Chef News

Holly Arguello of Mother Bunch Brewery on Pairing Food and Beer, Pickling, and Pork Belly

When Mother Bunch Brewing opened last September, craft beer fans and downtown residents were excited to try the robust selection of craft beers. But thanks to head chef Holly Arguello, Mother Bunch has become popular among food enthusiasts as well because of its pub food, including homemade pork rinds, sweet potato burgers, and ahi tuna melts.

Friendly and down-to-earth, Arguello grew up in Phoenix and worked in both Colorado and Utah before returning to her hometown. Now 37, Arguello has worked in kitchens since she was 15 years old. When Mother Bunch owners Julie Meeker and Jimmy McBride invited Arguello to create the menu for the brewery, she spent months tasting beer, trying recipes, and creating ever-meatier entrées.

Mother Bunch occupies a carefully renovated historic brick building near Roosevelt Row. But the kitchen is brand new, giving Arguello the chance to start a place from scratch.

What is your background, in terms of cuisine?
I graduated from Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 2004, so I am French culinary trained. However, being a Phoenix native, I love anything spicy. At home, when I cook, the go-to is Mexican food. I want you to feel good after you’ve eaten my food, and maybe you learned something; maybe you would be able to apply it at your own house one day. I don’t want it to be stuffy. I don’t want my food to be hard to understand.

Much of the menu has this “tough guy” attitude, with lots of meat and spice. I think one of the breakfasts has something sweet, but it also had jalapeño.
Oh, the Brewery’s Breakfast Sandwich? Yeah, I make a raspberry-jalapeño jam, and then I bring in an all-natural peanut butter, and then we do seared pork belly on toasted sourdough.

That's an ingredient in several of the dishes, yes?
The pork belly? A few, yeah. I had never worked with pork belly before. There are trends with food, and I think that been a trending thing the last few years. Fennel’s been a big thing lately, too. I really like to pickle things, so I do a lot of pickled items on my menu as well — I’ll sneak it in here and there. I don’t know if it’s the German-Irish-Polish in me.

Why pickling?
Some people have a sweet tooth. I think I have like a salty, vinegar tooth. That’s what I like. I think it just gives another dimension, it brings out some of the flavors in the other foods. Every sandwich here, you get homemade pickles. Now, I’m a big fan of dill pickles, but Julie said her mom always made her bread and butter pickles. She asked if I could make bread and butter pickles, and I said, “Of course.”

Speaking of pairings, how did you figure out the relationship between the beer and the food?
I tasted some of the beers. When Julie and I were getting to know each other, she said, “I don’t want you to say yes right away. I want you to try my beer and see where I’m coming from.” So one day I invited her over for dinner. It was just her and I, and she brought me a couple of her bottled beers from home. I was just blown away because I was never so into craft beer, like some people. And she just awakened that in me, to branch out and try more craft beers. I started cooking with beer, and I put beer in everything. It takes the place of wine. It’s so fun.

A lot of people have described the Mother Bunch menu as “elevated pub food.” How do you think of pub food?
Well, the original concept of this place was to be your old-fashioned public house, where people would come to get their gossip and their news, and talk about their crops and meet their neighbors, and just have a good social time. I took that theme and thought, “What can we put on the table that people are going to to share and be excited to talk about?” The burgers are something I took off with, because they’re massive. And I thought, “How can I make this even more over-the-top?” The most popular burger right now is the Western Burger, and it’s a 9-ounce custom grind on the beef, and then we put smoked tri-tip on the top, and melted cheddar, crispy fried onions, barbeque sauce, aioli, my homemade pickled jalapeños — and that is my best-selling burger. People see it come out and they say, “Oh, my goodness, look how big that thing is!” But I’ve seen little kids sit down and eat the whole thing.

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Robert Isenberg