Today we're back for the second part of our interview with T. Cook's executive chef Paul McCabe, who joined the restaurant at the beginning of summer to help with a three-month renovation of both the food and design. On Monday, we found out how McCabe came up with some of the ideas for the restaurant's new "New American" menu and how he ensured that T. Cook's would maintain its Mediterranean influences. Today, we get the backstory on the chef, including when he fell in love with food and what he thinks of the Phoenix food scene.
Despite his hesitations about the revamp, McCabe says feedback has been good, for the most part. The restaurant is still continuing to massage things, he says, and he's going to keep the menu fluid. In fact, he's expecting to change up things within the next few weeks to reflect the seasonal changes and currently available local produce available.
It's our city's abundance and diversity of local produce and the number of food artisans that's impressed the chef most so far. Though he considered Arizona his home state -- because he grew up in Sedona -- this is his first experience working and living in the Valley.
"There's a lot of stuff here," McCabe says. "A lot more than I thought. I think we're fortunate. The food scene is alive and well, and it's growing."
McCabe says it was bread -- yeast, to be specific -- that first made him want to be a chef. At a child, he remembers being with his mom as she baked bread and hearing her explain the productivity of yeast.
"I was hooked from that moment on," he says. "Yeast -- it's amazing."
After high school, he considered going to CIA but ended up getting a job with Michel Blanchet instead. Not bad considering Blanchet, of Michel Cordon Bleu, is a Maitre Cuisinier de France and one of Los Angeles' most famous French chefs. Blanchet started at L'Ermitage under Jean Bertranou, the chef often credited with bringing fine French dining to Southern California, eventually rising to become executive chef. He would hold the position for 11 years until the restaurant closed in 1991.
McCabe admits it was fortuitous, to say the least, that the chef plucked him out of a commissary in Costa Mesa for an apprenticeship.
"For some reason, he saw something in me I didn't see in myself," McCabe says. "He brought it out."
He's been working in restaurants attached to high-end, sometimes iconic, hotels ever since -- well, except for a short stint where he tried his hand at the independent restaurant thing. The detour, to a Sante restaurant called Delicias, lasted only about a year for McCabe, after which he returned to Southern California to work at La Valenicia Hotel.
"I like the structure of hotels," McCabe says. "The food's the easy part for me. The financial side, I love that part."
And it is a huge part of the business. In come cases, McCabe says, food and beverage (which includes things like catered banquets, not just restaurants) can make up as much as half of a resort's revenue. It's the combination of logistical concerns and predictable structure found only in these multi-outlet operations that makes McCabe say he wouldn't want to go into the independent restaurant business again.
The good news for Valley residents is that McCabe says he had no intentions of leaving anytime soon, saying he'll definitely be around to see this project through. McCabe also says he's looking forward to becoming more involved in the local food scene and getting acquainted with the city's chefs.
"I'm not going anywhere," he says.
One thing you would want people to know about T. Cook's: T. Cook's is not just a special occasion restaurant but a place that you can visit more often. It's a great place for business luncheons, and we have a nice Sunday brunch.
What are you most looking forward to about your first season at the restaurant?: Using all the great organic local produce that we have in Phoenix.
What's your favorite dish on the menu right now and why: The Rib Eye Cap with roasted mushrooms, smoked tomato, and Manchego.
One national restaurant that you've been impressed with in the last year: Castagna [in Portland, Oregon].
One thing most people don't realize about resort dining: While the Royal Palms is a resort, T. Cook's is run as a free-standing restaurant, which gives us more freedom with our menus and ability to cater to our guests.
What are your first impressions of the Phoenix food scene?: It's vibrant! There are some really great artisans in the Valley, and the food scene growing quickly.
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One local chef you admire and why: Cullen Campbell of Crudo is putting out great food and pushing the [food and beverage] scene further ahead.
Where do you see yourself in five years?: Right here at T. Cook's.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: 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