Michael Rusconi Rusconi's American Kitchen 10637 N. Tatum Boulevard, #101 B, Phoenix 480-483-0009 www.facebook.com/RusconisAmericanKitchen
Michael Rusconi describes himself as a latch-key kid, watching The Galloping Gourmet on TV at four- and five-years-old, making scrambled eggs and pancakes at five and six. He was also artistically inclined, taking four years of art and four years of photography at his Chicago-area high school, while also working at Bob Chinn's Crab House -- one of the country's highest grossing restaurants then and now.
During his two-year stint there, Rusconi moved from busboy to dishwasher to prep cook to fry-boy to guy on the griddle. Chinn also sent him off to the airport to pick up fresh seafood -- 1,000 pounds at a time, bought directly from fishermen -- which, Rusconi says, spoiled him for top-notch ingredients forevermore.
He left Chinn's to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, taking an externship at Vincent on Camelback after graduation (1987). He stayed two years, graduating from pantry to lunch lead cook. "He was particularly hard on me because he liked me," Rusconi says of Vincent Guerithault with some pride.
When The Phoenician opened in 1988, Rusconi picked up part-time work there, starting at The Terrace but moving to full-time work at Mary Elaine's within 2 months. He stayed on eight years, at one point working with Brad Thompson (who was on the line), Jimmy Boyce (who was sous chef) and Alex Stratta (who was chef de cuisine). Not bad company to keep!
After that, Rusconi jumped around a bit, working as executive chef at short-lived Brio before trying his hand at catering (he cooked for Rush, Metallica and Ringo) and overseeing the kitchen at a country club. When he got "sick of cooking chicken," he made his way back to fine dining, spending five years at the Royal Palms, first under Derek Morgan, later taking Morgan's place as executive chef.
But the restaurant where Rusconi made a name for himself was Lon's at the Hermosa. "Everything I'd learned came together there, he says. "I was able to do a better job of managing finances and I made the restaurant sing."
But he left there in 2009 (in the middle of a still-shaky economy) with the idea of opening his own place. "I was already involved in every aspect of running a restaurant, so why not go out and do it myself?" he says, explaining his thought process. He ran the idea by his wife, who said, "Let's do it." And at last, after seeking (seeking, seeking) and finally finding a suitable space, Michael Rusconi is running his own show. Rusconi's American Kitchen opened in September.
Five words to describe you: Craftsman, risk-taker, loyal, proud-pop, exhausted!
Five words to describe your restaurant: Warm, aromatic, lively, artful, and fiery.
Favorite food smell: I love the smell of fresh white truffles from Alba. Back at Mary Elaine's, the smell of them lit up the whole place. You knew right when they arrived. It's unmistakable; there's nothing else like it.
Favorite cookbook and why: My favorite cookbook is the internet, because my memory stinks. Sometimes I use recipes.com to jumpstart my process. Art Culinaire stimulates my creative juices too. There's tons of creative and fun stuff in there.
Most over-rated ingredient: Jalapenos are over-rated. They're the go-to chili pepper when anybody wants to add spice, from Denny's to Burger King. I think the new go-to chili pepper should be poblanos or maybe Hatch green chiles.
Most under-rated ingredient: A great olive oil makes everything better. Finishing a dish, scallops, salad or right on top of a pizza. Pasta, whether it has sauce or not, a little high-quality olive oil on top makes it great.
What's your guilty pleasure?: I love a good chocolate milk shake. My fave place for one? Dairy Queen or Cold Stone Creamery.
Favorite thing to eat for breakfast: Stress -- with a side of bad attitude and a fresh Naked juice.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles