The quest for edible loot begins at 4:15 a.m. Three cars meet in a parking lot in the rural reaches of north Phoenix, at a gas station on the northern fringe of America’s great desert, the Sonoran. Jaren Bates, a tall Navajo with wavy black hair and glasses, climbs out of a spotless white pickup truck. He crosses the lot to meet Geoffrey Greiner, who stands puffing a cigarette in beige overalls.
There is also a third man, Brett Vibber. Grinning, joking, spitting tobacco juice, Vibber leads a brief review of the day ahead. He wears smooth khaki shorts and a snug blue flannel shirt. The intelligent brown eyes above his lumberjack beard are deeply creased, etched with exhaustion.
Vibber is the executive chef at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine in Cave Creek, and the other two men are his sous chefs. They just finished a kitchen shift not six hours ago. Yet here they are meeting again, up so early on a late summer morning that the cicadas haven’t even started scratching music.
For 10 days in a row, Vibber has overseen his kitchen. Today is his day off. Nevertheless, he is about to drive from southern to northern Arizona to go foraging. This is what he and his chefs do a few times a week, setting alarms as early as 2:45 a.m. to get back in time for dinner prep.
Joining their expedition today are Tamara Stanger, chef at Cotton & Copper in Tempe, and her sous chef, Skyler Myles.
“What’s great about Arizona is we have everything for foraging,” Vibber says, piloting his truck on the dark highway north. “Anything they find in Seattle, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, or Colorado, you’re going to find in the northern half of Arizona.”
Vibber, who is 35, has a cough, and lets out single hacks as he speaks. Greiner is riding shotgun. Bates and the two Cotton & Copper chefs are in the other truck.
“Everyone has this preconceived notion that the desert is flat and full of sand,” Vibber says. “We’re going up into the Rocky Mountains. It doesn’t matter where we put our silly lines for our states.”
At Cartwright’s, Vibber cooks in a kind of harmony with Arizona’s rich past. He does this not via food often associated with Arizona — Southwestern, Mexican, or Mexican-American — but food that tunnels back into an ancient Arizona, to ingredients available before the Old World split open the New. Vibber cooks using bounty that was once known to the Pima, Tohono O’odham, Navajo, and the Hohokam before them. He cooks using saguaro fruit and palo verde sprouts, wild grapes and cattail pollen.
He culls these ingredients from the wilderness, from the southern desert and northern forests, and then he applies his own idiosyncratic blend of global techniques to them, resulting in an armada of novel dishes that you could only find in Arizona.
You find the bulk of these hidden on his tasting menu. Because Vibber doesn’t know what he’s cooking until after his gatherings, he never writes his tasting menus down. You can’t find one. Even the bulk of the Phoenix food press doesn’t really know they exist.
Vibber and Stanger are on the vanguard of a new cuisine just now emerging in Phoenix: New Arizonan. The cuisine is marked by using ancient Arizona ingredients in novel ways. The harbinger of this cuisine was Kai, a hotel restaurant in south Phoenix that has been cooking this way for more than a decade. But the second wave of New Arizonan culinarians — emerged in the past few years, creating at places like Cartwright’s, Cotton & Copper, and Arizona Wilderness Brewing — has elevated things to another level by lighting into the wild themselves.
There are parallels between New Arizonan and New Nordic, between Vibber’s food and the food of world-class Scandinavian restaurants like Noma. Both are founded on the personal rediscovery of hyperlocal ingredients, cooked and plated through a modern kaleidoscope. The parallels are real, and they are thrilling.
Vibber has three main northern “honey pots,” spots where he forages: Prescott, Payson (east), and Flagstaff (far north). He and his sous chefs scout these locations throughout the year, judging snowpack in the winter, water flow in the summer, the lifecycles of favorite sites year-round. Often, they will drive out after service and camp in the woods, rising with the sun to pick mushrooms and berries.
Foraging in these northern Arizona spots is more pleasant than foraging in the Sonoran. “When you’re getting the first crest of light in the desert, you’re done,” Vibber explains. “By 6:30 or 6:40 in June, the sun is up and pounding on you.”
