Kevin Binkley on Loving In-N-Out Burger and Why Squash Blossoms Are Overrated

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Kevin Binkley Binkley's Restaurant 6920 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek 480-437-1072 www.binkleysrestaurant.com

Cafe Bink 36889 N. Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree 480-488-9796 www.cafebink.com

This is part one of my interview with Kevin Binkley, chef-owner of Binkley's Restaurant and Café Bink. You can read part two of the interview with Kevin Binkley in which he names his favorite local and national restaurants and tells us how he met his wife Amy.

You'd never know it from his professional demeanor at Binkley's Restaurant, but Kevin Binkley is a goofball at heart -- a completely unpretentious guy who wears dopey tennis shoes, rides a long board and mercilessly teases the people he likes most.

Behind the quiet, intelligent eyes lives a boy who's learned to navigate the adult world without fully endorsing it and an adult who embraces the "work hard, play hard" ethic to the hilt.

Binkley, who started working in restaurants at the age of 14, wasn't remotely clear on a career path when he attended East Carolina University in the early 90s, taking art and music classes and cooking (always cooking) in the summer.

When the university told him he needed to declare a major or move on, he moved on, taking a restaurant gig in New Orleans, where a buddy and recent graduate of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) asked him if he'd ever considered culinary school.

Still unsure what to do, Binkley followed his parents to Arizona (they had recently moved here), with the vague thought of attending ASU. But once he arrived, he decided to take his friend's advice and enrolled at SCI (Scottsdale Culinary Institute) instead, working at Black Angus while going to school. His first high-end gig was garde manger at Tarbell's.

Eight months later (in 1995), he took an extern position at the Inn at Little Washington, a luxury country inn and restaurant located in Washington, Virginia. The Inn, which has won four James Beard Awards, is consistently ranked #1 for food by various publications (including Zagat Survey and Travel & Leisure Magazine), as well as repeatedly earning five stars and five diamonds for food and accommodations from Mobil Travel Guide and AAA respectively. Binkley was assigned one task at the inn: frying garnish. "I got very good on the mandoline and the fryer," he says, adding, "I thought it was a miracle I was even there."

Two and a half years later, he was made sous chef, and a year after that, executive sous. At 25, he had 30 employees working under him at one of the best restaurant kitchens in the country.

While he was at the Inn, Binkley met Amy, who would later become his wife. At the time, she was higher up the ladder than he was.

Binkley left in 2000 to work for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, where he stayed for a year and half. Because he wanted bakeshop experience, he took a job at Palisades Market in Calistoga, CA, staying for six months while looking for work in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Amy was learning everything she could about wine, bringing her expertise to the wine list at both Binkley's and Cafe Bink.

In 2002, Binkley landed an executive chef position at Crew in El Pedregal, where he slowly worked to transform the restaurant until it closed mid-2003. "I learned a lot about what not to do from the management side," Binkley says, "and learning what NOT to do is extremely important."

During his stint at Crew, Binkley hired Brandon Gauthier, his current chef de cuisine at Binkley's Restaurant, as well as a handful of other young cooks who would follow him to Binkley's when he opened in 2004. "Crew is where we started coming up with ideas, where Binkley's essentially started."

Binkley has been nominated for the James Beard Award, Best Chef Southwest, every year since 2005. This year, he made it to the finals but didn't win.

The chef is very interested in opening a restaurant in Scottsdale, but he's waiting for the right opportunity. Down the line, he hopes to open another Café Bink, a Bar Bink and a restaurant that's "vegetable-driven." Five words to describe you: ADD, hungry, thirsty, fat and one-track mind (everything food).

Five words to describe your restaurant:Small, intimate, different, welcoming and honest.

Name the ingredient/dish you can't live without: Salt. We salt everything here, but sometimes not so that you can taste the salt but just to bring out the food's flavor. Take chocolate, for example. If there's no salt in it, I don't want it. Well, that's probably not true. I always want chocolate.

What's your guilty pleasure: Food. I have to control myself. I love to eat... all the time.

But a guilty pleasure is something you're a little ashamed to admit eating, like a Ding Dong: Oh. We eat at In-N-Out Burger every once in a while. Does that count?

Most over-rated ingredient: Squash blossoms. I like them, but I don't understand the hype. It's like nature's hog casing, but you can't get it to snap.

Most under-rated ingredient: Celery. It's rare that you see it on a menu. It's mostly used for soup/stock bases. On it's own, raw or cooked, I love it.

Who's on your iPod: Everything from Black Sabbath to Parliament Funk.

Best word to describe the atmosphere in Binkley's kitchen: Family. We spend so many hours together on a daily basis. We're very tight. Unfortunately, I spend more time with these guys than I do with my wife.

Best food memory: pressing grilled cheese sandwiches to squish them down with my grandma.

Check out part two of my interview with Kevin Binkley.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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