You grew up with six brothers, and all of you were outdoorsy hunting types. Do your brothers think you're prissy now?: Probably. I have one brother that's a banker, so he can't say too much to me. But yeah, I'm the city boy.
Favorite cookbook and why: Culinary Artistry. I find it really helpful for making menus because it lists many ingredients in one book. There are so many great ingredients in the world. Sometimes, if I haven't used a particular item in a while, and it's nice to be reminded of it. I also enjoy Eleven Madison Park.
Name an ingredient you love to cook with and explain why: Vinegars. We make many of our own in-house flavored Vinegars. They are really the backbone of flavor enhancement on some of our dishes.
Trend you like: I like a straightforward approach to food. I believe in letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
Dish/trend or catch phrase you wish would go away and why: Guy Fieri and other dismal cooking shows. It hurts the true industry and glamorizes the reality of a chef's life.
Your favorite cuisine and why: It's too difficult to name just one. It's like picking a favorite child: impossible. I enjoy classic French preparations, but honestly, I enjoy any cuisine as long as it has fresh ingredients.
Name one of your favorite places to dine in Phoenix and briefly explain why: While I am not able to get up there very often, I truly love the Café at MIM. I love the fresh and local product that Chef Edward Farrow and Chef Lenza use. You can get arguably the best produce in town and it is done the right way. They are rock stars at showcasing so many local products and ingredients.
What do you enjoy most about working in fine dining?: Without question I most enjoy the attention to detail, superior product and the show.
Name one or two indigenous ingredients you like working with and explain why: I love working with saguaro syrup because it is one of the rarest ingredients in the world and we are fortunate to have access to it. I also love working with chilies. I enjoy the variety we have in the Southwest and the unique flavor profile each one has to offer. Certain chilies can add smokiness whereas others can add a sweetness.
How would you typify Kai: Native American ingredients + classic French technique? Or something else?: Native American Ingredients + French technique with a modern approach.
What people don't really know/understand about Native American cooking is: Besides how unique it is, I would say that most people don't know how many medicinal purposes and healing properties are in some of our key ingredients.
At one point, Kai had Native American chefs on board -- Sandy Garcia and later Jack Strong. Do you feel at a disadvantage for not being Native American? And is the cuisine still "true"?: I may have been at a disadvantage but not any more so than an American chef who travels to Europe to learn French cuisine techniques. But I also feel that that's part of what drew me to Kai, the opportunity and the challenge to learn another cuisine and approach. It also fueled my desire to learn from and about the community and its history, which was the inspiration for this cuisine. As far as being TRUE, Kai's offerings will always be true as long as The Gila River Indian Community has a story to share. The culture and the history is not only our backbone, but it is precisely what makes Kai unique and inspirational.
How esoteric can you get with the menu without frightening the clientele?: There is more room to play with the approach and the plating, but at least some of the ingredients have to be familiar.
Name a culinary mentor and explain what you learned from that person: Honestly, I have to say that every cook I have ever shared the line with throughout the many years has been my biggest inspiration. The fine-dining industry pushes people to their own maximum limits and through that, their own personal best. In the kitchen, on the line, some of the greatest moments of inspiration and creativity come while you are "in the trenches." I rarely had a Chef stop and pull me aside to show me one certain technique or dish. I learned much of what I know today by coming into the kitchen early, watching and doing.
In which kitchen have you had the most fun and why?: My first restaurant. It was called Beaches in Portland, Oregon. It was an open kitchen with gorgeous servers, good food and the motto of the place was "You must have fun."
Pet peeve in the kitchen: Uncleanliness and leaving empty containers in the walk-in.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Last meal on earth -- what would it be?: Cote de Boeuf so that I could share it with my wife. It would be paired with white truffle risotto, bordelaise and a massive cut of seared foie gras. Considering it would be my last meal, I wouldn't have to worry about the caloric or health implications of this hearty meal.
What should be written on your head stone: "Should have been a banker."
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: 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