Whether or not locals, visiting snowbirds, or spring training fans tooling around east Phoenix know it, they'll be in the vicinity of probably the most anticipated food festival on the Valley's calendar. We're of course referring to the 2019 Devour Culinary Classic held at the Desert Botanical Garden on February 23 and 24.
The talent is a heavy-hitting list of local chefs and drink-makers, including Justin Beckett, Aaron Chamberlin, and VIP chef Christopher Gross. But aside from Gross, the VIP chef list is dominated by women like Silvana Salcido Esparza. More women deck the lineup for Devour Week's 10th anniversary, and that's what we want to talk about.
We chatted with four female chefs, business owners, and restaurateurs to get their unique perspective, interpretation of taste, and use of eclectic ingredients to gear you up for the weekend. Enjoy.
Tamara Stanger of Cotton and Copper
Saturday VIP Chef
Third-time Devour participant Tamara Stanger won over taste buds with her smoked bison taquitos in 2017, followed by her venison sausage with griddled corn cake in 2018. This year, she will be offering VIP ticketholders a sample of acorn soup with other surprise compositions using native barrel cactus and cholla flower buds. Yeah, she knows her stuff.
Stanger’s passion for the indigenous is sprinkled throughout every dish at her critically acclaimed restaurant, Cotton & Copper. When not foraging for ingredients herself, Stanger works with nearby farmers who regularly hand-deliver produce, which are used to create nutrient-dense dishes with intense flavors and yes, beautiful colors. Stanger’s personal favorite is the cast-iron venison medallions served with tepary beans, mushrooms, seasonal vegetables, and an aged cheddar jus.
“I like my dishes to be clean, hearty, but also represent my farmers.” Stanger says.
Using homegrown elements as a means of defining Arizona cuisine, Stanger hopes to educate with every bite. She has been a part of various teaching platforms including Cooking Up Change and Chef in the Garden with the hopes of imparting to youth knowledge on using local and sustainable ingredients to prepare healthy and nutritious meals. Stanger plans to offer similar tutelage to guests at Devour, with particular emphasis on the use of ancient constituents native to the Arizona desert.
As executive chef at Cotton & Copper, Stanger has used her curious and creative nature to rise to the top. Stanger remembers being tested earlier in her career to prove that her skills were not to be limited. “I always did my best despite being challenged," she says, "I don’t allow room for negativity.”
Stanger’s fervor for her craft has lead to mentoring other staff members at Cotton & Copper, where she encourages fellow chefs to utilize their uniqueness. It’s Stanger’s appreciation for the Arizona desert and appetite for bringing awareness to its riches inspire her plates and leave lasting imprints.
What can be expected from Stanger at Devour? She answers, “I want people to come with no expectations, but to leave with memories.”
Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery
Sunday VIP Chef
Daughter of a local vegetable farmer, plus a cooking and nutrition science graduate, Lori Hashimoto grew up learning to appreciate natural flavors and what layers of complexity can unfold with every bite. However, Hashimoto’s decision to open up Hana Japanese Eatery in 2007 didn’t come until after she worked in nutraceutical industry for about 16 years. There, she was taught the nutritional value of foods, and their ability to prevent and treat disease.
“Working with formulations and nutritional labeling ... opened my eyes to a whole new world of food products and how they affect the body,” Hashimoto says.
Influenced by what she learned from her parents and later from her work in the corporate realm, Hashimoto’s cooking style and gastronomic talent is reflected in her ability to prepare simple and beautiful dishes, each exuding detail orientation and passion. Visit her restaurant and you can find Hashimoto working on the line with her other employees, all with the common goal of applying refined Japanese technique to formulate innovative flavors using nontraditional, but quality, ingredients.
“Creating new dishes and seeing or hearing people enjoy the food has been a huge reward,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of Asian food. Ask questions. Be adventurous.”
