Aaron May Dishes On Being a Chef, a Restaurateur and a Party Boy

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Aaron May Praying Monk 7217 E. 1st Street, Scottsdale 480-398-3020 www.scottsdalemonk.com

See also: -- Celeb Chefs Matt Carter, Beau MacMillan and Aaron May Cooking Up Four-Course Brunch at Superstition Farm -- Aaron May Heads Kitchen at Former Renegade Canteen, Now Called Renegade Tap + Kitchen -- Tastemaker #76: Anthony Patafio

This is part one of my interview with Aaron May, chef-partner of Praying Monk, Over Easy, The Lodge, Mabel's on Main, Renegade Tap + Kitchen and May's Counter in Tucson. Come back Tuesday when May explains why he admires Wolfgang Puck and what he would (or wouldn't) say to his detractors.

Disclosure: I worked as Aaron May's publicist from 2010-2011. Here's what I learned in that year.

Nobody sits on the fence about Aaron May. People love him or hate him with equal passion. Standing 6'3" and weighing 60 pounds more than he should, he cuts a wide swath, literally and figuratively. Like Shakespeare's Falstaff, he has an enormous appetite for life, although he's hardly what you'd call a comic figure. Funny, yes, but sharp and incisive -- not a clown nor anyone's fool.

In the year I worked for him, I heard endless stories about his profligacy, stories I couldn't verify or refute. I was his publicist and as such, a person in his corner, not his drinking buddy (although there was the one time at DJ's over Jaegermeister) or his closest confidante. I wasn't privy to all the details of his money deals either (although he was very upfront with me about his percentage of ownership in each restaurant), and in many ways, I wish I had been. I think Aaron takes a lot of heat for restaurant failures when other restaurateurs, who've also tried and failed in various bad locations, don't.

But that's his lot in life. His brash confidence invites criticism. Those of us who've looked beyond the sniping know him to be an insanely intelligent person, a loving son and brother and a loyal, generous friend. He has his faults, and I could name a few of them (there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, for example), but that's not my purpose here. I hope to convey the side of him most of you don't know, the side of Aaron May that has kept me in his corner long after the PR paychecks stopped coming.

May began working pantry at a Chicago steakhouse at the age of 15, not because he needed the money but because he wanted to. He spent hours watching TV celeb-cooks Graham Kerr and David Rosengarten and considered becoming a chef. Well, that or a politician, which he believed, at the time, was "noble work."

By the time he was 20, he'd left U of A and his political science degree to enroll in the culinary arts program at Scottsdale Community College. Upon graduation, he moved to Paris, where he spent a year at L'Ecole Ritz Escoffier, refining his skills as a classically trained chef.

When he returned to the States, he took his first professional position at the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale, working at Crescent Moon and Acacia (the property's fine dining restaurant) before moving to Deseo at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa to work with celebrity chef Douglas Rodgriguez. May spent another two years with Rodriguez, traveling with him and working at his various restaurants in Manhattan (including Ola), all the while being mentored in the modern, deconstructionist approach to cooking he employs today.

A stint at Mario Batali's Casa Mono was finishing school for May, who moved back to the Valley to open his own Spanish tapas restaurant (Sol y Sombra) to rave reviews in 2006. Since then, he has opened a string of restaurants -- Over Easy, The Lodge, Mabel's on Main, May's Counter and Praying Monk -- closing four of them: Sol y Sombra, Autostrada, Vitamin T and Iruña. In 2010, he was inducted into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame as "Chef Extraordinaire."

Five words to describe you: Always looking for something new.

Favorite food smell: Vanilla. I can't get enough of it. I put it in ketchup, citrus, sauces. I absolutely love it.

Favorite cookbook: Jean-Louis [Palladin], Cooking with the Seasons. Genre-defining and the absolute standard for food photography.

Ingredient you love to cook with and why: Eggs. They're so versatile and delicious: purée them into sauces, yolks make a great liaison, whites are a great protein canvas. And there is simply nothing more classic or ethereal than a well poached egg.

Most over-rated ingredient: Bacon. Most of it doesn't even taste like pork anymore. Over-smoked and over-salted, it could be anything, but rarely does it taste like the pork belly it is supposed to.

If you weren't a chef, what would you be?: Maybe a weatherman. They seem to get more latitude when they're wrong.

In percentages, how much of you is chef and how much restaurateur?: I am 100% chef. Restaurateur is my job, chef is who I am.

You have a reputation as a party boy. Any truth to it?: Not true at all. Do I like to have a good time? Absolutely. Do I go out and let loose? For sure. But never at the expense of work, and never instead of work.They say. "Work hard, play hard." I work 70-80 hours a week consistently. It would only seem natural that I play just as hard, no?

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: 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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