Chef News

Dave Johnson of Ocotillo in Phoenix on Hospitality, Sustainability, and Restaurant Ownership

Dave Johnson, general manager and sommelier for the recently opened Ocotillo, has been in the restaurant business in the Valley for quite a while. Previously, he worked with Ocotillo co-chefs Sacha Levine and Walter Sterling at Scottsdale's long-gone Sol Y Sombra, but his résumé and reputation as a beverage expert go back even further than that.

Over the years, he's worked the front of the house at well-known local spots such as Quiessence and Atlas Bistro, as well as at the short-lived but well-received Davanti Enoteca in Scottsdale. Along the way, the restaurant vet has picked up his fair share of industry wisdom, which he puts to use at his most recent endeavor, Ocotillo, a colossal compound located near the intersection of Third Street and Flower in Central Phoenix. Comprising a restaurant, coffee shop, and beer garden, the project aims to offer something for just about every kind of diner, with Johnson at the helm to oversee it all. 

"You can't just have good food anymore," Johnson says. "You have to have fun. Restaurants are theater. People used to go see a play or to the movies, now they go to a restaurant — it's the most egalitarian thing we have to do: We have to eat."

On the hospitality business:

"I love hospitality. I love people, and I'm always happy when people come up and talk to me. I don't know how anyone can be in this business and not like people."

On the biggest challenges of restaurant ownership: 

"People are most temperamental when they're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. My biggest daily challenge is making that unhappy customer happy. You gotta remember that their experience is directly tied to you."

On midtown Phoenix:

"I love this area, and I've fallen in love with the feel of the neighborhood. I think you can expect to see a lot of infill here in the future. I remember when I first came here, everyone said that [something like Ocotillo] couldn't be done."

On sustainability:

"We're trying to respect the desert. In Phoenix, I'd like to see solar, and a better use of water. We've got a beautiful desert, we should embrace it. Look at Tucson, compared to different neighborhoods here. They seem to have made use of the desert a lot better there. Here, in some older neighborhoods, it looks like you're in Chicago or something."

On dining out: 

"I like little, out-of-the-way ethnic restaurants — places that have their own niche. I'm not above Taco Bell or whatever every now and then, though."

On his collection of antique culinary accessories: 

"I collect wine crystals, tiki mugs, bar accessories, decanters, all sorts of culinary- and wine-related things, much to the chagrin of my wife. I like people that have antique homes and actually use them. I've slowed down a little just because there's no more room. History is wine, wine is history." He said experience is important. "My big thing is being a student of life. Lots of experts in their field have never actually done anything in their field."

On favorites

"I don't have a favorite wine or vintage or region or vineyard or whatever. Like, I wouldn't say, 'Oh, I only drink Pinot.' There are so many different pairings. When people say they don't like a wine, I ask, 'What about it don't you like? Do you really not like it, or is it just not your cup of tea?' It's like, I like all dogs. I don't have a favorite."

On good dining:

"You need a great place, great food, and a great price."

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona journalist whose reporting interests include urbanism, business, real estate and dining.