Chef News

Charleen Badman of FnB, Part Two

Yesterday we heard from Chef Charleen Badman of FnB. Today the conversation continues.

Chef Charleen Badman has made a name fore herself cooking vegetables at FnB, a trend she attributes to a vegetarian yoga instructor/friend. More specifically, she's embraced the vegetables no one else wants to cook and made them her signature: Converting boring, bland leeks into a cult classic that's generating national buzz. Food & Wine has even come knocking... (more after the jump.)

"I don't want the popular vegetables," Badman says. "I look for that weird vegetable that nobody else has. I don't want the pretty, fancy vegetable. I want the leek or the rutabaga or the broccoli, the one that gets the bad rap."

Badman says she loves veggies so much, her next place might be vegetarian but for now, herbavoires will have to content with monthly prix fixe vegetarian meals.

"I won't ever have two restaurants at the same time," Badman says. "We're going to start having a five-course vegetarian dinner the last Tuesday of every month, so I can play around with it while I have this restaurant and see what I can do with every vegetable that comes into season."

Despite the hype, Badman is extremely down to earth. "You're starting over every night, with a whole new group of people that you want to make happy," she says. And, quoting her FnB partner Pavle Milic, adds, "You just can't drink your own Kool-Aid."

Today, Badman tells all about the braised leek dish that's earning her accolades, the local farmer who's her therapy stand-in, the all-expenses-paid eating trips she used to take, and the cooking technique she refuses to use.

Best recipe experiment? Right now, it's going to be the leek dish that we do. It's braised leeks with some thyme and lemon. It has mozzarella, which we make in house, melted over the top, a fried egg, and some mustard breadcrumbs. The first time we did it, it was leeks and mozzarella and that's it. We actually sat down and ate it, which I very rarely do, and I said, "This needs a fried egg and some bread crumbs." We did that the very next day. The rest is history. Kate Krader from Food & Wine was in at the end of January and had it. She called us a month and a half ago and told us it was going to be one of the top ten dishes in the country in December's issue. I'm just amazed. It's leeks. I just try to do things that are very, very simple.

What motivated you to cook with just vegetables? My yoga instructor has become a very good friend of mine, and she's vegetarian. I'd cook a lot for her, so I started thinking a lot more about vegetables.

Most exciting part about the farmers' markets? Each one is different. It's always going to be seeing Bob McClendon at both the Scottsdale and the Town and Country ones. When I was working for Chrysa [Robertson at Rancho Pinot], it was the same thing. I would always go do the running around too, because I wanted to go see Bob. One week, she said," I want to go see Bob this Wednesday, I haven't seen him in a while." But this is kinda my therapy to go see Bob and talk to him for a while. And you might see something that's not on the list because he doesn't have a lot of it or is just selling that day. If you showed up, you have it a week before everybody else does.

What's so important about sourcing ingredients locally? It probably is the fact that you're keeping the money here, but it's also the relationships that you have. I like that we are supporting our neighbors. I like that I know Bob, Maya, and the Singhs. Not only that, but we only do the local wine list here. Pavle is adamant about supporting them. These people grew the food that we get to cook or made the wine that we're serving, and our guests are able to experience that. I think that's really wonderful. I love that we have such a close relationship with all of them. They've all been in for dinner, and I consider a lot of them friends of ours. The connection is so much stronger that way.

What's the last thing you ate that blew your mind? The ramen [I had in New York] was amazing. It was just so simple. I had a salad at a vegetarian restaurant in New York called Dirt Candy. It's a really great chef and 19 seats. The salad was with mushrooms and grapes, and I really thought this was amazing: The grapes and the savory elements. So when I came back, we added what I call "The Green Salad" to the menu. The idea came while I was walking - I tried to exercise all that eating in New York. Anne [Rosenzweig] and I would walk around the reservoir. I said, "I came up with this idea to do a green salad, but it's not going to be a green salad because when I come back to Arizona there won't be any." It's cucumbers, fennel, celery and grapes. Everything green. I put the grapes in because I'd had that salad. That's what blows my mind: Grapes in a salad. Something simple. A lot of things do, just the combination of flavors and textures and what one little thing like a grape can do to a salad.

Most memorable food trips? [Rosenzweig] sent me to Italy for a month to learn how to make pasta [when I worked at Lobster Club]. I was in Rimini, Italy, for a couple of weeks, just learning how to make pasta. They asked me, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I need to learn how to make pasta." And so I did. I went to Paris for a week, just eating. I had a $1,500 lunch at Pierre Gagnaire. There were two of us. I spent $4,000 in four days eating in Paris. Those were the days! But it's all worth it. I always get something out of it every time I go out to eat.

Any flavor combinations you couldn't live without? In the summertime we do a corn, peach and almond salad that's from that $4,000 week in Paris. The very place we went to was Pierre Gagnaire's. It was the very first dish: A corn, peach and almond salad with Langoustines.

Best recent dining experience? I was in this great little restaurant Italian restaurant that's just starting to get a lot of attention called Torrisi. It's 20 seats. For dinner, it's $50. It's this menu that's on a chalkboard. You have to get there early and stand in line; they don't take reservations. You get there at 5:15 p.m. for the opening at 6 p.m. to put your name on a list and wait for them to call you. It's five courses, and the only thing you choose is your entrée and your drink. Everybody gets the same thing. You're out of there are 8 p.m. and they do it again. And they'll do it again. That's what our Tuesdays are going to be like: A set menu. It was a great experience. I really enjoyed it.

Anything you will never ever cook with? I'll never do foam. "Foam's for boys." A friend of mine has said that line before. I don't get it. I've had it. I'd rather have what they're trying to make it taste like be part of the dish. A lot of times I'm missing the whole texture of it. I hate that. I'm not into molecular gastronomy at all. I'm glad that people do it, so we can have different sorts of things. But sometimes it gets into the wrong hands, and it goes in a direction that I have to wonder what they were thinking. I saw razor clam sausage, one time, and I thought, "What happened? What did you do to make this? Those razor clams were really beautiful when they opened up, and you turned it into this pate sort of thing." I had to spit it out. I'm just not into that. To each his own. Somebody could come in here and say, "What's all the hype about? It's radishes, butter and honey. She's getting credit for this?" I've had haters for that leek dish: "It's just a pile of mozzarella." I'm with you; I get it. I just tried to put together a combination of flavors that I liked and food that I like and textures that I like. If you don't get it, that's fine. That's why I eat at home a lot.

Check out part one of our Chef Chat with Badman for the scoop on her humble chef beginnings and check back for her New York-inspired green salad recipe tomorrow.

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Hannah E Williams