James Beard Award-winning chef Alessandro Stratta (he goes by Alex) describes his early years as the life of a "hotel brat." His father was responsible for opening hotels in international locations, and the family would come along. Stratta enjoyed exploring the kitchens and likens his upbringing to Eloise at the Plaza.
"Most of my childhood food experiences were restaurant meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Stratta says. "I became exposed to the ins and outs of service, hospitality, and diverse cuisines."
It paid off. In addition to his Beard award, Stratta has two Michelin stars under his belt and has appeared on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters. He's well-known around the Valley, thanks to his time at Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician. And soon he'll open a new fast-casual concept in Scottsdale. (More on that in a bit.)
Stratta's first cooking gig was at a Connecticut steakhouse in 1980. "I took the job to pay my 16-year-old boy expenses, like motorcycles," he says, "and I never looked back."
He landed at the California Culinary Academy in San Fransisco. While in school, he worked at The Stanford Court Hotel as a baker and pastry chef. At 21, he got an apprenticeship at Le Louis XV, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Monte Carlo, Monaco. It's there, Stratta says, that "I really sunk my teeth into Mediterranean cooking. I loved the respect for tradition, culture, and different influences ... North African, Italian, or French. There was also a respect for the ingredients, seasonality, and tried-and-true recipes."
After two years in Monte Carlo, Stratta worked in a New York restaurant with French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. "It was about speed, accuracy, and consistency with fewer resources," he says. "I learned about what to buy, how to make staff more efficient, and [how to] adapt a French sensibility to different cuisines."
At 24, Stratta was hired as the Executive Chef of Mary Elaine's at The Phoenician in Scottsdale (yes, the place with the purse stools). Stratta spent several years at The Phoenician, and in 1998, after being nominated three times — in 1992, 1996, and 1997 — he finally won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.
He eventually hooked up with businessman Steve Wynn, who was eager to recruit recognized chefs for the Las Vegas restaurant scene. Stratta would spend the next 15 years in Vegas, earning two Michelin stars for his restaurants and building a reputation for fine dining. Then, at the height of his Vegas career in 2007, after becoming a father of twins, he received a cancer diagnosis.
"Everything was going well. I was super happy. And boom, life happened," he says. "My life changed dramatically."
Stratta altered his diet, stopped drinking and smoking, and shed nearly 100 pounds. He spent another seven years on the Las Vegas Strip until 2014, when he decided to make a bigger change after a failed restaurant venture. He would move back to Arizona.
By 2016, Stratta was in the kitchen at Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia. He also consulted for some local restaurants like The Herb Box and Match Restaurant & Lounge at the FOUND:RE hotel.
But since partnering with Genuine Concepts last fall, Stratta has been laying the groundwork for a brand-new restaurant: Stratta Kitchen. It's scheduled to open next Monday, August 3, at 8260 North Hayden Road, suite A102, at the Mercado on Hayden shopping center in north Scottsdale.
The gist: light-leaning fare, Mediterranean focus. Most dishes are priced at less than $12, and the plan is for about 70 percent of sales to be carryout and delivery. It's an approach that makes a lot of sense these days, given the pandemic, but Stratta says he's been thinking about moving in this direction for a while.
"Time and convenience are our biggest luxuries," he says. "Spending $300 at a fine-dining establishment isn't as relevant anymore."
His core cooking values, though, remain the same.
"I am a working chef. I clean the fish and peel the carrots," he says. "I am a tradesman."