Chef News

Aaron Chamberlin Dishes on (Not) Being a Celebrity Chef and the Hype Around St. Francis When It Opened

Aaron Chamberlin St. Francis 111 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix 602-200-8111

See also: -- Update: Aaron Chamberlin Hopes to Open Cafe in Former Urban Grocery Space By Early Next Year

This is part one of my interview with Aaron Chamberlin, chef-owner of St. Francis Restaurant. Come back Tuesday when Chamberlin dishes about his brief stint at Daniel Boulud and why he loves LGO.

They say that being a chef is a calling, and it surely was for Aaron Chamberlin, who knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business well before he hit high school. His chef grandfather was a major influence, as were the Boy Scouts, where Chamberlin became fascinated with cooking over an open fire. He still is, as his wood-burning oven at St. Francis so deliciously attests, turning out everything from bread and meat to veggies and dessert.

It wasn't just the food and the fire Chamberlin loved but also the fast-paced restaurant environment -- not to mention the fact that if he lost one job, he could easily get another down the street. After graduating high school in Mesa, he rambled around a bit, as young men are wont to do, working at restaurants in Maryland, Utah and New Mexico (under Southwestern Cuisine giant John Sedlar) before deciding he should get serious and go to culinary school. He was working for Michel Richard at Bistro M at the time, but Richard and Sedlar talked him out of culinary school, telling him it would be a waste of his time and money.

"I put myself in their hands; they were like gods to me," he says, admitting that he ran their personal errands and worked for free, just to soak up everything he could from them. Richard sent Chamberlin to New York to work for Daniel Boulud, which didn't turn out so well, but Chamberlin stayed on in New York, working stages at a string of the city's hottest fine-dining restaurants. Chamberlin's next gig was at the Ritz Carlton in Boston, where he says he was allowed to "move about the cabin" without getting pigeonholed. He worked in pastry, the butcher shop, the fine dining restaurant and the casual one before moving back to San Francisco to work at Rubicon (under Traci Des Jardins) and later Boulevard (under Nancy Oakes).

He came back home to Phoenix and took a job at La Grande Orange, which, he says, "had a great vibe, music popping and lines out the door." He stayed with LGO Group for six years, learning all he could about casual neighborhood restaurants from Jedi master -- Bob Lynn.He worked at the grocery, the pizzeria, Chelsea's Kitchen and Radio Milano, also opening an LGO restaurant in Pasadena. One day, he woke up and knew it was time to run his own show. Chamberlin opened St. Francis in 2008 and plans to open a new restaurant adjacent to Phoenix Public Market after the first of the year.

Five words to describe St. Francis: Local, seasonal, urban, simple, neighborhood.

Favorite cookbook and why: Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point. It's a wonderful restaurant guide.

An ingredient you love to cook with and why: All vegetables because they're so versatile.

Most over-rated ingredient: Don't have one. They're all good.

Trend you like: Food as nourishment.

Dish/trend or catch phrase you wish would go away and why: Celebrity chef. Just because you're in print doesn't mean you're a celebrity.

But people consider you a celebrity chef. You don't?: Not at all. I don't care about being on TV or doing charity events. I don't need my ego stroked. It doesn't help my career. I need and want to be in my business. I'd rather spend time with some kid in my kitchen or get excited about my seedlings, about growing something I can eat.

St. Francis got a lot of great press right out of the gate. Wasn't there was some backlash from that?: Yeah, we got the wrong message out there. People had massive expectations because I'd worked with Michel Richard and other great chefs. I just wanted to feed the neighborhood, but the hype was crazy, and here I was, just fucking trying to figure out how to get the tile in the bathroom. We went from zero to 60 in one day. No wonder people didn't like it or get it. WE were still trying to figure it out.

How has St. Francis evolved?: We're faster, smarter and we have more clarity about who we are -- a neighborhood restaurant.

Do you watch TV cooking shows?: No, I don't have a TV. I have a cell phone and a laptop, and I'm at my technological peak right now. This is as far as I go. In fact, I plan to regress. In 10 years, I won't have a phone.

Name a national/international chef you admire and explain why: Jamie Oliver -- for making us realize that we're all fat.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen 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

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Nikki Buchanan