As his truck pulls into Prescott, the sun is still down. Traffic lights sear the gloaming. Vibber whips a turn off of the main strip and is soon barreling down a trail into the forest.
Parked, he opens the hatch of his truck. “Go, Carlos!” Vibber shouts. His dog darts out into thick brush and wet rocks in the woods down from the dirt path.
“So you’re starting seeing here grape vines on the side of the road,” Vibber says. He studies a knot of vines like a lapidary studies sapphires, deeply inhales. “Last year, this is the one we harvested. We haven’t been using vinegar in our ponzu. We use tart grapes.”
It’s 6:10 a.m.
Dawn has started to pale the sky between the treetops.
Vibber looks ahead into an infinity of Ponderosa pines. “We need the sun to come up more to see,” he says. He starts down the path, stepping surely on the brown-needled forest floor, the same forest floor he used to hike and camp in with his dad. There is the sharp odor of mint and Christmas and death. With baskets and bags in hand, the other four chefs follow.
Contrary to the dunes and siroccos the word "desert" may conjure, the Sonoran is full of life. The desert gets 3 to 20 inches of rain a year, most during the July and August monsoons. Animals, saguaro, flowers, and trees thrive in the Sonoran Desert. When it rains, the petrichor released from the land wallops your soul, smelling like a heady perfume of sage and almond paste.
“The desert is waiting to sprout back to life anytime it rains,” Vibber says. “It’s just like the ocean; it’s just not full of life all the time.”
When it rains up north, Vibber waits at least a day to forage. When the desert gets rain, he hits the land before the next dawn. One of the chief things he looks for after rain in the desert is sprouts that shoot up from the palo verde, the state tree of Arizona. These sprouts can be used as microgreens. They taste, Vibber says, like "sunflower shoots, cucumbers, and peas.” (He uses the green-barked tree's berries instead of capers. Vibber pickles them in rice vinegar, achieving the same mustardy tang.)
Vibber, who has a background in sushi, believes that Sonoran ingredients are made for fish. “Desert ingredients lend themselves to seafood so well,” he says. “Why? Because in the big scheme of things this was all covered by water until very recently. Prickly pear is beautiful with halibut.”
He is a proponent of the aphorism “what grows together goes together.” Deer and wild grapes (forest). Quail and ocotillo flowers (desert).
Cartwright’s is named after the Cartwright family, an old Phoenician family instrumental in re-flooding the ancient Hohokam canals that undergird the city, causing it to rise from the desert (hence: “Phoenix”). The Cave Creek restaurant has been open for 18 years. Vibber has been head chef for four. He and his partner, general manager Cody Heller, bought Cartwright’s from its former owners a year and a half ago.
That was what set Vibber free.
Vibber grew up in Arizona, camping and foraging with his dad. While down in Tucson after his wrestling at Pima Community College and then attending University of Arizona, he learned more about Sonoran ingredients from native Tohono O’odham.
Later, he worked at a pizzeria in Spoletto, a citadel town in Umbria, Italy. He helped open Roka Akor in Scottsdale, sparking a love for Japanese food and techniques. And now he captains Cartwright’s, where, Vibber says, “every single dish has something foraged.”
To sustain that standard, Vibber and his team must forage, every year, 1,200 pounds of prickly pear fruit, 600 pounds of saguaro fruit, and 100 gallons of mesquite (for flour). When they forage, they leave 30 percent for animals and other forages. Some 80 percent of what they cull on any given day is dried, jarred, canned, pickled, ground, turned to syrup, or otherwise preserved for future months. This is critical. Some ephemeral desert ingredients, like saguaro fruit, may only be ripe a few weeks a year.
Vibber is an outdoorsman. He is more at home in the woods than his truck. He is the kind of person who, often with lacerating honesty, will tell you his undiluted opinion.
Like other visionaries, he is insatiably curious. This is a man who, when he fishes with his seafood supplier in British Columbia during his summer vacation, rolls sushi using seaweed stuck to the boat, a man who beats the morning sun into riparian canyons to snip a few sprigs of watercress.
