Chef News

Aaron May of Vitamin T, Part Two

Yesterday we heard from Chef Aaron May. Today the conversation continues.

Chef Aaron May's Vitamin T's opening is just around the corner, making it the eighth restaurant concept May's launched, along with Iruña, Over Easy and The Lodge. Just the thought of running eight restaurants wipes us out, but when we meet up with May at Vitamin T, he's in rare form: Stretching on the outdoor patio, chatting with his business partner Quinn Goldsberry.

How does he do it?! "It's a lot of juggling, and it's a lot of good staff," May says. "I have a great partner in Quinn. who does a lot of the heavy lifting." Just then, Goldsberry picks up a[n empty] tequila barrel in the background. "See!" May says laughing.

May started young and hasn't left the restaurant business since, but he has moved up in the world: from busboy to chef to owner.

"The only job I've ever really had is working in restaurants," May says, "I love being around people, serving people, being hospitable, working with food and drink. It's pretty much all I've done and all I've wanted to do since I was 14 and working in a restaurant."

Today, May tells us about his first job, the one dish he loved growing up, the reason he frequents Dairy Queen and where he'd be if he weren't a chef.

What was your first job? Working at a place called Timbers Charhouse, outside Chicago.

What was the best part about school? The best part about school was being done! Culinary school specifically? It was great to learn about all the classic dishes, sauces, ingredients. Study the basics and get those fundamentals down. That's really what you draw on every day. I draw on stuff I learned either in culinary school or because of what I learned in culinary school as a foundation, and then apply those techniques in a different way, whether it's making sauces, making soups, braising, butchering, creating menus, all that kind of stuff is just building on those fundamentals that we learned in school.

How does your mind work when you're brainstorming new concepts and creating new menus? I like to obviously draw on past experiences: Places I've been, things I've seen, things I've done, things I've liked. I also like to take kind of a reverse engineering approach of letting it organically come to fruition rather than working on a timeline or a grid that you have to populate with information. One of the things Quinn and I have always tried to do is come up with a concept, and once you decide what the concept is, there's organic answers that will fill themselves. If you're going to be a breakfast restaurant, you need to serve breakfast dishes, so what are some of the more popular breakfast dishes, how can you interpret those in your own way. You kind of backfill the story that way. If we're going to do The Lodge, a Midwestern tavern, what would be the natural surroundings of a Midwestern tavern, right? Well you would have probably Leinenkugel's on draft, and you'd serve cheese curds and bratwurst, you'd probably make chili, people probably want to eat some really comforting food like macaroni and cheese, and we are in Scottsdale so we probably need some kind of salads. It organically backfills it, and you keep editing it down until you get to that final product.

Do you have a favorite cuisine or a favorite style to cook in? I don't really have a favorite, but there are techniques that I like that can really be applied broadly. One of the things I'm really excited about with Vitamin T is doing all of the slow-cooked and braised meats: The braised porks and barbacoas and all that kind of fun slow cooking. You're using more inexpensive cuts of meat, and you're going through this really labor-intensive process - braising, slow cooking, slow roasting, etc. I do some of that same stuff at Iruña but with Spanish flavors instead of Mexican flavors. You can apply the same technique to French or Italian flavors. I'm really excited about getting those bigger cuts of meat in at Vitamin T and bringing them through the process of handling them well and creating something great out of something that's maybe a less familiar piece of protein.

Anything you won't eat? I'm afraid a little bit of processed deli meats, like boiled hams and turkey breasts with water added. I'm afraid of that stuff. Won't eat it. Don't like it. Processed deli meats.

Flavor combination you couldn't live without? I really enjoy eating a hot dog with mustard and onions on it. I really like that flavor profile. It's one of my favorite things. I like a Vienna hot dog. A good Chicago-style Vienna hot dog on a poppy seed bun with yellow mustard and white onion and that's it. And I love it. It's one of my favorite things.

What did you always want mom to make for dinner growing up? My mom made this really good spaghetti casserole dish that I really liked. That was probably the one thing I asked for; everything else I just kind of tolerated.

Best dessert after a big meal? Ice cream. Like the twist cone from Dairy Queen. Simple ice cream. Not fancy, expensive ice cream. I like simple, soft-serve ice cream.

What's a day in your life like? Part of having eight restaurants is that there's not a lot of typical days. I like to try to go to all of the restaurants for at least a few moments. Usually, I'll get up and go by Over Easy, eat breakfast there, see what's going on and say hello to everybody. Then I'll go over to The Lodge and meet Quinn and go over our agenda for the day, the week, the month, the year. And then, I'll probably leave the lodge and either have some meetings at the office or the Ice Den. Then I'll go hang out at Iruña. And then I'll go to Mabel's and be convivial with the staff. And then I might go for a nightcap at one of Arizona's great dive bars: DJ's, Coach House, and Tallyho or wherever. And then, take it to the rack.

Do you cook at home? A little. I'm a big fan of the Ramen. Instant Ramen. Chicken flavored Maruchan, if they're sending samples. [Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.]

If you could be anything besides a chef, what would you be? An astronaut.

This is our second installment of Chef Chat with May. Check out part one for more about Vitamin T, the chefs May likes to drop in on in the Valley, and the reason he hangs out at truck stops.

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Hannah E Williams