Cafe Reviews

Menu for a Small Planet

Cafe heavy-hitter Howard Seftel is on vacation. This week, we've asked chef RoxSand Scocos, who, with her husband Spyros, owns RoxSand restaurant and bar (2594 East Camelback), to step up to the plate, so to speak. She's just taped a slot for PBS' America's Rising Star Chefs, is slated for the September cover of Bon Appetit -- the first human ever to grace that mag's cover -- and her restaurant gets touted in an upcoming issue of Travel and Leisure. But she's not talked out yet. Here she expounds on revolutionizing food resources in the Valley.

Ten years ago, when RoxSand opened, most restaurants here were fairly traditional--either formal fine-dining rooms, chain restaurants or cowboy places and steak restaurants, what my husband calls "meat palaces." They served their diners' needs, gave them what they wanted, didn't ask anything of them. It was a way of filling your tummy enjoyably with predictable meals.

When I came in, I gave people something unfamiliar. I wanted to let them explore other more enjoyable, healthy and satisfying ways to go about eating. We put a strong emphasis on vegetables. Meat remains in the center of many of our plates, much to my chagrin, but I prefer to minimize the importance of meat on the plate. It's a matter of making the side dishes more interesting than the meat. That's easy to do because meat is so boring. Our dishes are a diverse ethnic mix with a lot of Asian and Mediterranean influences. And they ask something of the diner.

From the beginning, we appealed to a small, loyal few. Back then, Rich Melman (he owns Tucchetti here), the Chicago restaurant icon, who remains a frequent customer, told me, "I'd never open a restaurant like yours--you appeal to such a small segment of the population."

That was many years ago and Rich was right, but that has changed.
Slowly, other more diverse restaurants have opened. Rancho Pinot Grill and Pizzeria Bianco, for example, are doing their own shtick. Like ours, their relationship with the client is intimate, one-on-one. We respect the clientele and give it something of real value that allows for pleasant discoveries.

We also share another important value. Through our menus and our business practices, we encourage biodiversity. In a nutshell, that means preparing most of our food from the lower end of the food chain--fruits, vegetables and grains--and using less meat.

Consuming huge amounts of meat is a recent American phenomenon. At the turn of the century, we produced only half as much meat per person as we do today. People need to understand the impact that beef consumption in particular has on the planet. Five thousand gallons of water are required to produce one pound of beef. Compare that to the water needed to grow a pound of potatoes: 24 gallons; or a pound of apples: 49 gallons. One by-product of our overconsumption of beef is a depletion of the water table in the West where cattle are raised. Another is vast water pollution as a direct result of manure run-off. Annually, cattle produce 6,000 pounds of manure per U.S. citizen. Right now one-half of the wells in rural America are believed to be polluted with nitrates from fertilizers consumed by cattle.

As a restaurant owner, to me that means choosing to look at my impact on the ecosystem and doing something about it, perhaps on a larger scale than an individual would.

Therefore, I propose that Phoenix dining is ready for a change. I believe this is an opportunity to say what I think and that New Times is the right place to do that.

To understand what needs to be done, first, let's look at where we are. Within memory, the biggest step backward that Phoenix dining has seen is the recent arrival of Morton's: The Steakhouse. What an insult to anybody who has an ounce of intelligence. I am so offended by that restaurant. Meat there is presented in a way that is obscene. The raw meat, the raw lobster, the side of pork, the swordfish steak, rolled up to your table--in 16- and 24-once portions! The raw potato in the waiter's hand. Why see the raw porterhouse or filet? Does Morton's management feel that the diner doesn't know what a porterhouse is? Or a potato? It's condescending. Then you have this jerky waiter who could be smacking gum--there's just no sense of gentility at all. Pair that with the outrageous prices. Give me a break.

There are very few restaurants that I hold so strong an opinion about. Perhaps it's not wise to be so condemning of Morton's, but I believe it's worthy of condemnation. What's worse is that so many people don't realize when they eat those racks of flesh what their impact is on the environment. It's not just the pleasure of what's on your plate, and it's not even the taste factor--it's the environmental factor. It's an absolutely archaic way of eating, given that we live in an age of diminishing resources. Each of us needs only 50 grams of protein a day, yet the average American consumes twice that. How many grams of protein do you get out of 16 or 24 ounces of flesh?

That's why we need to focus on sustainable agriculture, renewable resources and the politics of food. In Phoenix, now is a very good time to "think globally and act locally" where dining is concerned. We need to grow good, nutritious meat alternatives.

