chip mint for me and my buddies.
One thing you'll never find in my kitchen: You will never find food in my fridge because hardly home.
The most unusual thing in my fridge right now: Something to eat.
My personal mantra: Learn from my mistakes and move on.
One thing most people don't know about you: I love to go to movies by myself.
One book everyone should read and why: I could name a lot of good books, but I recently watched the documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi again. It just reminds and shows us what hard work is all about.
Favorite drink and where you like to get it: Ice coffee from Lux. My boys Sammy, Troy, and Tim can make one hell of a Coffee.
The biggest lesson I've learned since opening my own restaurant: Patience, humility, appreciation, and sacrifice.
One thing you want everyone to know about Clever Koi: We just want people to enjoy and have fun. Josh makes really awesome drinks at the bar. Nick and his staff want to make you feel at home, and us cooks just want cook and put a smile on your face.
The dish that best represents my cooking style: The Pig Face Dumplings. Really big, balanced flavors that are equally layered with a hint of playfulness.
Best piece of advice you've ever been given: Hard work overcomes talent, when talent refuses to work hard.
If Clever Koi was a song what song would it be: N.W.A. "Express Yourself"
Phoenix has too much...people texting and driving.
I wish Phoenix had more...of a late night food scene.
One restaurant (besides your own) that everyone should experience at least once: Durant's! Everything about that place is just right. The old school service. The timeless food. You feel like Sinatra could walk in at any moment. Oh, the French Bread and Leek Butter? It's just rad.
The most underrated restaurant in Phoenix right now is... Welcome Diner. What Michael and his crew are doing out of that Airstream is really impressive. [Editor's Note: It's a Valentine diner, but we still agree.]
The most under-utilized ingredient is...Vinegar or acid.
I want to remembered for/as...just a all round good dude!
What's next for Clever Koi? We are getting ready for Spring menu change. Come check that out soon.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay
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