Chris Mayo Executive chef Central Bistro 3160 E. Camelback Road www.centralbistroaz.com
Chris Mayo didn't grow up with a dream of becoming a chef. He didn't learn the basics of the craft as a child, at his mother's hip. In fact, he thought he was going to be a firefighter -- even signed up for fire school and served as a reserve fire fighter in Scottsdale -- until he was a young adult.
But once he realized his high school kitchen job had grown into a passion, Mayo went all in: He enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, packed his bags, and left. He landed an internship at the Michelin three-starred Daniel restaurant and later went on to work under chef Peter Hoffman at the now-defunct Savoy.
But Mayo, who was born in Boston and grew up in the Valley, always knew he wanted to return to Phoenix. And did in the winter of 2004.
"When I got back, I was exhausted," Mayo says. "It probably took me a couple months to feel normal again."
After recovering from big-city life, Mayo started in the kitchen at T. Cook's before moving to Estate House and, later, J&G Steakhouse. He fell comfortably into the upscale dining scene in town, which at that time revolved mostly around resort restaurants.
"Up to that point in my career, I had really just been focused on food," Mayo says.
So he took a job with Sam Fox to learn some of the ins-and-outs of the rest of the industry. He worked at several of Fox's concepts, including Olive and Ivy, The Greene House, and most recently, North. But the corporate gigs didn't allow Mayo -- or many other chefs -- to create his own food, so he left to return to the city's blossoming independent dining scene.
"I feel like the independent dining scene has really caught up to hotels," Mayo says. "When I came back to Phoenix [in 2004] things weren't being done on the same level."
Mayo has been at Central Bistro for about a month now, replacing Milan-born chef Andrea Volpi, who's still overseeing the kitchen at Local Bistro in Scottsdale.
Things have changed a lot since Central Bistro open its doors on the northwest corner of Camelback Road and 32nd Street in fall 2012. Back then, the restaurant game in the Biltmore area was competitive, but nowhere near the level it is at today.
In the past two years, the dining scene along the Camelback corridor has exploded -- it's got to be nearing saturation point, right? -- and as you can imagine, that's a big deal for Mayo.
"We're not naive to what's happening around us," Mayo says.
And as any smart chef (and businessman, for that matter) would do, Mayo's looking for ways to differentiate the restaurant from those around it.
The changes, which will be reflected a new menu set to launch soon, will include focusing less on "meat and potatoes" in order to give diners lighter options, like seafood and vegetables. He says he intends to stay true to the restaurant's "French and Italian soul." In the future, Mayo hopes to change the menu about three times a year, while remaining ever-conscious of the popular dishes (like the wood-grilled artichoke) that have become mainstays.
Mayo intends to become a mainstay, too. The chef says he has no intentions of leaving Central Bistro anytime soon, not even to help open restaurateur German Osio's highly anticipated Sumo Maya restaurant in Scottsdale. Part of the draw? The neighborhood.
"Arcadia seems to be really hot right now," Mayo says. "It's one of the few places where there's a true sense of community."
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef? When I was in my early 20s. I'd been cooking at different spots around Phoenix for a few years by then but never thought of it as a career -- I still I thought I was going to be a firefighter. But that was when I made the commitment to pack up and go to cooking school in New York City.
What's the most important lesson you learned during culinary school? You get out of it what you put in . . . Nothing more.
One dish that best describes your style of cooking? I tend to lean toward clean flavors, so probably the cool roasted beets dish with Greek yogurt, honeycomb, and mache lettuce that we're adding to the new menu. It's very simple, but there's an amazing clarity of flavor -- everything works together perfectly and has a reason for being on the plate.
Your earliest food memory: When I was a kid, my mom used to make this sautéed chicken dish with white wine and grapes. She served simply over egg noodles, and I loved it! I try to make it now, but it's not the same . . . I probably overthink it.
What drew you back to Phoenix? The plan was always to come back to Phoenix. I really like it here. I had a good offer to stay on as sous chef at my former restaurant (Savoy in NYC), but I had a plan and stuck with it.
The biggest misconception about French food is that: The food is always heavy and full of butter and cream. Some of the most classic dishes from the south of France, in particular, are very light and healthy.
Describe your vision for Central Bistro: Central is a great, contemporary bistro. It's the kind of place you can eat at two or three times a week, but also where you can celebrate a special occasion -- which is also why we offer such a diverse menu. I think my vision is best defined as pure, clean flavors and sound execution.
The three ingredients you think should be used more: Argumato lemon oil, Calabrian chiles, rabbit.
The more overrated ingredient: In my humble opinion, the most overrated ingredient is truffle oil.
One thing you'll always find in your pantry: I always have good olive oil and vinegar on hand. The quality of those two things really matter -- I never cheap out on them.
One thing you'll never find in your fridge: Vegemite . . . Sorry, Aussies, I can't wrap my head around that one.
The best thing you've eaten in the last year: I really enjoyed the sweet and sour sweetbreads I had at Bink's Midtown a while back. The whole meal was great, but those really stand out in my mind.
One local chef you admire and why: There are so many great chefs in Phoenix now that it's hard to pick just one, but I really admire Jacques Qualin over at J&G Steakhouse. Working for him was a crucial step in my development because it was the first time I saw a chef totally in control of every facet of the restaurant. From the food to the service to the financials, he made sure everything was on point.
One national/international restaurant you want to get to this year: I still want to get to Eleven Madison Park in New York. I've been watching their evolution for a while now and I'm very eager to check it out.
Beer, wine, or cocktail? And what specific kind? I like them all! Stella Artois beer, Burgundy wine, and Negroni cocktails.
Your biggest mentor in the kitchen and the best lesson he/she taught you: Lee Hillson (now at The Phoenician). He gave me my first sous chef position and taught me that it's amazing what people can get accomplished when they have no choice but to get it done.
Your culinary guilty pleasure: Cheeseburgers. I love them . . . even bad ones taste good!
One book/movie everyone should read/see and why: Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud is a must read for any aspiring cook.
When I'm not in the kitchen I'm usually: Most of my free time is spent with my wife, Kim, and our 3-year-old daughter, Avery. It's super-important to me to try and balance work/family time.
The trend I'm totally over is: Cocktail pairings. I enjoy a cocktail as much as anyone -- probably more than most -- but I like them before the meal. Once the food comes, I'm switching to wine.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay