Chef Bernie Kantak began his culinary adventure at a very early age. He sampled head cheese at four years old and liked it. Shortly afterwards, instead of slapping together a messy PB&J when his mom told him to make a snack, Kantak pulled up a chair, turned on the stove and whipped up a ground beef dish.
Two decades later he was making a name for himself at Cowboy Ciao, eventually branching out on his own with the popular new Old Town Scottsdale eatery, Citizen Public House.
These days, Kantak continues to be daring in the kitchen, though he admits he's not always the most adventurous person when it comes to non-culinary endeavors.
Eat this: I'll eat pretty much anything. Put it in front of me and I'll take a shot. But I won't jump out of a plane. I'm a chickenshit. I don't even like to fly, unless I have my Guinness and a shot of tequila!
Not that: The only thing I really dislike (and the German side of my family is gonna really hate me for this) is sauerbraten. I try it every time it's offered, but I just can't stomach the stuff. Which is weird, because I love to pickle and braise.
Before discovering the culinary arts... I worked in restaurants throughout high school. But when I went to college I ended up with a degree in studio art, with a concentration in sculpture. I wanted to teach elementary school kids.
What happened? My ceramics professor actually talked me into expressing myself in the kitchen instead of in a studio. I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. He was really into wine and food, and would host parties with a whole pig and lots of bourbon.
First food art: My senior year, I took a bunch of car parts and turkey bones and made a sculpture. It's in my mother's living room still. She has another one in her garden that's like seven feet tall. She has her creeping plants growing up it, and she used to decorate that as a Christmas tree for a while.
How'd you get the bones? Thanksgiving dinner. I buried them and let nature take its course, then dug them up and made a sculpture.
Culinary style: I really try to use familiar ingredients and give them to people in an unfamiliar way. The most exotic thing I have on my menu is black garlic, and that's not that crazy.
What happened to those 5 restaurants you wanted to open? It's a long story, and you're gonna have to give me something stiffer than water to get that out of me. I'd love to do a Latin American concept down the line, but right now I'm just concentrating on this. We've only been open for 16 weeks, so we're just babies.
People can't get enough of my... Pork belly pastrami. Everybody loves it. Ok, not everybody, but about 99.9% of the people who try it. Also bacon fat popcorn. We've got these really beautiful little heirloom kernels that pop into these super white, white, white puffs of corn.
On Phoenix's culinary scene: There are a lot of people out there doing some really cool stuff. It's dramatically different from when I first moved here. I think people are a lot more open to experimental things. Like Posh - you don't know exactly what you're getting, but you know it's going to be good. There's a lot of room for growth, but we're headed in the right direction.
What would you do if you couldn't be a chef? I would be homeless.
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SHOW ME HOW
Fork the desk job: I'd fall asleep if I had to sit at a computer for more than an hour. I'd poke my eyes out with a fork.
Burns, baby, burns: I burn myself pretty much daily, but no permanent injuries yet *knock on wood*. As a chef, you get a lot of calluses, too. Want a picture of that?
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Chef Bernie Kantak, including tidbits on ghosts and the historic Trader Vic's building that's now Citizen Public House.