Once, at the outset of a ride to Los Angeles, Vibber forgot to put on his seatbelt. The “fasten seatbelt” chiming started. He wondered how long it would last. So he kept his seatbelt unbuckled and drove.
The chiming continued for the whole six-hour trip.
The Sonoran Desert has sustained life for millennia. Tohono O’odham, Pima, and their antecedents lived on wild and farmed food. They relied on the desert to the point that when early Americans came with distillation and metallurgy, with alien rations for the forcibly displaced, natives didn’t know what to eat.
“We didn’t know what to do with that stuff,” says Sandra Miller, who is Tohono O’odham and the general manager of Fry Bread House in Phoenix. “We were used to going into the desert for cactus fruit, seeds, and berries, and farming our land with crops passed down and saved for thousands of years.”
Squash, beans, and corn were linchpins of native agriculture. Over time, these ingredients mingled with new ones, and dishes like fry bread with honey and squash burritos came into being.
Miller recalls her grandfather coming in from work in the fields. He ate not fry bread but ceme't, a flour tortilla cooked on a steel tilling disc salvaged from an old tractor. He had eggs on ceme't early; meat or pinto beans on ceme't in the afternoon; and stew, squash, beans, and red chile on ceme't at the end of long days. Sandra still cooks with two tractor discs, 24 and 36 inches in diameter.
Paradoxically, the ingredients and dishes from long before Arizona’s statehood and Columbus’ first journey form the truest Arizona cuisine. The New Arizonan of Vibber and Stanger takes these ancient Sonoran ingredients and nudges them in new directions, with global flair.
This cuisine germinated 16 years ago, with the opening of Kai.
Kai is a hotel restaurant south of the Salt River. Like Cartwright’s, it has a Phoenix address despite being on the opposite outskirt and an hour away by fast car.
It features a perpetually evolving menu of dreamlike dishes made predominantly from ingredients that were available to natives, including natives of the pine forests of Prescott.
“We really like to showcase Pima and Maricopa indigenous ingredients, but we also like to have global influences in there as well,” says chef Ryan Swanson, lead chef since 2015. (Kai is owned by the Gila River Indian Community, a reservation South of Phoenix. At least one past chef, Jack Strong, has had Native roots.)
Swanson serves a salad with wolf berry snow and a brittle made from native seeds. He tops tribal buffalo with saguaro blossom syrup and cholla cactus buds. And he veers far beyond Arizona, making chimichurri from ramps, pappardelle with sea urchin.
Kai leans on Ramona Farms, one of the most revered farms in the state. Ramona brought back the almost-vanished tepary bean in conjunction with Native Seeds/SEARCH, an entity that provides a magical array of heritage crops, the corn, bean, and squash of halcyon days.
Kai started something new 16 years ago. In the past five years, a fresh wave of faces attuned to Arizona’s indigenous ingredients has emerged. These are the pioneers of New Arizonan.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company is among the luminaries. The minds behind this brewery make beer using all kinds of local ingredients. They have crafted a farmhouse-style beer (Earthing the Vortex) with dried juniper and black walnuts, a sour (Pine Mountain Sour Ale) with foraged spruce tips.
The brewery’s forager squads rove into the desert and forests. Arizona Wilderness has been using Sinagua malt for beer, made from grain grown off the highway to Flagstaff. Its brewers have exposed wort to ambient yeasts and microbes in the Flagstaff woods, sparks of life to catalyze a wild ale.
There are others. Though the New World didn’t have wheat, Hayden Flour Mills has worked to bring back grain varietals grown in the Sonoran for centuries following European arrival. At the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market, you may stumble on Chmachyakyakya, the stand of Mark Lewis. Lewis knows so many of the Sonoran’s edible plants that he gathers many in paved Old Town alleys. He brews tea from graythorn, ocotillo flowers, and mountain roses. He presses tortillas from mesquite flour and simmers a sweet barbecue sauce using wolf berries and cherry-shaped chiltepin peppers.
