First Friday is a big night for a lot of Phoenicians, but particularly for Renetto-Mario Etsitty.
He welcomes anywhere from 50 to 100 starving artists (as well as musicians, poets, and other creative types) into his historic 1920s-era home in the Garfield neighborhood for an after-hours banquet of epic proportions. Long after the galleries and hangouts of Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row (and even the Bikini Lounge, for that matter) shut down, the 36-year-old Navajo chef and artist lays out some late-night culinary bliss.
The four-course feast — which has taken Etsitty all week to dream up and whip up — runs the gamut from thoughtful vegan and lactose-free creations to plenty of barbecued meat, not to mention plenty of homemade sangria. Those in attendance usually sip and sup al fresco at tables and chairs set up on the lawn while Etsitty serves inside.
And he does it all for free. Some are magnanimous enough to drop some cash into a donation jar, but Etsitty says that most of the time, he recoups only half the cost of the dinner (if that).
These monthly First Friday feasts — which he's held for more than three years — are done out of a desire to bond with those in the downtown Phoenix art scene, as well as his way of giving back to the local art scene. Both communal dining and spirit of giving are something he experienced with his family growing up on the Navajo reservation.
"My family is really huge, so there's always celebrations going on with massive amounts of food," he says.
And Etsitty was expected to help with the cooking.
"My mom raised me by [herself]. And so I was one of those latchkey kids who went to school, came back home, and had to learn to cook for myself or starve," Etsitty says. "My grandmother had a chuck wagon and she always needed help. After school and during the summertime we would go make food, and she would be by a rest stop and sell at the flea markets and at ceremonies."
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He got a childhood crash course in the culinary arts from his grandmother.
"We also had a ranch, so we always had fresh vegetables around, plus cattle, goats, chickens. The family would buy a pig every once in a while, raise it, slaughter it, cook it in the ground, and have a big old feast."
Luckily, no one expects him to put the knife to Babe these days, either in preparation for his First Friday feasts or in his day job as a sous chef at the Phoenix Public Market. He's busy enough as it is mixing up different combinations of spicy and sweet into temping creations, like his jalapeño and mango salsa. Such selections are often on the menu when Etsitty cooks up some haute cuisine at art openings held at establishments such as the Trunk Space or the Icehouse. Heck, renowned sculptor David Thierren even flew the chef up to Canada in 2009 to cook for him during his "Beautiful Light" exhibition in Toronto.
Thankfully, Etsitty didn't do that gig for free. — Benjamin Leatherman