Kelly Fletcher House of Tricks 114 E. Seventh Street, Tempe 480-968-1114, houseoftricks.com
This is part one of my interview with Kelly Fletcher, executive chef at House of Tricks in Tempe. Come back tomorrow when Fletcher dishes about Thomas Keller and Chris Bianco -- and writes a clever limerick for his headstone.
A friend recently reminded me that I once had written this of Bernie Kantak: "He's like God. I've never seen him, but I know he exists." Until yesterday, I could have said the same thing about Kelly Fletcher, a funny, self-possessed guy so woven into the fabric of our local food culture that it's a wonder I'd never laid eyes on him before. He's worked at Tricks for 10 years now (give or take, he's terrible with dates), and in that time, he's put his quirky stamp on the place, creating wildly eclectic menus that reflect his wide-ranging interest in cuisines with bold flavor profiles. Mexican food is Fletcher's first love, Korean a more recent inamorata, and ingredients culled from both countries show up frequently on his labyrinthine menu.
Fletcher, who says he "grew up extremely poor" in Mesa, worked in kitchens by age 14, giving part of his paycheck to his mother to help her pay the monthly bills. He credits her for his early interest in food, explaining that she was a terrific cook with family roots in Louisiana. After high school, he attended Scottsdale Culinary Institute, taking his first legit job at The Buttes, where he worked as prep cook and line cook, staying on for two years before looking for another gig. Why did he leave? "Because I hate corporate America and can't work in a corporate environment," he says, adding, "I'm an HR nightmare." His "big move" (and clearly the one he considers his first great on-the-job learning experience) was to Sixth Avenue Bistro in Old Town, where he worked under Francois Simorte, doing straight-up French food and honing his skills as a saucier. Fletcher stuck around for nearly three years but finally "hit a wall" after an extensive trip through Mexico. "I had a more eclectic outlook," he explains, "and I wanted to bring flavors together."
He landed at House of Tricks somewhere around 2003, where he met Cullen Campbell, who worked nights while Fletcher worked days. Fletcher eventually moved to nights as well, working alongside Campbell for a time. Nobody had formal titles. The kitchen was too small for that. "Bob [owner Robert Trick] was excited to have me on board because of my extensive French background," Fletcher says, adding that when Campbell left and Fletcher took over the kitchen, there was a "long grace period" before Robert and his wife Robin were comfortable enough to give him free rein. He's been doing his own thing for years now, and his adventurous approach has made House of Tricks a beloved staple for Southeast Valley food-lovers hungry for sophistication.
Five words to describe you: Passionate, loyal, adventurous, gregarious, gluttonous.
Five words to describe House of Tricks: Romantic, al fresco, charming, welcoming, original.
Favorite food smell: Melting duck fat -- it's erotic, almost sexual.
Favorite cookbook: Larousse Gastronomique. It's the stuff you should know but also continually revisit.
Ingredient you love to cook with: Foie gras. It's sensual and still slightly taboo. My love for it will never end.
Most overrated ingredient: Celery. It's a necessary evil that I don't love. I'll usually avoid it at all cost.
Most underrated ingredient: White pepper. It's the only pepper I use in my kitchen. I'm not fond of the appearance of black pepper.
Something always found in your kitchen: Laughter -- we laugh and joke so much. If it weren't for the amount of fun, we have we would all go insane.
Something never found in your kitchen: I know we used it on Mother's Day, but I don't like phyllo. It's messy after it's been cooked, and it's frustrating to work with. People that use it well deserve trophies.
Something always found in your fridge at home: Peanut M&M's. I can and have lived on them.
You're relaxing on a night off. What are you drinking?: Vouvrey Chenin Blanc is my true love. If it's not wine, it's Fernet.
And eating?: That's a tough one, because I'm probably restaurant hopping from place to place.
And listening to or watching?: I haven't watched TV in over a year, so I can almost guarantee you I'm listening to DeVotchKa.
Two or three favorite local restaurants:
1. Hana Japanese. Lori Hashimoto is an amazing chef and an even more amazing person. You can actually taste the love in what she's doing.
2. Posh. Nobody is doing what Josh Hebert does. He's so far outside the box and such a great risk taker. He really brings a lot to the Valley dining scene.
3. Citizen Public House. These guys are like my brothers. Richie [Moe], Bernie [Kantak] , and Andrew [Fritz] bring an incredible dynamic to every aspect of life. They're smart, cutting edge, passionate, and thoughtful. Every time I talk to these guys, I feel like I walk away having learned something new.
Best meal you've had in the last year: I'm going to give this one to Lori Hashimoto at Hana Japanese. She brings the most complete, sexy, perfectly executed experience I can say that I've had. Her ankimo is the absolute best thing you'll ever eat. The first time that I dined there, she just kept sending out plates of amazing seafood. The softest abalone, the most incredible uni. It's the kind of experience that makes you leave frustrated because you wish that you could do what she does. I love that lady; she transcends flavors.
What's the next big thing on the food scene?: I think you're going to see "Cronuts" explode at any moment now. It's croissant donuts, exactly what we all need.
What finally seems to be going away?: I don't think that the cupcake craze is going to stay afloat much longer, but I'm not saying that I want it to go.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Helen Yung of Sweet Republic Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai 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 Chris Bianco, Pizzeria Bianco, Bar Bianco, Pane Bianco and Trattoria Bianco Ehren Litzenberger, BLD Matt Taylor, Market Street Kitchen