Restaurant-wise, Vibber and Stanger are at the vanguard of this New Arizonan cuisine. Vibber broke free just 18 months ago, when he gained full kitchen autonomy. Stanger floored the pedal last year, when she fully embraced Arizonan ingredients. What has been recently kindling differs from what started at Kai. (But that “kai” means “seed” in Akimel O’odham is fitting in more than one way.)
Kai uses external foragers, many of them Native Americans. This is the critical juncture, the cordon between the first and second wave of New Arizonan cuisine: Vibber and Stanger are out in the wilderness.
The foraging five have left the dirt road. The three chefs from Cartwright’s (Vibber, Bates, Greiner) and two from Cotton & Copper (Stanger and Myles) walk under giant pines, stepping from rock to rock in a creek bed near the Hassayampa River, south of Prescott. Low water gurgles, flows as clear as gin. By now, night has almost bled into day.
“No way is the wrong way,” Vibber says.
The stream forks away. Treetops tower, pine needles crunch under human and canine steps, and hands go numb in the clean forest cold.
Bates, Vibber’s Navajo sous chef, vanishes in search of acorns. (Boiled and ground, acorns will be mixed with wheat flour to shape gnocchi and pasta.)
“We had no rain for 200 days,” Vibber says, working downhill through brush. “The forest was starving, just starving. You can tell that by animal activity. We’ve seen a ton more mountain lion activity and a ton more bear because they’re thirsty and they’re hungry.”
In the Prescott woods, Vibber and Greiner (his other sous chef) are looking for acorns, berries, grapes, cattails, and mushrooms. Their eyes dart like the eyes of birds, gleaning for mushrooms especially, the holy grail of this this sloping, 5,800-foot arboreal world. No luck yet.
“What we find here mostly is boletes with a gold-yellow top,” says Greiner, who can identify dozens of mushrooms. “You’ll find bicolored boletes, too, with a red top.”
“I’m going to check those berries,” Vibber interjects.
Vibber looks. The berries aren’t ready. Greiner wanders away. The sky is fully light.
Vibber hikes to where water is rushing down a seam into a pool. Up the flow, there is, buried in a tall tangle of branches, what looks almost like cornstalks rising from the water.
“Are you walking through that water?” Stanger asks. She is nearby, picking rabbitbrush, the same kind her mom used to pick in Utah and sell to textile companies. She and her sous chef, Myles, marked by a shock of yellow hair, have stopped short of the water.
“Yeah,” Vibber says.
He trudges in. He starts to work a stalk from the sodden earth.
The stalks are cattails. Vibber carries a few to land. “Cattails and wasabi are in the same family,” he says, finding the white root of a stalk, drawing a 6-inch knife with a handle of elk horn. He slides in the blade, jerks. A carrot-like nub falls free. “They’re both rhizomes, but different species,” he adds. “These most often get pickled and put on top of our oysters.”
(Vibber notes, also, that he and his kids, ages 4 and 6, forage and eat cattails together. )
Greiner reappears. Stanger and Myles, too. The party churns uphill, combing the sylvan ridges with sleep-starved eyes. No mushrooms.
“In the course of about 200 days of foraging a year, there’s six or seven that you come back with nothing,” Vibber says.
Suddenly, Greiner crouches to the ground. “Bolete?” Vibber asks.
“Yup,” Greiner replies.
Vibber smiles. “That puts a good feeling in your soul.”
Boletes have been scarce this morning for two reasons, Vibber says. First, it hasn’t rained in a week. Second, the season is ending, passing into the seasons of chanterelles, tree mushrooms, and lobster mushrooms.
The pathless path wends through the trees and delivers the crew back to the truck. They have traced a figure-eight of 1.5 miles. While Vibber and Greiner change a tire, Bates reappears with a basket of acorns. He joins Myles in picking fiery red choke cherries. Vibber, jacking the truck, has changed into sandals. Stanger reveals her desire to make mesquite flour pastries with bear fat.
Soon, the truck is hurtling again down the dirt road, trailing dust and echoes. Vibber parks by a meadow. The foragers fan out into a flat field of pines with an insect chorus.