I'm on the board of overseers for Chefs Collaborative 2000, a Boston-based group that is trying to foster a farmer-chef connection and encourages growing and consuming organic produce locally, among other socially responsible goals. I have hesitated to announce our position locally because I want to make sure that we can do it. By that, I mean I want to be sure that I can successfully partner with the farmer. I don't want to give false information to my clientele. I can tell you right now that about 80 percent of what we're bringing in is organically grown locally. Our meat isn't produced here, nor is our poultry. But we are currently involved in locating and cultivating resources. It's an ongoing process.

Key to the process is the farmer-chef relationship. Rather than letting a farmer's land be sold for a strip mall or a housing development, restaurants need to join farmers to help make agriculture as financially viable as development. When land becomes a strip mall, it's gone forever and it will never come back. We all have some serious questions to examine now because the land is disappearing.

I am committed to local farming. I have a friend, Wayne Smith, who is a land planner and landscape architect by trade and education. But he also is at a stage in his life where he is doing something he really wants to do: organic farming. So he has bought five acres of land--The Farm at South Mountain--which he's been grooming for the last couple of years. He and I now work together to plan for RoxSand's produce needs. He also grows for his own small lunch place and for a small farmers' market. We are working with other local growers to get what can't be produced by South Mountain.

When consumers work with local growers, it lets them know exactly what and how much to plant. That eliminates the cost of waste as well as that of transporting surplus goods to distant markets. But it takes a commitment from the consumer because the farmer puts a lot on the line.

Obviously, the partnership asks something of the restaurant owner. It also asks something of the people who work in the restaurant--in the kitchen. The goods are so fragile; but on the other hand, so fresh that they will last longer.

Using organic produce asks something of the public, too. Organically grown produce is rarely uniform. Tomatoes and potatoes may not have the symmetry that we're accustomed to. But I have found that the public really appreciates a thing that is irregular. It's part of its beauty. People want good things. They don't want to be polluted. They don't want their kids to have birth defects from nitrates in the water supply.

The problems are not monumental. In more traditional societies, people have been doing this forever and ever. It's only a matter of making the effort.

The biggest problem we have is distribution. It's hard for the farmers to do the growing and then bring the produce to market--when there is no market here.

In other cities, there's a green market, a large center or warehouse where farmers drop off their stuff, and you, as an individual or a restaurant owner, can go and buy what you want. San Francisco, Boston, Berkeley, New York City all have green markets, but we don't. We have gone down this path so many times over the last ten years--why must it always be a dead end?

Maybe it requires somebody to step up to bat and actually finance a green market. How about it, City Council?

This suggests a larger problem. Why are we so set in our ways? Let's make people realize that there are better ways to do things. My hope is not to settle for this level of complacency. People are not getting the quality that they deserve. As consumers, they're settling for second and third best. It doesn't have to be that way.

Arizona is the third-largest agricultural producer in the country. But nearly all of its produce gets shipped away. It's happening everywhere. My ex-partner in Hawaii asked me what I pay for Hawaiian ahi. It turns out he's paying $4 more per pound than what I'm paying and he's getting a lower grade. All of the prime grade ahi from Hawaii is being shipped off the island.

It's the politics of food. It's why Hawaiians now weigh 300 pounds. They're no longer eating their indigenous diet. It's the same for the Pima Indians. In order to get our indigenous foods back--there are no better melons than Arizona melons--farmers have to be able to transport melons here, and they need a market.

Just imagine their overflowing trucks rolling in from Chino Valley, from Queen Creek and down from the White Mountains. We could support a central market; the population base is here. There is the demand. And we have a growing season that lasts longer than almost anyone else's. It's a matter of not having our wealth shipped off to the L.A. market. And New York.

The long and short of it is that we haven't come nearly as far as we can. We are a resort community with fabulous first-rate resorts. And when that kind of purchasing power drives the economy, its influence is massive. The resorts have a lot of financial resources, and they could begin to introduce the principles of biodiversity in their restaurants, starting with their smaller venues. They could really support the agricultural community here and are in a very good position to make some very progressive and responsible choices; it remains to be seen whether they will. It's a matter of consciousness. We could do it in this community. It could happen here.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying meat; there is something wrong with consuming it in amounts that threaten our health and environment. And fine dining is more than just consuming protein. It's culture. What we eat is representative of who we are as a culture. It makes me sad to think that Morton's: The Steakhouse is representative of our culture. There's something wrong with that picture.

Looking at my restaurant, Chris Bianco's place, Chrissa Kaufman's Rancho Pinot Grill--these are not fancy places. But they're places that have a sensitivity. It's not just serving food because it makes money, but also to feed the soul. It makes the diner happy and healthy. And it's respectful of people, respectful of the environment, respectful of the end-user. The whole picture makes sense. That's the picture that will take us to the next millennium with pride--and it will be sustainable.

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RoxSand Scocos