Is comfort food here to stay?: Definitely. However, I define comfort food as food which is approachable and familiar, and in the end, eating it makes you comfortable. Comfort food is not necessarily a 2,000 calorie plate of meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy.
Five words to describe you: Happy, grateful, curious, optimistic, determined.
Four words to describe Café ZuZu: Fresh, beautiful, seasonal, unfussy.
Describe the American food scene 20 years ago: A few pockets of inspiration.
Describe it now: Many, many more pockets of inspiration! There are so many more choices, so much more beautiful food now than 20 years ago -- chefs, farmers and artisans all over the country creating something wonderful.
The great thing about being a chef is: Being surrounded by beautiful food.
The tough thing about being a chef is: You're only as good as your last plate.
The most fun I've ever had in the kitchen was: During those fleeting, yet constantly recurring "Golden Ages" when you're cooking and working with people you genuinely enjoy and respect, and together you are creating something truly inspired. I get high just thinking about it. If our cooking and eating habits explain our culture, what do our cooking/eating habits say about us now?: Look at the local farmers markets and Whole Foods. They're packed! Sure, there are still plenty of processed junk and marginal restaurants out there, but people care more than ever about what they're eating and how that food makes them feel . . . finally! I love it!
Has your cooking changed over the years? If so, how?: I've become more in tune with ingredients and how they interact. I don't force things anymore or fuss over them. Recalling perfect flavor and texture marriages; I've worked my whole life to get here.
Name a giant in the American food scene and explain why you admire this person: Danny Meyers. He understands the meaning and the power of true hospitality. Gramercy Tavern to me is the epitome of a great restaurant experience in every way.
Name a culinary mentor and explain what you learned from that person: Bill Nassikas. He taught me more about food than any chef ever has. He taught me about leadership, about the importance of relationships, about attention to detail. He sets an example that is impossible to achieve although I never stop trying. He reeled me in during my younger years when my food got goofy. Name a local chef (or two) you admire and explain why: Beau MacMillan. He has an awesome palate and is one of the most prolific chefs I've ever worked with. Some of the best years of my career were cooking alongside Beau. And Kevin Binkley. His food is light, beautiful and imaginative; he can orchestrate a tasting menu like no one I've ever seen.
Phoenix will be a better restaurant town when: The market dictates everything. The bar is constantly being raised; we are headed in the right direction but it has to evolve naturally.
What's your guiding principle about cooking?: Keep it fresh and exercise restraint.
Last meal on earth -- what would it be?: A pot of steamed king crab legs, sitting on a pier on the Homer Spit in Alaska, cutting them open with tin snips and dipping them in melted butter. Oh yeah, and a loaf of levain from Acme Bakery, and some braised rainbow chard with golden beets; maybe a little crumbled goat cheese on top with torn basil. Some oysters and uni to start with a cold bottle of Meursault wouldn't hurt either. Maybe a bowl of fraises des bois from Chino Farm and a glass of Chateau d'Yquem.
What should be written on your head stone?: "These are the Days."
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: 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