The pines are giant, thick and green up top, naked boles below. Light threads the trees, shafts and tubes of dusty yellow that send warmth galloping back into hands. Fallen timber slants, branches shattered or long snapped off, trunks moldering back into soil. Round pinecones coat the floor so densely that they crunch underfoot like bubblewrap. The meadow turns up nada.
“So, even days you’re not loading baskets full of mushrooms, I’ve had a better connection to food than anyone else I know will today,” Vibber says. “It’s not necessary that I get up at four in the morning. But Jesus, I would feel guilty if I didn’t.”
Undefeated, the party boards the truck, rips away toward the next “honey pot.”
In 1997, in his book Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past, the anthropologist Sidney Mintz wrote that there was no such thing as a definitive American cuisine. The arguments you can make for this are incendiary. We are a nation of outsiders. American barbecue and Southern food arose here, sure, but they don’t describe in totality what we eat, and everything here has roots elsewhere. Even the cheeseburger comes from Germany.
Mintz is right. The key word is “definitive.” There are cuisines that originated in America, like American barbecue and Native American cuisines, but not one that overarches from coast to coast.
In respect to patchwork cuisines, Arizona resembles America in microcosm. There is a native cuisine. There are a slew of regional cuisines that have evolved. Everyone is from somewhere else. (The last is true of Phoenix especially. The city, now the fifth biggest in the country, has tripled in size since the 1970s.)
Arizona’s culinary bricolage, though, isn’t as vague as America’s. Arizona became a state in 1912. It doesn’t take much to peel back its layers. And when you do, you arrive at the center, the core of what Arizona cuisine is: indigenous New World ingredients, foraged and farmed.
Though such a standard may be increasingly theoretical, you can still experience Arizona food this way. For one: Mosey into the desert with a knife, and eat a ripe prickly pear fruit.
A half-step away, but still close to the center, are adaptions based on indigenous ingredients. These include what you can get from Native American stands, where the old foodways have generally fused with aspects of Mexican and Southwestern. This half-step also includes what New Arizonan culinarians like Vibber and Stanger are cooking.
A full step away from the truest Arizona food may look like the creations of Chris Bianco, world-famous for pizza. Bianco uses many elite ingredients grown in Arizona to elevate foods that decisively come from another place — say, local pistachios on pizza partly made with a local flour varietal. A full step away may also look like what Charleen Badman is doing at FnB, lasered in on the Arizona farm and ranch seasons, cooking global plates often with accents of hyperlocal bounty like I’itoi onions, sidekicked by some of the state’s headiest wines.
Two steps away from the center, you arrive at ubiquitous cuisines rooted in other places, or places much bigger than Arizona: Mexican, Mexican-American, Sonoran Mexican, Southwestern.
And then, defining Arizona cuisine faintly on the periphery, there are the foods of more recent immigrant communities, which don’t seem to bend toward ancient foodways. Ethiopian. Chinese. Jamaican. Balkan. South American. And so on.
New Arizonan is about as close to the heart of Arizona cuisine as you can get. It varies from what Janos Wilder and others have been cooking in Tucson in two respects. First, northern Arizona is more present. Second, this New Arizonan cuisine is newborn; it’s just now learning how to speak.
Though still evolving, it is definite enough to define. New Arizonan revolves around Arizona ingredients that grow wild from the Sonoran to the Colorado Plateau, a range that spans the state, and farmed ingredients that have thrived in the area since before Columbus. It is also marked by rapidly evolving menus; local when best but global when not; global techniques; a roughly elegant aesthetic that isn’t pretentious or preening; and utterly refusing to settle.
There are parallels to New Nordic cuisine. (Mark Lewis of Chmachyakyakya just spoke at MAD Copenhagen for a reason.) Restaurants like Noma (Denmark) and Faviken (Sweden) have forged a new cuisine by going into their proximate habitats to rediscover and intimately know hyperlocal ingredients, many that seem out of Narnia. That’s just what Vibber and Stanger are doing.
They seem to be closing a loop. There were ancient Arizona ingredients. There was the rise of Old World ingredients. Then came French, Italian, and international influences. And at last, instead of looking afar, some chefs are looking home. Lines from the T.S. Eliot poem "Little Gidding" come to mind:
“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Arizona food, both chefs argue, isn’t a fucking chimichanga.
