Cafe Reviews

Menu for a Small Planet

Cafe heavy-hitter Howard Seftel is on vacation. This week, we've asked chef RoxSand Scocos, who, with her husband Spyros, owns RoxSand restaurant and bar (2594 East Camelback), to step up to the plate, so to speak. She's just taped a slot for PBS' America's Rising Star Chefs, is slated for the September cover of Bon Appetit -- the first human ever to grace that mag's cover -- and her restaurant gets touted in an upcoming issue of Travel and Leisure. But she's not talked out yet. Here she expounds on revolutionizing food resources in the Valley.

Ten years ago, when RoxSand opened, most restaurants here were fairly traditional--either formal fine-dining rooms, chain restaurants or cowboy places and steak restaurants, what my husband calls "meat palaces." They served their diners' needs, gave them what they wanted, didn't ask anything of them. It was a way of filling your tummy enjoyably with predictable meals.

When I came in, I gave people something unfamiliar. I wanted to let them explore other more enjoyable, healthy and satisfying ways to go about eating. We put a strong emphasis on vegetables. Meat remains in the center of many of our plates, much to my chagrin, but I prefer to minimize the importance of meat on the plate. It's a matter of making the side dishes more interesting than the meat. That's easy to do because meat is so boring. Our dishes are a diverse ethnic mix with a lot of Asian and Mediterranean influences. And they ask something of the diner.

From the beginning, we appealed to a small, loyal few. Back then, Rich Melman (he owns Tucchetti here), the Chicago restaurant icon, who remains a frequent customer, told me, "I'd never open a restaurant like yours--you appeal to such a small segment of the population."

That was many years ago and Rich was right, but that has changed.
Slowly, other more diverse restaurants have opened. Rancho Pinot Grill and Pizzeria Bianco, for example, are doing their own shtick. Like ours, their relationship with the client is intimate, one-on-one. We respect the clientele and give it something of real value that allows for pleasant discoveries.

We also share another important value. Through our menus and our business practices, we encourage biodiversity. In a nutshell, that means preparing most of our food from the lower end of the food chain--fruits, vegetables and grains--and using less meat.

Consuming huge amounts of meat is a recent American phenomenon. At the turn of the century, we produced only half as much meat per person as we do today. People need to understand the impact that beef consumption in particular has on the planet. Five thousand gallons of water are required to produce one pound of beef. Compare that to the water needed to grow a pound of potatoes: 24 gallons; or a pound of apples: 49 gallons. One by-product of our overconsumption of beef is a depletion of the water table in the West where cattle are raised. Another is vast water pollution as a direct result of manure run-off. Annually, cattle produce 6,000 pounds of manure per U.S. citizen. Right now one-half of the wells in rural America are believed to be polluted with nitrates from fertilizers consumed by cattle.

As a restaurant owner, to me that means choosing to look at my impact on the ecosystem and doing something about it, perhaps on a larger scale than an individual would.

Therefore, I propose that Phoenix dining is ready for a change. I believe this is an opportunity to say what I think and that New Times is the right place to do that.

To understand what needs to be done, first, let's look at where we are. Within memory, the biggest step backward that Phoenix dining has seen is the recent arrival of Morton's: The Steakhouse. What an insult to anybody who has an ounce of intelligence. I am so offended by that restaurant. Meat there is presented in a way that is obscene. The raw meat, the raw lobster, the side of pork, the swordfish steak, rolled up to your table--in 16- and 24-once portions! The raw potato in the waiter's hand. Why see the raw porterhouse or filet? Does Morton's management feel that the diner doesn't know what a porterhouse is? Or a potato? It's condescending. Then you have this jerky waiter who could be smacking gum--there's just no sense of gentility at all. Pair that with the outrageous prices. Give me a break.

There are very few restaurants that I hold so strong an opinion about. Perhaps it's not wise to be so condemning of Morton's, but I believe it's worthy of condemnation. What's worse is that so many people don't realize when they eat those racks of flesh what their impact is on the environment. It's not just the pleasure of what's on your plate, and it's not even the taste factor--it's the environmental factor. It's an absolutely archaic way of eating, given that we live in an age of diminishing resources. Each of us needs only 50 grams of protein a day, yet the average American consumes twice that. How many grams of protein do you get out of 16 or 24 ounces of flesh?

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RoxSand Scocos