Joshua Johnson Kai at Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa 5594 W. Wildhorse Pass Boulevard, Chandler 602-225-0100 www.wildhorsepass.com
This is part one of my interview with Joshua Johnson, chef de cuisine at Kai at Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. Come back Tuesday when Johnson dishes about Guy Fieri and why he likes to eat at MIM.
Josh Johnson grew up in a small town in Wyoming, where the words "fine dining" were never uttered. He hunted with his six brothers and learned to cook from his dad, who made red and green chile for Christmas dinner. You probably couldn't have told him he'd someday be chef de cuisine of the only five-diamond, five-star restaurant in the sixth largest city in the country. And if you had, he wouldn't have been impressed. He's a humble, down-to-earth guy whose rugged upbringing in the oil and gas fields of Wyoming taught him about working hard and keeping your head down -- even when fancy-pants chefs throw pots and pans in your general direction.
Johnson, who knew Wyoming offered him nothing he wanted, gave serious thought to what he wanted to do with his life, enrolling at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland because he loved the town and the school had earned a good reputation. Upon graduation, he externed at Jenny Lake Lodge, a four-star, four-diamond resort at the time, nestled at the base of the Grand Tetons, later moving to Lutece in Las Vegas, where he worked under celebrity chef David Feau. "I was thrown into the meat grinder, and it was the most stressful time of my life," Johnson says, "but I learned a lot and overcame a lot," a tough thing for a young guy raised to hold his ground.
From Vegas, Johnson moved to the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, where he remained for two years before moving on, always eager to challenge himself in a new environment. He says that between Vegas and Jackson Hole, he "never cooked for more famous people in my life" -- everyone from La Toya Jackson to George W. Bush. After a brief stint at Nikai, a premier sushi restaurant in Jackson Hole (where Johnson got a great education in fish), he moved to Phoenix with a friend.
Although he'd thoroughly researched job opportunities, all it took was one stage at Kai and that was it. "I'd never seen the product they were using -- all these beans and chiles -- and I knew this was another thing I needed to learn." He's been at Kai for six years now, admitting that there's a certain amount of pressure in maintaining the restaurant's stellar reputation. "You're making the playoffs every year and the year you don't, the coaches start disappearing." It's probably good to stay nervous, but we're guessing Johnson is on solid ground.
Five words to describe you: Loyal, hard-working, stubborn and honest.
Five words to describe Kai: Memorable, roots, family, unique and humble.
Favorite food smell: Garlic, cumin.
Most over-rated ingredient: Flowers. You cannot just throw a flower on a dish and call it "pretty."
Most under-rated ingredient: Black garlic. It's the noble rot of garlic. I love its flavor profile -- sweet with a hint of molasses.
Weirdest thing you ever ate: Antelope liver. In my family, we lived and survived off of what we hunted, and we didn't let anything go to waste. Whoever got the first kill had to make liver and onions for camp.
Best food memory: One night during my time at the Four Seasons Jackson Hole, we lost all power due to a storm. This happened right before dinner service, so we had to create a ton of last minute food on the fly with only head lamps to see. We wound up making the best and most fresh cuisine using only a small grill. And we turned it out in true Four Seasons-style.
If your cooking were a genre of music, what would it be?: No specific genre, just so long as it makes you want to close your eyes, bob your head and it takes you to a certain place in time. And, so long as it's the kind of song you want to play time and again.
Your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Has to be when I spilled the poaching liquid for the poussin all over my leg right in front of the chef (a two-star Michelin chef no less), and he just laughed at me. I don't know what hurt worse -- the 180-degree water down my leg or my bruised ego.
What really turns you off when you're dining at a restaurant?: I really hate pretentiousness, dirtiness and weak drinks.
Favorite thing to eat growing up: My dad's red and green chili with homemade flour tortillas.
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Favorite thing to eat now: Fresh fish, just about any way I can get it.
What's your guilty pleasure?: Chocolate-covered almonds and Crow's Dairy Butter Pecan Cheesecake.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao 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