Stanger is the most visible face of New Arizonan. Based in Tempe, the 37-year-old chef is closer to the heart of Phoenix than Vibber. She has cooked in many roles over the years, and even recently crossed into pastry.
Like many Arizonans, Stanger is a transplant. She grew up in a Utah mining town of 20 people. As a kid, she used to explore abandoned shafts into the earth. The giant silences of the Utah mountains remind her of the silences of the Arizona desert. She knows jujitsu. She is a mage with vinegar pie.
At Helio Basin Brewing, where she rose into the local spotlight with Sonoran hot dogs with tepary beans cooked in duck fat and tacos shaped from spent brewery grains, Stanger did flights of ice cream and beer. She paired blonde ale with bubble gum ice cream, IPA with frozen scoops of mesquite-cherry-pecan-pie.
This past summer, she left to cook at Cotton & Copper.
At Cotton & Copper, named after two of Arizona’s five “Cs” (copper, cattle, cotton, citrus, and climate), Stanger has autonomy to cook what she wants, to keep evolving. The restaurant is intensely Arizonan, right on down to the Collins glasses, antiques from the bygone mid-20th century local chain Blakely Service Stations, glasses that owner Sean Traynor scavenged on a trip to junk shops in the north of the state.
At this 50-seat eatery, Stanger operates on a smaller volume, allowing her to better use scarce desert ingredients. She arrays bison carpaccio with mesquite syrup and coffee-coated apple, plates spot prawns with furious green aguachile, ground cherries, and amaranth.
Last spring, she cooked a Spring Equinox Dinner to celebrate the coming desert season. Six courses charged with foraged and ancient farmed ingredients — wolfberry jam, heirloom pink corn — unspooled in a desert thread that became dreamlike with the last course. For dessert, a barrel cactus semifreddo came while, rising from his seat, an incognito violinist started to play. While his strings quivered, liquid nitrogen and creosote tucked into mismatched china filled the room with the smell of desert rain.
“Arizona cuisine is ancient,” she says. “It’s before civilization. It’s tapping into this ancient history and digging it up and figuring out what it is. I think the future of food in Arizona is going to be something unlike anywhere else, because it’s old and new, and we’re going to craft it. We have that ability.”
However New Arizonan grows, it will have range. Once you apply the definitional global filters to indigenous ingredients, whether Czech (Stanger) or Japanese (Vibber) or any of the other far-flung influences they pull from, you get wildly variable end dishes.
In regard to her cooking and Vibber's, Stanger says, “You drop the same ingredients on our table, and we’re going to make completely different things.”
After a morning in the woods, the crew heads into Prescott. By 10 a.m., they are nursing eggs and watery coffee in a diner. Softly, carefully, Bates, Vibber’s Navajo sous chef, is talking philosophy.
“It’s easier to go to the store to get a green onion,” he says, “than it is to walk around for three hours and find an onion that’s sweeter than a store-bought and has wild garlic notes, too.”
He talks about the woods like people talk about vacations to Thailand or Italy. “There’s more out there that people don’t know about or don’t want to learn,” he says.
Bates grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. The Navajo reservation is vast, three times the size of New Jersey, and spills into four states, including Arizona. He met Vibber 12 years ago when both were working at Roka Akor. Vibber laughs that, when they go foraging, “Jaren is looking for completely opposite things than we are.” Bates was raised on a farm, one with corn, alfalfa, apples, mulberries, grapes, and livestock. His time on the 30-acre farm and growing up Navajo gives him a rapt approach to the forest.
He looks for clusters of wild sumac.
He looks for “tart little red berries,” which he uses for vinegar.
He looks for juniper, both berries and sprigs. When aflame, juniper wisps a “sweet, earthy, herbaceous smoke that lends itself to fish.” And Bates knows a thing or two about smoke. He has a massive, 500-gallon offset smoker that he built from an old propane tank. In his free time, he smokes Texas-style briskets and sells them at events and fairs. He dreams to open a barbecue stand.
