Chef News

Aaron May of Vitamin T

Vitamin T. Chef Aaron May's eighth restaurant concept has both a ring of familiarity and a healthy dose of cheese. What's the daily recommended value of this new nutrient, you ask? According to May, it's as much as you need to stay alert.

How'd you come up with the name Vitamin T? Vitamin T is like a call to arms for all of the taco, torta, tamale, and tequila fans out there. If you spend some time in Mexico, you might be asked if you've had your daily dose of Vitamin T - Vitamina T. "Is your blood level a little low? Do I need to get you some tortas, tequila, tamales or tacos? Maybe we should go botanar and eat a little bit." It's a cool thing. It's a different spin. There's not a lot of Mexican restaurants in Phoenix where they're not serving burritos, and they're not serving enchiladas, and they're not serving that really Sonoran food that we're not going to serve here. So I'm really excited to emphasize on those four t's: Tacos, tequila, tacos, and tortas. It's really all about the t's.

So there's no Mr. T factor? No! I love Mr. T though. Love the A-Team. Did you see the movie? I did. I liked it. I thought Rampage Jackson was a great B.A. Baracus. You gotta go see it, if you haven't.

Today, May opens up about how he likes to harass some Valley chefs on their home turf, why you might run into him ogling the steakhouse next to the Flying J en route to Tucson, and what you can send him for the holidays.

Click through for the rest of our conversation with May...

What's on your ideal taco? I personally am a huge fan of a traditional taco al pastor, which is pork, pineapple, onions, jalapenos, and maybe a little shredded cabbage. There's two great pork tacos traditionally: The pibil, which would have orange, and the pastor, which would have pineapple - not necessarily pieces of pineapple, but in the marinade. Those two, the pibil and the pastor, are two of my favorite tacos. I love the way the slow-cooked pork and the bright fruit flavor mix, and then you get the achiote paste and the jalapenos, all that great stuff. Some salsa verde maybe. A little crema. I'm not a big cheese on my taco fan either, just for future reference. Maybe a little cotija on top, but I'm not a big cheese on my taco guy.

What would you say is the mark of a good chef? If you sit down in another chef's restaurant, what are you looking for? What impresses me when I go to someone else's restaurant is how the food itself has actually been treated: Is it cooked properly? Is it seasoned properly? Was it fresh? Those are really the hallmarks of a good chef. If you buy the right food, it's great on its own. Our job as a chef is not to ruin it, which some people do by overcooking it, over seasoning it, under seasoning it, or letting it sit in the refrigerator too long. More than the flavor profiles, more than how creative a menu can be, I look to see food that's really been treated right, seasoned well, and cooked properly. That's more important to me than anything else.

Where do you like to go to eat? I love to go eat at AZ 88. I think they have great food. I like to go eat at The Sanctuary and harass Beau MacMillan. I like to go eat at Christopher's at the Biltmore [Fashion Park] and harass Christopher [Gross]. I love to go to The Westin, where I used to work at Deseo. To go eat ceviche up there at the counter is amazing. I like Mama Mia for pizza on 40th Street.

Ever spat out anything you've been served? I've had bad food before, absolutely. I was in Stockholm, Sweden, doing a dinner. And the night before the dinner, they took us out to eat to this very traditional Swedish restaurant and fed us a very traditional smorgasbord. On the smorgasbord were eight different kinds of herring, and some of them were unbearable. That was probably one of the more difficult meals to get through.

Where would you travel for food? The two countries I like to travel to to eat at are Spain and Holland. Spain, you've got all this beautiful seafood from the Galician and Mediterranean coasts. Obviously I love Spanish food: I had Sol y Sambra and I have Iruña now. I love the flavor profiles. I love the Iberico ham. I love the pimento. I love the saffron. I love the olive oils. I love the bounty of seafood. And In Holland, they have all this great produce, all these great cheeses, and they just have a totally different take on this melting pot of a country. They have a ton of Indonesian and Morroccan food, and then you've got the hearty northern European cheeses, like gruyeres and goudas. You have all this beautiful food up there. Those are really two of my favorite places right now.

If you're not in a kitchen, where would we find you? Truck stops. They're interesting: A lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting roadside food. Like the Flying J. I always stop at the Flying J on my way to Tuscon. What do you pick up at the Flying J? I like to buy old school candy when I can find it, like Chicko Sticks. I'm always really interested to see the people. There's this steakhouse right next to the Flying J, and I'm always interested to see the people eating steak at a truck stop off the I-10: If they're in a celebratory mood, if they're in a pensive mood, if they're enjoying themselves, if they're just looking for nourishment. The truck stop is really sort of a microcosm of what's going on.

Favorite book of all time? The Sun Also Rises.

Do you have a signature drink? No, I actually like to switch it up all the time. I am a little bit of a Jägermeister fan. But I like to mix it up. I like a good tequila, a lot of Don Julio Reposado. Maybe some vodka, bourbon. I like it all. Not all together all at once. Quinn is always a tequila guy, but I don't like to be hen pecked. If I hand an unlimited budget, I would drink Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. If you're thinking about sending me a bottle for Christmas, that's what I want. [May flashes his broad smile.]

Check back tomorrow for our second installment of Chef Chat with May, when he reveals his first job and his dream job, the way his mind works, and the one microwave meal he "cooks" at home.

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Hannah E Williams