Diners are encouraged to try the lamb riblets served in a miso sauce, the duck tataki, or one of their house specialties like the anikimo sliders. Consisting of marinated monkfish liver served over lemon and topped with a sunny-side-up quail egg, daikon, green onions, togarashi spices, and seaweed, this dish offers contemporary complexity while allowing each component the chance to shine.
Hashimoto was mum when discussing what she will be preparing at Devour. When asked what has been the most valuable and influential lesson she’s learned throughout her career, Hashimoto says, “Change is inevitable; growth is optional. Never assume anything.”
Lisa Dahl of Dahl Restaurant Group
After the sudden loss of her son, Lisa Dahl left her job within the fashion-forward footwear industry and moved to Sedona to process her grief and mend. By surrounding herself with the natural beauty of the red rocks, Dahl immersed herself into something her and her son loved so much: food and cooking.
Fast-forward 23 years and she owns Dahl Restaurant Group composed of unique concepts inspired by her Italian roots. Dahl’s Sedona restaurants include Pisa Lisa, Dahl and Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Mariposa, and the upcoming “couture burger lounge” — a.k.a. Butterfly Burger. Dahl describes her food as delicate, angelic, and exquisite, just like her memory of her son.
As a leader in and out of the kitchen, Dahl hopes to inspire her team and demonstrate her mission in every facet of her work. As such, Dahl says she remains devoted to making food with love due to its ability to bring people together, offer healing, and restore balance.
“I’m dedicated to embracing the opportunity to celebrate the winter to spring harvest and celebrate the purity of the garden,” Dahl says of her holistic approach to serving at Desert Botanical Garden. “I want to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee with fresh and vibrant flavors.”
Although she wants to keep her Devour dishes a secret, attendees can expect all organic and regional ingredients with the goal of rejuvenating the palate and bringing gratitude to the surrounding floral oasis.
What kind of experience does Dahl wish guests to have at Devour? She says, “I cook with love and feed the soul, and hope that every bite will be something to remember.”
Helen Yung of Sweet Republic
Helen Yung left her job as an investment banker to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, where she learned the art of fine cuisine and pastry composition. She would later form Sweet Republic with her business partner Jan Wichayanuparp, and become a Valley favorite for ice cream.
“I love ice cream because the flavors have no boundaries,” Yung says. Experimenting with seasonal ingredients, Yung concocts flavors like sweet berry crumble, maple bacon doughnut, and coconut cashew curry — all tantalizing the senses with a variety of colors, tastes, and textures.
Yung takes pride in making her ice cream from scratch using a vat pasteurizer, which enhances the quality of the milk-based foundation used in all of her mixtures. By making and serving her ice cream within the same week, Yung has been able to bring freshness to taste testers looking for a rewarding reprieve from the desert sun.
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In addition to running a business, Yung expanded her role to devoted mother to her 18-month-old son. “I know many women chefs choose their career over kids in this business because it’s so consuming," she says. "I feel incredibly lucky to have the support of my business partner and managers to be able to start a family.”
At the Devour competition, guests can try her cannoli-inspired drumstick made with a krumkake cone and lemon ricotta ice cream blended with chocolate chips and candied fruit, then dipped in pistachios. For a burst of refreshing sweetness, try her mojito ice pop with hints of cucumber, mint, and rum. Or enjoy a nontraditional bite-sized s’mores, composed of almond graham crackers sandwiching chocolate ice cream and toasted marshmallows.
What’s up next for Yung? Perhaps another Sweet Republic location where her ice cream will keep everyone coming back for more.
Be sure not to miss the rest of the exceptional women of the Devour Culinary Classic including Saturday talents Samantha Sanz of Talavera, Alison Philips and Kat McGill of Muse and Market, and Stacy Weber of Eat by Stacey Weber, and Sunday talents Tracy Dempsey of Tracy Dempsey Originals, Angy Dykstra of District American Kitchen and Wine Bar, and Dara Rodger of Shift FLG. Female food artisans include Nenita Lintonof Aloha Cakes AZ and Lisa Rast of Nutswhats.