Chow Bella

60: Denise Clayton

From now 'til we publish the 2012 edition of Best of Phoenix, New Times and Chow Bella present 100 Tastemakers -- Valley residents who make the cut in our culinary scene. Some you'll know; for others, it'll be a first introduction (but likely not the last). While you're here, check out our 100 Creatives on Jackalope Ranch.

Today: a woman who can get you cookin'.

Tastemaker 60: Denise Clayton

Denise Clayton moved to Phoenix in 1980 from California and worked as a preschool administrator before becoming a full-time nanny in 2000. Four years ago, she chose to follow her passion for food into a new career as a personal chef and caterer. For the past two years, she has lived in the Roosevelt Row arts district with her husband, Jay, and she says they are constantly inspired and amazed at the creative buzz that permeates the neighborhood. Clayton teaches a wide range of cooking classes, from canning to tamale-making out of her living/working space downtown. You can get more information on her Facebook page.

I arrived in Phoenix with... my parents and a bad attitude. I was 13 at the time and my parents moved me here from the Bay Area, and I was already full of all the angst and anger of any good teen. There was only one terminal at Sky Harbor at that time and you deplaned right onto the tarmac. I remember the heat hitting my face like a blast furnace, and I was pretty sure they had moved me to Hell.

If I was sitting down to dinner for six, my five dream dining companions would be... I'm going to cheat on this one, because, really, you asked, and how often do you get to imagine such a scenario? So, at the dinner table, I am going to invite the five women who have most inspired and informed my cooking life.

First and foremost is my amazing mom. She was a hardcore "foodie" before there was any such thing. She owned a bread mill when we were kids, and would grind her own flour for every loaf of bread we ever ate. She canned, she gardened, she made elaborate dinners every night, including "squash appreciation week," and other culinary stunts that I only now appreciate. She did all of this while working full time as a banking professional. She is my hero in every sense of the word.

Next has to be Frida Kahlo. She lived her life with such passion and color. I have a million questions I would ask her if I could.

Alice Waters has to make the list. Good, clean, fair. That about says it all.

Julia Child almost goes without saying. As a little girl, I would watch Julia every Saturday morning on PBS. I would memorize lines she said, and did a pretty good impression of her. I would entertain my aunt and uncle on road trips by doing Julia impressions. I guess I've always been a food geek.

Lastly, would be Ina Garten. I think she has had a fascinating life and she cooks a lot like me -- basic, simple, good food.

And, since someone has to cook this dream meal, in the kitchen I want Rick Bayless (seems down to earth and honest), Mark Tarbell (adorable local hero), Hubert Keller (brilliant), Kenny Shopsin (to keep it real and a little dirty), John Besh (sexiest hands ever), and Eric Ripert (come on! That accent?! Swoon!)

One place everyone who comes to Phoenix must eat is... all of the amazing local farmers markets and ethnic specialty markets. I remember the first time I walked into the Ranch Market on Roosevelt. I thought I had died and gone to food heaven. I had to call my friend, Gail to tell her how crazy it was. I just kept saying, "They have whole pig heads in the butcher case!" Great markets like Baiz, and the Ranch 99 totally get me off. We honestly don't have the budget to dine out a lot, so this is how I get my fix. I know we have great restaurants -- and I know about all of them -- but I think, even on a tight budget, you can get a real sense of the cultural and agricultural diversity that is Phoenix by haunting places like these.

One menu item this city could do without is... chicken "fingers" or any other imaginary chicken parts. I raise chickens and can pretty much guarantee that they have no such fingers, nuggets, etc.

My last meal in Phoenix would be... my place with 200 or so of my best friends. I enjoy nothing more than entertaining and feeding my loved ones. My husband and I throw huge parties pretty regularly, and I treasure spending days and days planning and cooking food for my friends. We put out our "good Karma mushroom," which is a ceramic mushroom cookie jar from the '70s. It has a sign on it that instructs guests to contribute what their heart tells them to. It always magically covers our costs -- how awesome is this life?! If I ever really left the Valley, it would be the ultimate throwdown. There would be three days of food, drink, and debauchery. My friend Tommy Anderson would be the MC and host for the mandatory music, which would include Arizona faves like Major Lingo, Sugar Thieves, Flash Molasses, and whoever else wants to show up and jam. We would eat, drink, dance, laugh, sleep, listen to great music, reminisce, and just celebrate our magical lives together.

The Tastemakers so far: 100: Tracy Dempsey 99: Craig DeMarco 98: Lara Mulchay 97: M.J. Coe 96: Betty Alatorre de Hong 95: Eric Schaefer 94: Hanna Gabrielsson 93: Shinji Kurita 92: Silvana Salcido Esparza 91: Mike Pitt 90: Christina Barrueta 89: Christopher Gross 88: Jan Wichayanuparp and Helen Yung 87: DJ Fernandes 86: Cullen Campbell 85: Chris Lee 84. Gwen Ashley Walters 83: Tony Morales 82: Lylah Ledner 81: Andrea White 80: Lori Hashimoto 79. Mrs. White 78: Eugenia Theodosopolous 77: Lou & Lovey Borenstein 76: Anthony Patafio 75: Carl Seacat 74: Sacha Levine 73: Sharon Salomon 72: Johnny Chu 71: Susie Timm 70: Jason Silberschlag 69: Gina Miller 68: Cindy Gentry 67: Amy Binkley 66: Dave Anderson 65: Mark Tarbell 64: Marianne Belardi 63: Audrey Lasalle 62: Brandon Gauthier 61: Brad and Kat Moore

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