“I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona,” Norman Fierros announced proudly last week. “My dad was born in 1896 where ASU stadium stands. It used to be his land, and when the U.S. bought it from Mexico, they took that land from him. They had to start over again.”
Fierros knew about having to start over again. Recent health issues — he’s been diagnosed with peripheral artery disease (PAD) and Guillain-Barré syndrome — had forced him to step away from the Santa Monica, California-based cevicheria he had been running. He’s returned to Phoenix to heal.
“I’m the 13th born of 14 children,” explained Fierros, who preferred not to dwell on health troubles. “When my brother left to fight the war in Normandy, he begged my mother not to have any more kids. When he got back from war, there were two little toddlers, me and my sister. My mother said they belonged to a friend of hers. Two weeks later she told him the truth, and he never forgave me. He never embraced me as a brother. That was my first hardship.”
Fierros would come to know more hardship, but not before enjoying decades of success. After hairdressing school in Phoenix, he moved to California and coiffed the stars. “I worked at the salon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I did Audrey Hepburn’s hair. She was so nice. Carl Betz was my client. He was also very nice. I used to dye his pubes.”
Fierros loved to cook at home and began to bring leftovers to work with him. “Everyone started saying to me, ‘Where did you learn to cook like this? You should open a restaurant!’” he remembered. “But mentally, I wasn’t ready for it.”
Eventually, he was. Fierros returned to Phoenix in 1980 and purchased Fina Concina, a popular south Phoenix Mexican diner. Soon, his handmade tamales, potato-stuffed poblanos, and campechana had foodies lining up for blocks. In an era when Mexican food didn’t have cache as “cuisine,” Fierros amped up its profile here.
“I went to Chinese cooking classes and I studied French cooking, and I applied those techniques to my food,” he recalled. “The French and Chinese are the best cooks in the world. I was cooking ordinary food extraordinarily well.”
By the early 1990s, he’d redefined Nueva Mexicana as a culinary style and been named a James Beard “Rising Star” chef. But bad breaks — his business partner neglected to pay income taxes at one restaurant; there was a nasty health board run-in at another — proved too much. Fierros returned to California in 2003.
“I opened a place at the Santa Monica airport, and I was making ceviche hybrids, with watermelon and pomegranate seeds. People loved them.”
In Santa Monica, Fierros began getting sores on his feet. “The doctor said, ‘You have bad circulation, the foot will never heal.’ They ended up amputating my left leg. Now my right leg is doing the same thing, so I’m going to have it removed in the very near future. Having a sick leg has enslaved me.”
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Fierros, who moved back to Phoenix in 2013, was more concerned about his friend Bobby Jones, a pilot he met while working at the airport. Jones has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and Fierros is his sole caregiver. Fierros worries he can’t afford to pay someone to look after Jones while he has his surgery. Friends have set up a GoFundMe account to raise funds for a caregiver for Jones until Fierros can care for him again.
He didn’t want to think too much about the bad things, or about asking for help. “What I want is to get well again so I can cook for you. And I won’t make the mistakes I made before. All that bad publicity I got, but I wasn’t Bad Boy Arizona. I got involved with people who didn’t have good ethics, and they ruined my career. I should have been stronger and not let them walk all over me.”
He made a joke about getting back on his feet again so that he could make ceviche for Phoenix. “I will introduce Arizona to my hybrid ceviches, really outstanding ceviche, very healthy, no frying. I can ceviche anything.”
Fierros paused and took a deep breath. “My pleasure is from having people ooh and ahh about my ceviche and the food I prepare. Right now I’m going through hell, but I’ll get over it. I’ll be back, and I will say ‘thank you’ with my food.”