Chef News

Chrysa Robertson Dishes on Male Chefs, How She Handled a Customer Complaint and Why She's Not Really Arizona's Alice Waters

This is part two of my interview with Chrysa Robertson, chef-owner of Rancho Pinot. If you missed part one, where Robertson talks about what it takes to be a woman chef and whether she's a marshmallow or a hard ass, read it here.

See also: Aaron May Dishes on Being a Chef, a Restaurateur and a Party Boy

What's your guilty pleasure?: Trader Joe's olive oil potato chips & frosty Tecate light beer in cans -- preferably consumed in the pool.

The great thing about being a chef is: If it's your restaurant, nothing beats being your own boss.

Favorite thing to eat growing up: My mom's roasted pork with crispy potatoes and applesauce.

Favorite thing to eat now: Combination of prosciutto, Fontina, apples, dates, pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and arugula. My chefs call it "garbage salad."

The most fun I've ever had in the kitchen was when: We did a benefit dinner at Rancho a few years ago with a couple of great chefs I used to work for. We had rigged up a rotisserie out on the sidewalk to cook whole ducks. It involved a tire jack stand, a motor with a bicycle chain and several sheet pans filled with blazing mesquite charcoal. The best part was parading the cooked ducks through the dining room on a 12-foot skewer!

You raise chickens and do a bit of gardening. Is this for practicality or . . . ?: If I weren't a chef, I would be a landscaper. Or a cowgirl. I LOVE working outside. The hens started as a hobby, and we have since expanded the coop three times. There is nothing like a fresh egg! I use them at Rancho for pasta, ice cream, desserts, salads, etc. The "ladies" (48 of them at last count) eat most of the scraps from the restaurant, and anything else left over goes into the compost for the herb garden and the rest of the "compound". I consider the ladies dream employees, although by the time we buy the extra feed, each egg ends up costing about a buck.

The most embarrassing thing you ever did as a chef: Okay, I SHOULD be embarrassed by this, but I am actually proud. Years ago, a creepy old man sent back his soup twice, claiming it wasn't hot enough. Well, I was the one heating the soup, and I KNEW it was plenty hot. So the third time I put the empty bowl in the 500-degree convection oven to "warm", heated the soup in a pot until it was sputtering, and then I put his soup spoon in the burner flame to heat it. When I poured the soup into the incinerator-hot bowl, it literally boiled up. I then set the bowl and red hot spoon onto an under-liner, handed it to the runner, and voila! The lovely gentleman howled and threw his spoon across the table, yelling, "She's trying to kill me!" Sick? I think not.

Name a giant in the American food scene and explain why you admire this person: Mario Batali. I love the way he explains the cooking process, the history of a dish, etc. and he always seems to be having fun.

Name a culinary mentor and explain what you learned from that person: Nancy Silverton. I've never met a harder working woman. A task master and perfectionist, she made me aware that as a chef/owner, even if you have to be ready to do everything at any moment and all by yourself, you should never lower your standards.

What's your guiding principle about cooking?: Enhance flavors rather than manipulate them.

Name two local dishes you love to eat: That octopus situation at Davanti (but only when Chef Peter is in the kitchen) and the Clare Burrito at Restaurant Mexico. Who would you most like to cook for?: Colman Andrews and Ruth Reichl.

You make a lot of cracks about male chefs. Care to expand on that? I'm always dishing shit on boy chefs because I find so many of them SO competitive, so interested in showing off or trying to prove something. Yes, that's a gross generalization, but it's my experience. A wise woman I know once said: " Women cook to please; men cook to impress." Discuss.

Coming up as a young cook, did you find that being a female put you at a disadvantage?: I was extremely fortunate to have fantastic female role models/mentors. It never occurred to me that I was disadvantaged. I just always felt that if I did my very best work and didn't make excuses, then I would succeed. My family instilled in me a tremendous work ethic: do your best, do it right the first time, don't expect praise just for doing your job well. The only time I remember feeling the gender issue was when I was working in Napa Valley for a male japanese chef [Hiro Sone]. Of course, I was working pantry/garde manger (that's where woman are put), and I asked to learn the mesquite grill.

People sometimes call you Arizona's Alice Waters. How do you feel about the comparison?: Hell, there is no way I would ever compare myself to Alice Waters. It's a great compliment to me, but I don't have a fraction of her single-minded passion, her dedication to her vision & her beliefs. To me, she is a purist. I am definitely not a purist. She is a HUGE inspiration to me, but I'm not even in her league.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper recently said to me that one of her issues with "local, organic, sustainable" was that only 10% of the population could afford to eat that way. Your thoughts?: I agree. I read a lot about this issue, the elite aspect of it. While the increased awareness of how our food is grown, processed, transported, etc has really educated people, there is still a long way to go before everyone sees the benefit of better, cleaner food. I think we have gotten used to paying too little for our food. The true cost of local/organic/sustainable food is higher than many people can afford.

His answer was "What? Nooo!" I asked again. Same answer. Finally the male sous chef said, "If you want to learn, you're gonna have to come in on your day off. I'll show you how." So I did. After two days of my coming in on my day off, chef finally relented and said "Okay!" and here's the crazy part: I only worked about 11 shifts on that grill before I moved back to Arizona and opened my own restaurant! Talk about naïve! On another note, as a female owner, I feel like some male employees view me as "mommy" or "the bitch" when it comes time for criticism or corrections, reacting in childish ways. Just an observation . . .

Last meal on earth: A sandwich of La Brea olive bread, grilled over mesquite, rubbed with a wee bit of fresh garlic, homemade mayo, a few leaves of arugula, slices of perfectly ripe Brandywine tomato, a few drops of fine olive oil, sea salt & freshly ground black pepper. RIP!

What should be written on your head stone?: "Runner! I need a runner!!"

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot 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