This is part two of our interview with Lester Gonzalez, chef at Scottdale's Cowboy Ciao. If you missed the first part of the interview, in which Gonzalez talked about the restaurant's new location at Sky Harbor Airport and his gave his thoughts about Gio Osso of Virtu, you can read it here. Today, he talks about the restaurant's Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and the one place he would want to eat in the world -- and it's not anywhere you'd be likely to guess.
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It's been a year since news came out that Peter Kasperski, owner of Cowboy Ciao in Old Town Scottsdale, filed Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court under Cowboy Ciao LLC. It didn't take long for people to start whispering about the possibility of the restaurant closing -- rumors that were put to rest fairly quickly when Kasperski released a statement explaining that the bankruptcy meant the company would be reorganizing.
Things were pretty quiet after that, but we asked Gonzalez what the aftermath looked like on the inside.
"It was terrible," he says. "It was really hard, very stressful. And it took some time to recover, but we're still here."
He tells us, honestly, that he had serious hesitation about whether or not he wanted to stay at the restaurant where he had worked for so long. In moments of doubts, he turned to his mother for advice and support.
"My thing was, I can't give up. I'm not going to be that guy that just gives up," he says.
Despite that, Gonzalez doesn't seem to have any qualms now about the belief that Cowboy Ciao isn't going anywhere anytime soon. The chef speaks matter-of-factly about the seasonal ebb and flow of patrons for the restaurant. There have been better summers in the history of the restaurant, he admits. But there have also been worse.
The bottom line?
"People still love this place," he says.
As far as his own future, he's got things in mind beyond what he's doing now. We weren't surprised to find out the family-oriented guy wants to move closer to his hometown. We were surprised to learn that he wants to open up, of all things, a sandwich shop.
As much as Gonzalez might love the culinary trade, he's clearly über-passionate about the simply beauty of a good sandwich. He speaks highly of the ability to be creative in Cowboy Ciao's "experimental kitchen," but when you get him talking about the subject of sandwiches, it's clear he's put a good amount of thought into this, too.
He swoons -- at least a little -- over the Combo sandwich at Miracle Mile Deli, which comes with both pastrami and corned beef, and he gives a solid stamp of approval to Jersey Mike's sandwiches -- provided you order them Mike's Way.
And if that seems a little strange for a trained chef to want to spend his days building sandwiches, it will make a lot more sense when you learn that his deli dreams tie back to family.
"I told my parents I wanted something for the family," he says, mentioning after that his mother passed away this Mother's Day. "I'm a huge family person; that's where my heart is."
Before we wrapped up, we asked whom we should be keeping an eye out for in the Cowboy Ciao kitchen. Gonzalez points to a young looking guy in all black, Garrison Whiting, his sous chef.
"That guy," he says seriously. "He's got his head on right, creative and knowledgeable. He's hard knocks right there. He's one you're probably going to hear about."
The best-kept secret in cooking is: Make someone else do it!
Your favorite thing to cook at home: I don't have a favorite because I don't cook much at home.
The best thing you've ever eaten: It's hard to narrow it down. Not sure if they still have it, but the Panna Cotto with the graham cracker topping up at Amaro Pizzeria, so good.
Your favorite kitchen tool/instrument and why: My chef's knife, it's a necessity in the kitchen. It's beat to hell, but it has sentimental value.
One thing people don't realize about being a chef is that: Sometimes it's not as fun as TV makes it look.
Your current obsession: I am and always will be obsessed with pig.
Most undervalued ingredient: Parsley
Your culinary guilty pleasure: Fries and country gravy.
If you could eat at any restaurant in the world, where you would choose to go? I would love to go to Katz Deli in New York for starters. I know . . . out of all the places in the world, but I love pastrami.
Favorite thing about the Phoenix food scene: How diverse it is. You can pretty much find any kind of cuisine out there. And it keeps growing!
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Bacon is to cuisine as peanut butter is to jelly.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: