This is part one of our interview with Chef Lester Gonzalez of Scottsdale's Cowboy Ciao. The Le Cordon Bleu grad has been working behind the scenes at this Valley institution for more than a decade -- find out what keeps him going today. Tomorrow, we'll share his take on last year's financial drama and find out what he thinks is the best kept secret in cooking. (And we totally agree.)
"I'm not much of a jumper," chef Lester Gonzalez will tell you if you ask how (and why) he has stayed at the corner of Stetson and Sixth Avenue in Scottsdale for more than a decade. Okay, to be fair, he did stray around the corner for two years to work in the kitchen at Kazimierz World Wine Bar, but that hardly counts because the two restaurants are owned by the same guy, Peter Kasperski.
"It helps if you love your job," he adds with a smile.
The executive chef is a laid-back guy who's just as into comfort food and simple eats as he is the creative culinary exploits he's got going on at work. His journey began at Le Cordon Bleu, where he trained after leaving his small hometown near Parker, in western Arizona. Almost directly out of school, he landed a job at Cowboy Ciao. He says the imaginative stuff coming out of the kitchen caught his eye more than 11 years ago. He's been hooked here ever since.
He began as a humble line cook before moving his way up to grill and plating responsibilities. He hopped across the way to Kazimierz for a couple of years for experience, but working in a tiny kitchen pumping out flatbreads wasn't his favorite gig. In 2005, he made his way back over to Cowboy Ciao as sous chef and has held the title of executive chef for three years now.
Things have changed a lot since Gonzalez began with this company, not the least of which has been the boom of interest in food.
"Now everyone is in more of a food craze," he says, adding that that's it's a good thing.
It's part of the reason he thinks people have been so receptive to the miniature version of the restaurant you can now find at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Gonzalez was very hands-on during the development of the second location and says things have really picked up since it opened in November of last year.
"Production there is 10 times what it is [in Scottsdale]," he says.
Tourists, he says, can be hesitant to try an unfamiliar brand, but the exposure is serving the company well. It's driving traffic to the Scottsdale location and vice versa. The airport location even has regular customers, Gonzalez says.
You'd think he'd be a little more stressed knowing that a crew he doesn't directly oversee on a daily basis is responsible for the restaurant's first impression with a steady stream of out-of-towners. (That's how it works, by and large, with airport satellites.) But Gonzalez has plenty of faith in the airport workers. For starters, he trained them himself, and he says he'd happily take some of them over at the traditional location.
"They're excited to be doing something different, and it shows."
Besides, he has his hands full out in Scottsdale, where he's working on re-vamping the lunch menu and trying to make pot pies the next "thing."
Seriously, he's really, really into them. Just keep reading . . .
Ten words to describe you: I'm funny, easy-going, laid-back, courageous, handsome, strong -- very strong.
One food you can't live without: Pot pie -- beef, chicken, turkey, pig. Whatever, man, I love it.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef? After figuring out my dream of being a WWE superstar wasn't going to happen.
Your biggest inspiration when it comes to cooking: Hearing when people tell you how much they enjoyed your food. It just reminds me of one of the reasons why I do this.
What's your pet peeve? Unseasoned food
The last thing you watched/read: Last thing I watched was Monday Night Raw.
Last thing I read was The Wagamama Cookbook, mostly about Japanese noodle recipes
Best/worst thing about being a chef in Old Town Scottsdale:
The best: The broad range of restaurants just in this area.
The worst: Having to compete with them.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: