It's been about four months since news broke that chef Matt Taylor would be taking over the kitchen at Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden and since the initial announcement, we haven't head much from the chef or the restaurant. From the outside looking in, it would have been hard to tell there had been any change at all. The menu stayed the same and so did much of the staff.
But, as the chef explained to me last week, that's only because he was busy getting adjusted to a new kitchen -- while doing 1,200 covers a day.
"It would have been suicide" to make any changes during season, Taylor says.
But now that the season's over and the popular Chihuly in the Garden Exhibition is gone, Taylor's ready to start settling in and making the menu his own.
Those who's been around town for while will surely be familiar with Taylor's name and if they're lucky, with his food. Most recently Taylor was turning out rustic, wood-fired cuisine at Market Street Kitchen with well-known chef Robert McGrath. Taylor's resume also includes time as Executive Sous Chef for Michael Mina at the chef's restaurants in Las Vegas, working under James Beard award winner Bradford Thompson at Mary Elaine's, and serving as Executive Chef at the now defunct Metro Brasserie, where Taylor became known for his blend of Southern and French cuisine.
With experience in such a broad variety of restaurants, it's easy to see how Taylor will be a good fit for the year-old Gertrude's. And the chef has high hopes for what the restaurant can become.
"We have a unique opportunity to be one of those unique Arizona restaurants," Taylor says, noting the destination location and immediate abundance of local plants and produce.
"It doesn't get more Arizonan than this."
As far as what diners can expect on the menu, Taylor says he plans to be seasonally-driven and will use what's in season throughout his menu. The goal is to change out the entire thing - with the exception of a two or three dishes - four times a year, though he may also make small changes more often than that.
The challenge will be provide food that's recoginable to tourists as "Arizonan," without backing himself into a corner. He'll do so by using local ingredients (like venison sausage and prickly pear) in dishes that aren't traditional Southwestern fare (like Bangers & Mash.)
Of course, you'll still see hints of the type of food that the chef's become so well-known for in this town: hand-cut pasta, Southern-influence fare, and some Canadian poutine.
"I guess it's kind of a hodge-podge of the past," the chef says of the new menu's style.
For the summer months the restaurant will be offering two menus, one for breakfast and one for lunch and dinner. But Taylor says he'll think about adding a separate dinner menu when season starts. For the immediate future, he'll be a bit busy planning for his wedding, which will take place in Kaua'i later this summer.
What's your guiding principle when it comes to cooking? Balance. From the blend and quality of the ingredients to the technique in which they are prepared. Not to mention taste. Taste everything.
Describe your vision for the new menu at Gertrude's: A regionally influenced menu, supported by Arizona's best products when available.
What one menu item do you think best demonstrates that vision: Each and every salad right now has locally grown ingredients, but is treated with a different approach. Our melon and green salad take a Southern direction, while asparagus gets a classic French treatment. Heirloom tomatoes have Southern Italian touches. We are not really bound by a specific style here.
One dish you'd never put on your menu: Anything with banana in it. I love them raw in their natural state, but that's about as far as I can go.
How do your Canadian roots and affinity for Southern cooking work together: I am not really sure to be honest; it probably has to do more so with the humbleness that both cultures share than anything, along with a certain sense rusticity.
You've worked with a lot of great chefs; who was the most intimidating? Bradford Thompson when I worked at Mary Elaine's hands down. Not because he yelled and screamed (he never really had to at all), but because of the presence he had and the loyalty he created amongst the staff. You never wanted to let Chef down by not correctly, and passionately performing every day. It would be like letting down your father.
Name your biggest culinary mentor and a lesson he/she taught you: Again Bradford Thompson. He taught me how to have a certain awareness in the kitchen, how to cook with all of your senses; understanding the sights, sounds and touches of everything going on around you. You do not have to necessarily be looking at or tasting something to know what stage of the cooking process a particular item may be at. You can tell if a cook's knife is sharp simply by the sound (or lack thereof) it makes as he/she cuts herbs or chops onions. Developing this consciousness was really a large step in my cooking career.
Describe Phoenix as a restaurant town: It's evolving. The more cooks that can create freely and do their thing while still being able to have a successful independent business, the better it will be for everybody. We have a lot of talent in this town. If you like what they're doing then support them.
Would you ever want to leave again? I will never rule anything out. I do realize that I have moved from here to there so that is a completely valid question. However, right now I have just begun sinking my teeth into Gertrude's and look forward to growing with this amazing place. I am so very excited about the next chapter in my life here in Arizona.
What do you think of the state of Southern food in Phoenix right now? There really is not a whole lot going on here yet...although we are starting to see subtle influences on menus all over town. Whether it is the use of Southern products, techniques and/or flavor combinations.
What's your favorite local restaurant right now? I always really enjoy the food that Gio cooks at Virtu and Cullen at Crudo. I am also partial to TEXAZ as always.
And your favorite place for cheap eats? Sonoran dogs on 20th Street and Indian School.
Name one dish that's really blown you away in the last year: Pretty much everything we had on our New Year's Day visit to ShinBay. It was an amazing way to start 2014, amongst other reasons.
One national restaurant that's on your must-eat list for this year: Coi in San Francisco. For the life of me I do not know why I have not eaten there yet. Free time permitting; we may be making a special trip this year... and add a few more stops to the list.
Describe one meal you'll never forget and what made it so special: A couple days after having settled in New Orleans, I ate at Cochon... alone. I sat at the kitchen counter and ate everything. The standout was a pork-butt that had been Butterflied, filled with mustard and bacon, rolled up then braised, sliced, breaded and fried. It was served with grits and pickled beet greens; very few meals in my life had made me feel so happy. I went home and had the best sleep ever! Being alone, made it very personal and every bite all that much more engaging. In addition it was the first time I had really been introduced to proper Cajun cooking.
Describe your ideal summer getaway: My soon to be wife and I love taking little trips around the state, getting ourselves into some higher elevation. We spend a lot of time up in Jerome and Prescott or down south in Bisbee. We really enjoy the historic side and beauty of Arizona.
One person you'd love to cook for: I would love to cook for/with my Grandma Giem one last time. Her kitchen on the farm back home is a very special place for everyone in our family. It would be so amazing to show her how she has influenced me and inspires me everyday of my life.
The biggest lesson you've learned during your career: Respect. Respect for the ingredients, the process, the people (past and present) who you work with, respect for your colleagues. Robert McGrath would always say it (respect) is contagious.
You told us one that you liked ramen; what's the best bowl you've had in Phoenix: I feel bad because I have yet to delve into the recent ramen scene that is emerging in town. But when I lived in Vegas, I would eat at Shuseki or Monta on a regular basis.
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