Bates brings a vitally different perspective to Vibber’s brand of New Arizonan food.
He talks about crusting fish with cactus seeds, about using wild sumac in his okra kimchi. He talks about his wish to make a steam corn miso from the koji used to make Arizona Sake (crafted by a Japanese transplant who brews 50-gallon batches of cloudy, floral junmai ginjo in his garage).
Mostly, Bates talks about Navajo steam corn.
Once a year, Bates leads a Navajo corn steam on the land he shares with Vibber and Greiner. He digs a hole 5 or 6 feet deep, 3 or 4 feet wide. In the hole, he starts a fire. “We’ll dump harvested ears of corn on top,” he says. “And then we’ll cover it with more of the stalks and more husks, then cover that with coals, and then put a slab of metal on top, and then dump two to five gallons of water into this fire pit.”
The corn slowly cooks in the earth overnight. “As soon as the sun rises the next morning, we’ll be out there digging it up,” Bates says.
The resulting steam corn yields stews, relishes, and flour. Between the steam corn ritual that Bates oversees and his brother’s (held on the family farm), Cartwright’s will have steam corn until next year’s harvest.
After breakfast, the five go to Mortimer Farms — the farm that supplies the corn. There, they pick okra shoots, tomatoes, marigolds, and strawberries. Then Stanger, Myles, and Bates must leave south for metro Phoenix. With Vibber off from work, Bates will be running the Cartwright’s kitchen. (Sean McCarty, the executive sous chef at Cartwright's, is another of the main forces in the kitchen.) Stanger, too, must start prep for her service, which begins at 5 p.m.
Vibber and Greiner drive north, for the southern reach of the Rockies.
The tables at Cartwright’s are amply spaced in a dim room with the juju of a ski lodge. Steakhouse-meets-ski-lodge, really, once you scan the carnivorous menu. Game burger. Steak sampler of bison, venison, and beef. Even the pappardelle has meat. But to commune with the vital heart of this eatery, where a pirate flag hangs in a roomy kitchen that uses Spanish as its “official” language, you need to opt for the $75 tasting menu ($85 later this year).
Unwritten, unknowable, the menu gives you little idea what’s coming. There are a few constants. A lot will be foraged. The first three courses will be raw. If you fork over another $35 for the drink pairing, booze will be largely wine, sake, and spirits from Arizona.
Vibber declines to write out his menu in part because he wants to give an omakase-like experience. What comes out, too, will depend on what’s happening in the kitchen. “If Jaren’s holding the sushi section down and we’re busy on the hot line ... Jaren has 15 to 20 minutes to have fun." In this case, sushi would be next. This freewheeling science is possible because many of the foraged ingredients are preserved, always ready to roll.
“If table 22 is having a tasting menu and table 23 orders a tasting menu,” Vibber says, “they’re most likely not going to be having the same thing.”
A recent visit gives a snapshot of how the tasting menu can be.
First, a custard jammed with chanterelles came jiggling over a pool of marigold oil. Next, there were slips of salmon sashimi topped with palo verde “capers,” lacy discs of blue corn tulle, and a bed of Navajo-style steam corn (which, somehow, is even smokier and wilder than the ashy bark on 16-hour brisket). Third: venison tartare. Two dollops of purple meat climbed a single spear of asparagus from Vibber’s garden. Here, too, were sorrel leaves, halved unripe strawberries, and pickled mustard seeds, everything on an aerodynamic sluice of saguaro fruit jam with coal-black seeds out of Hades.
The first three courses paired with an Arizona Sake specially made for Vibber. It was dimly effervescent and dryer than sake master Atsuo Sakurai’s standard brew, a step closer to Champagne.
The raw courses done, four more courses emerged at a leisurely pace. They seemed to get better as they went: a quintet of sashimi spoons; quail stuffed with foraged mushrooms; bison tenderloin with smoked apricot; trout and hamachi collar; peach cake with vanilla gelato, honey, and sumac jam.
