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Q&A: Chef Samantha Sanz on Moving Restaurants, Beach Cooking, and Keeping Hope

Samantha Sanz, new chef de cuisine at Elements.EXPAND
Samantha Sanz, new chef de cuisine at Elements.
Sanctuary on Camelback

In a bit of a surprise move, Chef Samantha Sanz, the twice-James-Beard-nominated chef of Talavera, has left for another kitchen. Sanz will now be cooking at Elements, the Paradise Valley restaurant inside Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort, where she began her career.

Sanz starts as chef de cuisine this week, but things won't be like they were before. Sanz has become known for bright, bold flavors, artful plating, and an often-imaginative undercurrent of influences from Mexico — mostly her home region of Sonora.

We caught up with Sanz to ask about the move, what she’s been cooking, and where she thinks our strange COVID era of eating is headed.

Phoenix New Times: So, why the big move to Elements?
Samantha Sanz: I wasn’t looking around, but the opportunity presented itself. It was very exciting for me to even consider that I could come back to Sanctuary after so many years. I was there in 2008. It was actually my first job, and I started from the bottom as a pantry cook. I learned so much there … I left a big chunk of my heart at Sanctuary.

New Times: At Talavera, you cooked in a very specific, highly personal style. Do you plan to continue evolving in that direction at Elements, or will you meld your style with its current vision?
SS: Talavera was my style of flavor mashups really influenced by the Latin stuff, my heritage. With Elements, I’m excited to merge my flavors with those Asian accents that Elements is known for. And I’m super excited to see how I’m going to do that take, instead of it being specifically Latin or Spanish, you know?

A beet salad by Sanz at Talavera.EXPAND
A beet salad by Sanz at Talavera.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

New Times: What do you expect the dynamic to be like between you and Beau MacMillan [Elements’ executive chef and a longtime Food Network regular]?
SS: Beau is still the executive chef, but we all know Beau is doing 20,000 things at once, with Food Network and everything he’s involved in. They wanted me to be there as the present chef, the one that’s in charge of the kitchen, decisions with menu, and everything else.

New Times: Do you have any ideas or dishes you’re jazzed to roll out?
SS: I will bring some new dishes with me. We’re working on them, but the new menu isn’t going to be a menu that’s fully launched by me.

New Times: Let’s wind it back a few months. Since we last saw you at Barrio Cafe, what have you been up to?
SS: I’ve been working at Proof [Canteen, another restaurant in the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, home to her former restaurant, Talavera], helping to get the place to where it needed to be, cooking banquets, also playing the role of the banquet chef. Every once in a while, people booked private Talavera dinners [even though it was closed to the public]. I was also doing private events for people.

New Times: Did you use any of your pandemic time to learn any new techniques, dishes, or cuisines?
SS: I was digging deep into different cookbooks. I was really trying to master the craft of tortilla, with flour and corn. I’ll probably never buy a bag of tortillas again in my life. I was having a lot of fun digging really deep into Mexican cuisine, all the very traditional, typical dishes. You know, like cochinita pibil and tres leches. And I know it’s completely opposite what I’m taking on with Elements now, but those are very important to me.

New Times: Any specific cookbooks you recommend?
SS: I love the Contramar cookbook.

New Times: Do you believe there’s a lot of possibility in the collision between your style and, specifically, the Asian elements of Elements?
SS: Oh, 100 percent. Even at Talavera, I was using Asian ingredients every once in a while — yuzu, yuzu kosho, things like that. Working them into the background of the Latin products, like aji amarillo, my thinking is that I’ve already done this before where I know it works and I can continue with that freshness, brightness, surprise kind of thing going on. At Sanctuary, I’m very excited to see how it’s all going to work out.

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Sanz's seafood paella from Talavera.EXPAND
Sanz's seafood paella from Talavera.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

New Times: Did you manage to travel to eat at all during the pandemic?
SS: I went to the beach with my family in Sonora. My parents and I organized every single meal we were going to eat. We were on a resort and wanted to eat well, and we cooked all the meals. We took everything from our grill to our paella pan to our espresso machine. We went over the top. We got clams. We got octopus and I made tacos. Everything in the paella was fresh. I actually went fishing one of the days and got a mahi-mahi and I filleted it whole. There’s nothing greater than that, you know?

New Times: We talk a lot about the negatives of the pandemic. Have you seen any positives?
SS: In some sort of way, a lot of people have been presented some really unique opportunities because of this. For example; myself. I never thought I was going to have a new job by the end of 2020. I just feel like it’s been really difficult for everybody and a lot of people aren’t going to be able to reopen, but I also think that there might be some silver linings.

New Times: That’s a pretty hopeful perspective.
SS: I think we all need to be a little bit hopeful and try to figure out how to move forward, you know?

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