Chef Brett Vibber has spent the morning pickling mushrooms he gathered the day before.
“It’s so great to find food in the place where nature left it for us to eat,” says Vibber, who’s made a name for himself here as the guy from that Cave Creek restaurant, Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine — the one who forages in the wild for the food he prepares and serves.
Late last year, Vibber closed up Cartwright’s and began preparing a new venture with friend and business partner Jaren Bates. “We’ve got five acres of former farmland in New River,” Vibber reports, “and we’re turning it back into a farm.”
The property will also host a boutique hotel run by the Scott Foundation, a foster youth program with whom Vibber works closely. The hotel will teach foster kids about foraging and cooking, offering free room and board while students work in the program. Never one to stray far from the kitchen, Vibber will oversee Wild, the hotel restaurant.
He’s a native who left town at 21, checking out Panama, Los Angeles, and Chicago before returning here in 2014. “I just never found any place I like better than Arizona,” he admits.
Vibber has always worked in food, getting a first glimpse of the restaurant business as a teen working at Barro’s Pizza. “That’s what really got me interested in food,” he says. “I went to Italy to see how pizzas were made, and that led me to exploring the fine dining world. I was seeking out the best chefs in Italy or Los Angeles, anywhere I was. I worked for Bruce Yim in Tucson. I didn’t mind if I had to live out of my backpack just to be able to watch these guys cook.”
Vibber found he was just as interested in where food came from as in learning to prepare it well. “Farmers and foragers, people who celebrate wild food and indigenous foods — these are the people I wanted to focus on,” he explains.
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He comes by foraging honestly. “My family is all outdoorsy, so every trip I took growing up was camping, hunting, fishing, backpacking. I was in Boy Scouts from first to eighth grade, so I was always picking berries or looking for mushrooms in season.”
During cooler months, Vibber forages for prickly pears and for fruit from barrel and saguaro cactus. He looks for palo verde flowers, packed with nutrients and proteins, to use in place of capers in savory dishes. He likes wolfberries and hackberries for his desserts. He harvests mesquite wood for smoking or dries it to make flour. In summertime, he moves into the forest to gather rosehips, wild onions and watercress, mint, elderberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
He’s looking forward to serving all of it at Wild in the near future. “I’ve got this idea about trout from Sedona, served over Navajo creamed corn and a vinegar made out of spruce tips,” he says dreamily. “Maybe with a nice salsa verde with wild chiles and wild onions. And for dessert, I could make a good steamed corn ice cream paired with a fried corn waffle and mesquite and juniper caramel sauce.”
Vibber pauses and takes a quick breath. “And whatever we serve, we’re going to let people know we found all the ingredients just waiting out in the world.”