The Cartwright’s tasting menu is refined and rustic at once. It is simple and complex, novel and traditional, ancient and modern, earthy and heavenly, global and Arizonan. When a chardonnay from Page Springs (off the road to Flagstaff) pulls the flavor of raw hamachi with citrus and Fresno chile oil sideways, back toward the leaves and loam, you can almost see that scalloped land, the vast pine forests rising.
Vibber’s truck moves north. Greiner is riding shotgun. The numbers on the dashboard clock shuffle past noon. The road carves the slopes, twists like a bobsled track, leading north, toward Flagstaff and the land of lobster mushrooms.
With one lobster mushroom, Vibber says, he can make 20 tasting menu plates.
For a stretch near Sedona, the trees clinging to the highway change. They are cauterized, dark outlines of trees in frozen ash, the black shapes created by wildfire the summer before.
Later, the truck has cleared paved road. Vibber grinds up dirt switchbacks. The highway is history by the time he parks.
The two chefs look for lobster mushrooms on a slope thin with pine trees. Bates pulled 75 pounds of lobsters two days earlier, most within 30 feet of the path.
“It smells like dry soil, like it needs to rain,” Greiner says, the unsaid nut being that the dry spell has thwarted growth. “It feels autumnal up here already.”
Greiner is right. No mushrooms in the first spot.
Spot two, downhill and across the highway, soon comes into vision like a hallucination. A dirt road traces the highway and delivers the truck, jarring into potholes, to a meadow. Again, Vibber parks.
The two chefs walk together into a meadow, partly covered with tall pines, mostly open. An explosion of golden columbine flowers runs through the grass. The meadow looks snowed with pollen. Overhead the sky is cobalt, the pines rising into hot air thick with the vibrations of cicadas. A barn with horses is in the distance. The ground under the pines is coated with moss, lichens, pine cones, needles, and the bones of dead cows: scapulas, sloping ribs, flat molars once used to chew grass. Greiner guesses this is where a farmer took infirm cows to shoot them. Clods of dry soil flake with each step.
Greiner and Vibber poke at “shrumps,” mild protrusions that may hide mushrooms. They poke with pine sticks. Greiner collects cow bones, petal-smooth and as clean as snow.
Twenty minutes after noting the land is so dry it’s a “tinderbox,” Greiner lights a cigarette. He puffs and pokes with his stick. Greiner unearths the first cluster of lobsters, Vibber the second. They find little else as they circle through the yellow meadow and back to the car.
Bumping down the dirt road from the day's last spot, with far fewer mushrooms than anticipated, the two show no disappointment. Suddenly, Vibber jams his brakes. He hurries from the truck.
“Shrump?” Greiner calls after him.
“Yeah,” Vibber says.
He walks off the road to the base of a tree, spits tobacco juice. With his hands, he brushes away dirt and pine needles. There, underneath, now in the light, red and mottled like a crustacean’s slippery skin, are huge-capped lobster mushrooms. He cuts them free and makes for his truck.
Brett Vibber is off today. It’s his first day off in two weeks. The clock reads 1:12 p.m. He’s just south of Flagstaff, Arizona, at 6,750 feet above sea level, higher than Denver. By the time he drives the 90 minutes back to the gas station where his day began, he will have been working for 11 hours, foraging ingredients not too different from those he could have had a local farm deliver to his restaurant.
“This is sustainability,” he said a moment before, walking in the meadow, poking with a stick. “It isn’t from farms and shit like that. It’s what the earth would want us to naturally have."
He climbs back into his truck, puts the mushrooms on the dash, and drives away.
The leading practitioners of the New Arizonan Cuisine:
Cartwright's Modern Cuisine. 6710 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek; 480-488-8031.
Daily from 4 to 9 p.m.
Cotton & Copper. 1006 East Warner Road, #113, Tempe; 480-629-4270.
Tuesday to Thursday 3 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight; closed Sunday and Monday.
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Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company. 721 North Arizona Avenue, Gilbert; 480-497-2739.
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Kai. 5594 Wild Horse Pass Boulevard; 602-225-0100.
Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
The Fry Bread House. 4545 North Seventh Avenue, 602-351-2345.
Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.
Chmachyakyakya. 3806 North Brown Avenue (Old Town Scottsdale Farmers' Market).