Lester Gonzalez Cowboy Ciao 7133 E. Stetson Drive Scottsdale
This is part one of our interview with Lester Gonzalez, executive chef at Cowboy Ciao. Check back on Tuesday to learn more about one of Scottsdale's busiest chefs, including his kitchen pet peeve and the one comfort food he wishes he could re-create.
Lester Gonzalez is one laid-back dude. Upon meeting him, you'd have no idea that the guy's spinning multiple plates, all of them full. As executive chef at Cowboy Ciao, Gonzalez isn't only responsible for overseeing the kitchen at its original Old Town Scottsdale location, as well as all the holiday events they've got scheduled (last week, the restaurant hosted 11 private events in five days), he's also accountable for making sure things run smoothly at their new location in the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
Barely a month old, this travel sized Cowboy Ciao has undergone some major changes, all of which have been tended to by Gonzalez himself. With a new kitchen, new dishes, and a new staff in need of some high-level training, Gonzalez's time is definitely sliced thin.
But Gonzalez couldn't be more excited (if not a little exhausted) with the new expansion. "It's brand new, so it's always fun to see things develop from start to finish." And Gonzalez has already seen his fair share of changes at Cowboy Ciao. He's been with the restaurant for 11 years, starting out in the pantry, working his way up to sous chef at sister spot Kazimierz, and ultimately returning to take the lead at Ciao.
This has all been in part thanks to his education at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, which was paid for by the Colorado River Indian Tribe community where he grew up. Gonzalez is part Mohave and Chemehuevi and grew up outside the small town of Parker, Arizona along the Colorado River.
Like all of his peers, Gonzalez was offered the chance at a free education, but he and only a handful of others took advantage of the opportunity. After graduating from culinary school, Gonzalez worked briefly for Le Cordon Bleu before being hired by Cowboy Ciao where he's remained ever since.
Five words to describe you: Laid-back and funny (that's it).
Five words to describe Cowboy Ciao: Adventurous modern American [with] global influences.
Favorite food smell: Baked goods. Country [Cowboy Ciao pastry chef Country Velador] always pulls that off in the morning with all of her cookies and bread puddings. And her housemade pretzels -- oh, my God.
Dish/trend or catchphrase you wish would go away and why: People just making cupcakes out of everything. There are cupcake shops everywhere. And I can't justify paying $4 for a cupcake.
Trend you wish would get started: I want pot pies to be the new thing.
Culinary daydream: I wouldn't mind having a food truck. I could just drive back from the restaurant and the airport just stopping here and there . . .
What would your food truck specialize in?: It would be comfort. I'm a comfort guy. I like comfort food. I could go anywhere from tacos to barbecue to maybe even sticking a pizza oven in there. Gourmet style but still comforting.
Favorite dish at Cowboy Ciao: I'm a huge fan of the scallops. That's actually a dish that was created by my sous chef, Garrison Whiting
Favorite cuisine: I'm a huge sucker for Chinese. I love Chinese. There's a small place up on Bell and Tatum called Wang Express. Love those guys.
Weirdest thing you ever ate:Balut, which is a delicacy in the Philippines. They take the egg of a duckling when it's like two weeks out from being hatched. Then you boil it for a short amount of time, you crack the top of it, and you suck out the juice and you just peel it back. I've seen classmates gag.
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It wasn't as bad as you might think as long as you don't think about it because you're essentially eating the embryo. I think you've always got to try something at least once. If you don't like it that's fine -- at least you tried.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki Buchanan's previous interviews with: M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen 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
Note: This post was edited from its original version.