Chef News

Chrysa Robertson Dishes on Her Role as Exorcist and What It Takes To Be a Woman Chef

Chrysa Robertson Rancho Pinot 6208 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-367-8030

See also: Chrysa Robertson Sells Heritage Turkeys and Talks Turkey at November 18 Cooking Class Tastemaker #11: Chrysa Robertson

This is part one of my interview with Chrysa Robertson, chef-owner of Rancho Pinot. Come back Tuesday when Robertson explains why she isn't Arizona's Alice Waters and discusses her position on male chefs.

Women chefs have a reputation for being hard ass for one simple reason: they have to be to survive in a world still dominated by men. And most days, Chrysa Robertson -- this town's longest running, double-x-chromosome hard ass -- looks and plays the part. But her chin-out, don't-mess-with-me attitude -- eloquently exemplified by a collection of sarcastic postcards and fridge magnets specifically taking pot shots at men and religion -- obfuscates what is obvious to those of us who know her better: beyond the prickly exterior hides a girl with a gooey center.

As the eldest of five kids, she grew up cooking in her Italian family, where fresh, simple food -- including mache and radicchio pulled from her grandfather's garden -- was always a big deal. In fact, her grandmother's elaborate Sunday suppers profoundly influence Robertson's Italian-inflected menu at Rancho to this day.

When she was 16, she got her first job waiting tables at Sambo's, but it wasn't until she was nearly 23 and working for Carole Steele at groundbreaking C. Steele that she got "bitten by the restaurant bug." She stayed with Steele -- leaving and coming back again -- for eight and a half years, moving up the ranks from girl with feather duster to general manager. "That was the best school I could ever go to," Robertson says. But in 1983, she left C. Steele to work at Steven (baseball player Steve Stone's haute spot at the time), where she was mentored in front-of-the-house skills by GM Peter Kasperski . Robertson also worked for pioneering women chefs RoxSand Scocos (RoxSand) and Donna Nordin (Los Mayas at El Pedregal) for a brief time, until her then-husband Tom Kaufman got a job offer at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles. The two moved to California, where Robertson landed a job in pantry at Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton's Campanile.

This was 1990, when Campanile was the hottest thing going, and Robertson -- who was overwhelmed by 325 covers her first night on her own -- got her footing quickly. Silverton, who shared Robertson's wicked sense of humor, became a friend and mentor. Robertson describes the experience as "the best job I ever had," but it was one she left, after a year and a half, to work for Hiro Sone at Terra in Napa. She stayed with Sone for another year until she and Kaufman moved back to Phoenix with the idea of opening their own restaurant.

They found a space in Town & Country in 1993, hiring Chris Bianco to help them in the kitchen. "Here came this disheveled fool, mumbling. What I gathered was, he wanted to cook," Robertson says. Robertson and Kaufman stayed in the storefront space nine months before moving the restaurant to its current location, where the vintage cowboy decor is a funky-chic expression of Robertson's inner cowgirl. Robertson, who was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame in 2011, founded the Phoenix chapter of the Slow Food Convivium in the 90s, and she has been instrumental in putting local farmers and food artisans on the culinary map. Five words to describe you: Demanding, impatient, irreverent, opinionated, generous.

Four words to describe Rancho Pinot: Unique, welcoming, honest, delicious.

Favorite food smell: Fresh garlic, Italian parsley & lemon zest: gremolata!

Favorite cookbook: Zuni Café by Judy Rodgers.

An ingredient you love to cook with and why: Onions. I love their versatility. They can add a spicy bite when used raw or marinated. And I love all the different shades of flavor when cooked...crispy fried, quickly browned or slowly melted into caramel goodness.

Most over-rated ingredient: Micro anything.

Most under-rated ingredient: Lemon's the universal "corrector."

Something always found in your kitchen: Good olive oil & sea salt.

Something never found in your kitchen: White pepper.

Something always found in your fridge: An embarrassingly high ratio of wine to actual food.

Trend you wish would go away: Deconstucted cuisine. You know, a tiny bit of several items all over a plate. Seems you need instructions to eat it.

Trend you like: I'm not a big fan of trends. Trends start out as unique good ideas, then get bastardized as everyone tries to put their spin on it.

Buzzword you wish would go away: Gluten-free.

People think of you as a hard ass. Is that your persona? Or is that really you?: Chef Pete Deruvo (of Davanti Enoteca) used to work for me, and he recently said that I have "broken more spirits than an exorcism." SO true! And my Wonder Woman cook Sacha Levine says I sometimes remind her of Carrie at the prom. Now THAT'S funny! Seriously, I am pure marshmallow inside. I have always been a bit insecure and defensive. I have pretty strong opinions. I expect a lot from my crew. I don't suffer fools. I want things to go perfectly, and when they don't, I sometimes take my frustration out on my employees. I think I'm a lot better than I used to be, but my past behavior is a real regret of mine. As my grandmother used to say, "You get more bees with honey than with vinegar."

Myth or reality: women have to be super-tough to be a chef: I don't think you need to be Wonder Woman. Do the work, know your shit, don't play games, and work and act like you deserve respect. It's a tough biz. Don't expect any special treatment. Stand up for your rights . . . and this coming from me, a big crybaby at times!!

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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Nikki Buchanan