Chow Bella

10 Metro Phoenix Chefs Share Favorite Holiday Food Memories

The holidays revolve around many things, and food is chief among them. From stuffing to pie, different dishes can trigger all sorts of memories. And food memories are particularly important to chefs. We asked Phoenix chefs to share their favorite memories from the most wonderful time of the year. From eating Crock-Pot cheese dip throughout the day to devouring colorful cuisine from Chinese banquets, check out the holiday food memories that these local chefs cherish. 

What's your favorite holiday food memory?

Country Velador, co-owner of Super Chunk Sweets & Treats and pastry chef at Cowboy Ciao

When I made a Kill Bill gingerbread house for Christmas in July at Kazimierz World Wine Bar. It had the interior fight scene between The Bride vs. GoGo and the Crazy 88s on one side and the snow fight scene, between The Bride and O-Ren, on the other. It was the biggest gingerbread house I've made. I enlisted my brother, whose an architect, for blueprints. I had lights installed and a case made. It was just missing moving parts. Maybe next time!

Brian Konefal, chef at Coppa Cafe

It must be in Spain during New Year's Eve. I was living with a large family; there were kids of all ages, aunts and uncles, a huge party. The highlight for me was the leg of jamón serrano. One of the brothers had cured it at his farmhouse. All you can eat! It was amazing. It was followed by a traditional meal in courses.

Aaron Pool, chef and owner of Gadzooks Enchiladas & Soups

A Crock-Pot simmering with cheese dip throughout the day. You know, like when you can just get a drive-by Frito scoop at anytime and continue with your day.

Kelly Fletcher, chef de cuisine at El Chorro

Back when I was married, my ex-wife, she was all about traditional Thanksgiving. And that’s great, and I love them, but at the same time I was like let’s change it up. So every other year, I got to get creative. One year, I would do a Mexican theme. Instead of having gravy, we’d have mole. Instead of having rolls, we’d have tortillas. I’d do cilantro injection into the bird. Stuff like that, but with a completely different twist. The next year would be traditional, and the next year, I’d do Provence. So it was like everything was like this extremely French style. I loved the not-so traditional. That was always appealing to me. Creative and just kind of twisting it up. It’s not just mundane. It’s just fun to throw curveballs. 

Tracy Dempsey, owner/head baker at Tracy Dempsey Originals

Every Christmas spent at my maternal grandmother and grandfather's home on a hill in Arkansas. We would travel from California to spend it with them. My most memorable food moment was when I was 7. It was making a butterfly sculpted cake with my grandmother McElveen, inspired by a cake book given to me for Christmas by my paternal grandmother Watkins, who would fly from New Jersey to spend Christmas with us in Arkansas. The cake was amazing and had black licorice antennae and jelly bean spots on its wings — not easy ingredients to procure in the winter back in the early '70s.

Brian Archibald, executive chef at the Boulders Resort & Spa

We use to make coquito (a Puerto Rican coconut-style egg nog drink) for our friends/families and deliver them before Christmas. It was from my family to theirs. I miss it. 

Gio Osso, chef at Virtú

I always looked forward to my Mom's lasagna for Christmas! It was the greatest dish on the planet! Last Christmas, I made that lasagna and watching my son devour it like I used to when I was a kid brought tears to my eyes.

Silvana Esparza, chef/owner at Barrio Urbano 

I was raised a Jehovah's Witness, so the tradition of a holiday is something I do not know much about, much less have experience in. So here we are, it’s around 1987 and I find myself at a friend's apartment on Thanksgiving Day. Stores are closed by now, he has a turkey, no salt, no stuffing, no groceries and we have no money. Just a giant turkey (won it at work), lots of beer, Knorr Suiza Chicken Bouillon (Mexicans use it in their rice) and a stick of butter. At this point in time, I had never cooked a turkey in my life. Out of the 10 of us, I was the only one brave enough to try cooking this bird. I went outside and cut some rosemary, knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked for salt, pepper, and oregano (that old JW knocking on doors experience came in handy). By midnight we had the best turkey ever!

Charles Wiley, executive chef of ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho

Helping my mom make stuffing on Thanksgiving. Chopping parsley was my very first culinary pursuit, when I was 7 years old standing on a stool with a sharp knife — probably not a great idea when you think about it! To this day, whenever I chop parsley, the aroma reminds me of my mom.

Santiago Estrada, executive chef of Roaring Fork

The fondest memory I have is helping my mama cook buñuelos for Christmas. I would help her knead the masa, roll out the dough into tortillas (mine would not come out as circular as hers — haha), she would fry them in the cast-iron skillet and I would drench them in cinnamon, sugar, and piloncillo.

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Teresa is a writer, editor, traveler, and food enthusiast. She loves chocolate, espresso, and Chihuahuas.
Contact: Teresa Traverse