"All I ever wanted to do was to open a restaurant where I was the chef," Aaron Chamberlin says.
But sitting in the loft space above the main dining at his Phoenix restaurant St. Francis last month, the chef goes on to describe himself as a "reluctant restaurateur."
When he opened the restaurant in 2009, Chamberlin says all he wanted to do was show up and cook. But it only took a few days for him to realize that the day-to-day operations of a restaurant required almost all his attention. He stepped away from the stove to take over more managerial tasks and these days, he's rarely in the kitchen.
The restaurant has become a staple in the uptown Phoenix neighborhood, serving seasonal modern American cuisine at a fair price point. Chamberlin says serving the community is the main goal, and he's done a good job at it. The restaurant has become a favorite with families, thanks to deals such as the kids-eat-free with the purchase of an adult entrée.
But this wasn't always Chamberlin's vision.
"When I opened the doors we said we'd never have a hamburger and now we have a hamburger," the chef says. "We said we'd never have flatbreads and now we have flatbreads. We said we'd never have meatball and now we have meatballs."
And not only do they have meatballs, the dish has also become something of the chef's signature dish.
"We were going to take them off the menu," Chamberlin admits as he preps ingredients for the restaurant's Moroccan Meatballs.
Made with pork and beef and served over a bed of pearl pasta, the meat-heavy dish makes an unexpected signature from a restaurant that's known for its seasonal produce. Still, Chamberlin says there's little chance of it coming off the menu any time soon.
In 2013, Guy Fieri featured the dish on his Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Now the restaurant goes through 120 pounds of meatballs each week.
"It's a double edged sword," Chamberlin says of having a dish become so popular with guests.
The chef says he put the dish on the menu several years ago when customers began asking for more "value-oriented dishes." That was during the middle of the recession and Chamberlin knew meatballs could give diners an affordable dinner entrée at a lower price point.
For inspiration to make a unique meatball dish, Chamberlin headed to his extensive home library of cookbooks. Noticing that both Morocco and Arizona have ingredients such as cumin and citrus, the chef says a Moroccan-inspired dish just made sense.
"Some people either love it or they hate it," Chamberlin says about the dish as he combines raw ground pork with raw ground beef in a large silver bowl. The pork, the chef explains, gives a richness and fattiness to the meat mixture.
Though he's making a miniature batch today, the chef says the restaurant normally makes the dish in giant 60-pound batches.
Next Chamberlin adds in rehydrated day-old St. Francis baguette and about a half dozen eggs, both of which will help bind the meatballs together, along with a healthy serving of lightly sweated onions and garlic.
Finally, in go a rainbow of spices including pepper, smoked chipotle, salt, and fresh cilantro, though it's smoked paprika, ginger, and a cumin-cinnamon mixture that he says give the dish its Moroccan flair.
Mixing it all together with latex glove-covered hands, Chamberlin explains not to over-blend the ingredients. You should be able to see chunks of the bread, meat, and even spices at this point, he says, since the ingredients will continue to blend together throughout the cooking process.
After scooping and shaping the mix into tennis ball-sized lumps, the meatballs are ready to be cooked.
First, Chamberlin puts the meatballs into a hot cast iron pan filled about halfway with hot oil. The goal at this point is to caramelize the meat and to cook them until they're just barely pink on the inside. Next the meatballs will be left to braise, during which time the caramelized exterior will help develop richer, deeper flavors, according to the chef.
The dish then gets plated up in a handsome earthenware casserole with a layer of pearl pasta beneath the three meatballs. Chamberlin then smothers the whole thing in red "Moroccan sauce" -- a spiced tomato sauce -- and shredded mozzarella cheese.
"Essentially we're just warming it," Chamberlin says as he pushes the dish into the restaurant's wood-burning oven.
"This is just a thirty-thousand dollar cheese-melter," he jokes.
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When it's removed from the 615-degree oven just a few minutes later, a layer of golden cheese covers the fragrant, bubbling sauce.
"It's a good meatball," Chamberlin says, sliding the dish onto the table.