Chef News

Aaron Chamberlin on the Evolution of the St. Francis Menu

Baked "rigatoni," the first pasta dish ever to be offered at St. Francis.
Baked "rigatoni," the first pasta dish ever to be offered at St. Francis. Chris Malloy

Aaron Chamberlin’s first restaurant, St. Francis, is in the middle of a menu evolution.

Chamberlin’s cooking style will not be changing. He and executive chef Suny Santana will still be rolling with the ingredient-driven approach Chamberlin developed during his time in the Bay Area.

What will be changing is the menu’s range. Some favorites will stay. Some will drop out to make room for new items that reach into another echelon of sophistication. Take a look at the menu, and you’ll see that Chamberlin has already started to dial things up.

Back in 2009, when the restaurant was one of the first new-age eateries to open in a neighborhood that has since seen explosive growth, Chamberlin wanted to cook a certain kind of food. But, the sorry state of the American economy derailed those hopes.

The real estate bubble burst. The economy plunged. Suddenly people didn’t want to spend on New York strips or duck breasts. What eaters craved was homey food at budget-friendlier prices: things like burgers, flatbreads, and meatballs.

Over the intervening years, Chamberlin found success with St. Francis. The economy has started to recover, and now, while keeping a core menu that sees produce rotating in and out by the season, Chamberlin will begin to also offer some dishes that reach the more elegant, refined level he had first envisioned for St. Francis.

“I want to do high-quality food presented on a plate. Very simple, nothing fancy,” Chamberlin says.

He is quick to add that there will be no total scrapping of the menu, and no rewriting of the rules he has always cooked by.

“The two most important things to me as a culinarian are still that we follow the season and buy the highest-quality ingredients.”

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Eggplant dip with yogurt, smoked paprika, and pine nuts — one of the new dishes at St. Francis.
Chris Malloy

Chamberlin has chopped a burger from the menu. He's erased a few flatbreads. These alterations have left space for polished additions like swordfish with caponata and romesco, pork scallopine with purple watercress and grapefruit, and a New York strip and filet.

Success is a weird obstacle. The wild popularity of certain early dishes has spawned an odd tension between stasis and change for Chamberlin, who has wanted to jazz up his menu for a while.

But how can he scratch the salmon when he sold more than $100,000 worth of the dish last year? How can he ditch green pork chile when every Sunday for the past five years the same guy has posted up at the same table and enjoyed the same spicy bowl?

“People would tell me ‘put a cheese flatbread on the menu,’” he says. “I’m like, dude, I didn’t spend 18 years in front of a stove getting screamed at by a French guy to put cheese flatbread on the menu. But that’s what people wanted, so I did,” he says of the dish he has now eliminated.

Another staples he is reluctant to keep, but that will stay for now, is the meatballs. “In 2012, Guy Fieri came in here and we did a meatball dish,” Chamberlin says. “Every time the show airs, we get bombarded with orders. There are a few things we just can’t take off [the menu].”

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The new duck dish at St. Francis.
Chris Malloy

Still, plenty will change. The new direction has been fueled by Chamberlin’s creative energy. It has been fueled by his hopes to stray further from the beaten path paved with kale-quinoa salad. It has been spurred by the growth of competitors, and by the blossoming of the restaurant scene in the surrounding area. It has been fueled by his simple desire to cook “what I’m craving.”

The new St. Francis menu boasts a cool eggplant dip kicking with refined, Middle Eastern flavors, enriched with yogurt, smoked paprika, and toasted pine nuts. It sports a pasta dish — baked calamari (the tubular noodle, not the squid) — roasted in the oven with four kinds of cheese stuffed into each hollow, which lie delicately over an ethereally light tomato sauce.

But the new menu item that best represents the refined, elegant spot Chamberlin is aiming for is the duck dish, which was added simply because Chamberlin felt like eating duck. Slices of the perfectly cooked fowl sit in a pool of fennel purée, topped with a sweet drizzle of cherry sauce. A shaved fennel salad tops the bird, a few whole cherries dotting the plate’s outlines. The dish is a union of rusticity and elegance. Check out the new menu — as of now — here.

During the off-season, St. Francis is closed for lunch and, going forward, it will briefly close after brunch to allow Chamberlin’s staff to focus on nailing higher-concept dishes. The current changes are far from the last.

Chamberlin is able to take more risks now, in part because he has two new projects in the works, so we can look forward to more evolutions and experiments coming out of the kitchen at St. Francis.

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Chris Malloy, former food editor and food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy

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