There are two reasons to frequent Chez Bubba's, the wonderful Caribbean and Creole restaurant on First Street downtown. One of them is Bubba. Myron "Bubba" Stephenson is such a remarkable personality that his presence alone could carry the restaurant, quite independently of the food -- which, of course, is the other reason to eat there. The food is so good, so genuinely accomplished, that it, too, could carry the restaurant. In fact, at the moment, it does.
On the third Saturday in September, a day he had reserved for cooking classes, Bubba was admitted to a local hospital for a kidney transplant. He has undergone dialysis for almost 10 years, all the while making spectacular fresh-squeezed lemonade -- the kind of thing that, in Phoenix, one drinks by the pitcherful. The operation did not go without a hitch; one week later, he was still in a hospital bed, awaiting another procedure. But his restaurant soldiered on.
Chez Bubba's opened five years ago. It was not Bubba's first local venture -- that was in 1981, and he has operated several different restaurants in the Valley. He is from Long Island by way of Jamaica. His family has been in the restaurant business for five generations. He has been here for 26 years.
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"L.A. reminded me of Brooklyn, and Las Vegas looked like a place where I could get into a lot of trouble," Bubba explained earlier this year. "So here I am in Phoenix."
Bubba operates his restaurant with his beautiful and friendly wife, Cheryl. Her talent and acumen have kept things running in his absence, as, one suspects, they do in his presence; she is practical and efficient. (Bubba, on the contrary, has the temperament of a genius: He is cranky.) On Sunday, September 23, one week and one day after Bubba's transplant, Cheryl Stephenson was in Tempe, catering a "safety picnic" for TIC, The Industrial Company. TIC is a construction company here that builds power plants. Safety picnics are ostensible nods to the company's first priority; they are mostly just picnics.
"How you doin'?" Stephenson said, smiling, as she moved gumbo, beans and cornbread from her car to a park pavilion. "How you doin'?" is how she greets everyone, smiling. She recognized some regular customers, whom she hugged. The food was tremendous -- the beans thick with molasses but not too sweet; the cornbread buttery and divine.
"She's the only one I trust to look after things," Bubba said solemnly from his hospital bed that afternoon, when word came to him on the picnic's success.
Bubba's opinions on food are not really opinions; they are delivered with the certainty of gospel, which some people find irritating. Fair enough -- Bubba finds them irritating, too. He is especially piqued when people tell him that his food isn't spicy enough to be authentic. Venture such criticism and Bubba, if he is feeling particularly surly, will stare you down. If he is feeling charitable, he will explain that the object of seasoning is fine balance, not heat. He may also offer a discourse on the distinction between Creole and Cajun cuisine, the upshot of which is that Cajuns will eat anything they can catch in the swamp, given enough Tabasco sauce; Creoles, who draw on a French tradition, are more discerning.
Bubba is not politically correct, and he does not care to be.
Chez Bubba's does not rely on written recipes, but on the instincts and erudition of its proprietors. Recipes, Bubba explains, are given to failure; their "three cups of onions" may be fine if the onions are sweet, but not a week later, when the onions are shipped from a different field. Recipes cannot impart impeccable timing. They cannot give you a feel for the heat of a skillet, the consistency of a batter. So dimly does Bubba regard recipes and their slaves that, in his cooking classes, he cheerfully divulges secrets, confident that no one can replicate his kitchen magic.
"People can always call me for help, if they run into trouble," he has said, magnanimously.
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Bubba preaches a religion, and if his dogma offends the gastronomically tolerant -- people who like his cooking but don't draw a line between it and, say, fried alligator -- it inspires fervor in his disciples. The restaurant, which has just four indoor tables and a bar, is modest. Its whitewashed walls are covered with the testaments of the faithful. "It's like crack for fat people," writes one who made the pilgrimage. "Best food this side of N'awlins," claims another. A child's script vouches for the "black and fish" -- which, presumably, is the blackened catfish, a house specialty. Regular people, sports stars, even Chef Eddie Matney have signed their names to the ranks of devotees.
Bubba, a relentless self-promoter, issued a press release shortly after his surgery. "There is a small restaurant in downtown Phoenix that cooks up dynamite food," it reads. "This small restaurant has won over 27 awards in its 5-year existence through the efforts of its owner/executive chef, Bubba. The amazing thing is, Bubba has done all this without kidneys.
"Now, in view of Bubba's prior successes, what do you imagine a man with kidneys can do? Bubba's own response: 'Wait till they see me now!'"