Ironic Chef

The acclaimed Zagat Southwest Top Restaurants Guide calls the decor at RoxSand "stark." As in "sophisticated," in a "New York City" kind of way. The place is stark, to be sure, but as of last week, it's in a low-class, shameful kind of way.

The upscale restaurant at Biltmore Fashion Park closed abruptly last Monday, with proprietor RoxSand Scocos skipping out in the middle of the night after stripping the joint down practically to its bare walls.

Scocos cleaned out her refrigerators, and skulked away with an elaborate collection of contemporary art by Fritz Scholder, Luis Azeceta, Kevin Sloan, Luis Jimenez, Roy DeForest and Roberto Juarez. She even took the lighting fixtures, leaving nothing but tables, chairs and some enormous framed art pieces that we're assuming were left behind only because they likely would have required a small crane to cart away.

Employees showing up for their lunch shift found the place locked, with no signs of life other than RoxSand's still-glowing neon marquee sign and a slowly dripping water faucet in the restaurant's front bar area. Stacks of flattened empty boxes littered the delivery doorway in the back of the second-story eatery; downstairs, a catering van sat abandoned, stocked with bulging file boxes and, in the dash, a packet of letters stamped "important documents."


Sudden restaurant closings are nothing new. The Spike is thinking of Norman's, where the talented but hapless Norman Fierros bolted one step ahead of the IRS. Or Privé, the much-touted restaurant-club in the San Carlos Hotel whose high-profile owners packed up and skedaddled in a midnight getaway. Or any of cagey chef Nick Ligidakis' ventures.

But to see a talent of Scocos' caliber pull such a stunt is entirely bizarre. Scocos, after all, is a big deal, right up there with culinary geniuses Vincent Guerithault and Christopher Gross. No overnight sensation, she's been a major player in our Valley's prominent dining scene for almost two decades.

Scocos rocked the Valley's culinary world when she opened her shop in 1986, quickly collecting a treasure chest of national honors, including the James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Southwest. She was listed as one of the Top 25 restaurants in America by Food & Wine magazine. She's credited by the Beard Foundation as being on the "forefront of the fusion wave," creating complex recipes including piri piri, an African dish of garlic shrimp in peanut sauce, and Viennese walnut torte with currant glaze. In a culinary world dominated by male chefs, the French-trained Scocos had blazed a pathway putting her in the celebrity leagues of Jacques Pepin and Wolfgang Puck. Less than a month ago, Scocos was featured in a fluff piece in the Arizona Republic's food section, dishing out fancy cooking advice to firefighters in a Tempe stationhouse, with nary a word about her plans to shut down.

A spokeswoman for the Biltmore says the restaurateur's exit was unexpected, but not unreasonable. "Her lease was up, and she decided to retire," says Shannon Barrow, marketing specialist for the property, declining to offer any more information. "Yes, it's unusual, we're sorry to see her go, but it was her decision."

One local chef agrees that Scocos' stealth wasn't completely without reason. It was financial savvy, explains the cook, who asked not to be identified. When a restaurant is going under, it's typical that a landlord will place a lien on the eatery's equipment. Right or wrong, sneaking out with the physical assets gives the restaurateur some getaway money.

Yet at least one former RoxSand employee isn't impressed with the ethics of Scocos' departure dance.

"RoxSand was afraid that if her loyal staff had known the restaurant was closing, that instead of looking for new work and adjusting income decisions to meet the coming finale, that the staff would steal all the bottles of wine and meat in the fridge or maybe even some of the ridiculous Udinotti sculptures on the wall," the staffer wrote in an e-mail to New Times. In less than loving terms, the displaced employee refers to Scocos as a "miser," afflicted with "cold hearted greediness" and "paranoia."

Rumors of Scocos' waning interest in the restaurant business have been circulating in foodie circles for a long time. As her former employee related in his e-mail, an 11-year veteran of her kitchen actually ran the show. "She herself hasn't cooked a meal there in over two years!"

Staffers at Steamers, another highbrow restaurant across the patio from RoxSand, say they weren't too surprised at Scocos' antics, even given her status as a highly respected chef. "You don't know her like we do," a server tells New Times. "We've been waiting for her to do this for years. Still, it's lousy to leave [employees] hanging."

Scocos actually stormed into Steamers several times, the server adds, demanding that the seafood restaurant's staff stop fueling rumors of her demise. "We really weren't saying that she was closing," he says, laughing. "But now, I guess we can."

Earth to Emma

The Spike has been a big fan of Phoenix City Council member Peggy Neely ever since she bucked the NIMBY hand-wringers in northeast Phoenix and helped bring about the new day labor center there. It's a civilized way to begin to deal with a much thornier social problem -- the scads of unskilled workers (yes, yes, we're sure some of them are in this country illegally) who fill an important place in the labor force of the Valley. As in, the kinds of back-breaking jobs in the hot sun that no one else wants to do.

So The Spike feels so much better that one of the main opponents now backing an effort to recall Neely over the day labor issue turns out to be Frances Emma Barwood. No wonder the recall campaign continues to bumble its way through the process.

Barwood is -- and this is just The Spike's opinion -- a total flake. We thought she'd vamoosed after her bizarre campaign for the 1998 Republican nomination for Arizona Secretary of State. A dim bulb former Phoenix city councilwoman known for only one thing -- asking the city to make an official inquiry into the "Phoenix Lights" UFO sightings of March 1997 -- Barwood raised her profile further when she announced she was running for statewide office by hiring two campaign managers. One would handle the traditional Secretary of State stuff (which, to Barwood, essentially meant keeping Mexican immigrants from voting), and the other would promote her interests in UFOs. She soon downplayed the influence of her UFO adviser, wingnut Stephen Bassett, but too late to avoid the inevitable label -- she was the E.T. candidate. She lost handily to Betsey Bayless in the primary, and then rode off into the sunset, moving to the rural town of Dewey.

Since then, Barwood has rarely been heard from, unless you count the conspiratorial rants that occasionally make their way to the Internet -- not about little green men, but about her most consuming passion -- firearms. "Gun grabbers" is what Barwood labels those who would dare come between her and her beloved arsenal.


The Spike's money is on Peggy Neely in this political shoot-out.

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