Awards season for the film industry is at a fever pitch, but the buzz is just beginning for what some call the “Oscars of the food world” — the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Next month, the New York-based Beard Foundation will publish its much-awaited list of semifinalists for its 10 regional “Best Chef” awards, as well as national honors like Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Beverage Program.
The most closely watched award category by far is “Best Chef,” which is the highest prize for individual culinary achievement in the United States.
The last Phoenix-area chef to win the “Best Chef — Southwest” prize was Nobuo Fukuda in 2007. If no Phoenix chef wins the award this spring, it will mark a full decade since the Foundation honored a local chef with its highest prize.
For close observers of the local food scene, Phoenix’s poor recent showing at the Beard Awards reflects the city’s low overall standing on the national food and drink scene.
“I don’t know why [Phoenix] doesn’t get much buzz on a national level,” says Andrew Knowlton, the longtime deputy and restaurant editor of Bon Appetit, one of the oldest food and drink magazines published in the U.S.
Knowlton is the chief architect of the magazine’s influential annual 50 Best New Restaurants list.
The magazine’s 50 nominees are gradually whittled down to a list of 10, known as the “Hot 10,” a sort of who’s-who of the independent restaurants making waves on the national food scene.
No Phoenix-area restaurants made Bon Appetit’s top 50 list this year, nor did any last year, or the year before that. And no Arizona restaurant has ever made the Bon Appetit “Hot 10” list.
Knowlton is measured with his words and thoughtful with his assessment. But he’s honest about the fact that metro Phoenix has fallen off his radar lately.
“I don’t want to be the guy who’s saying what Phoenix needs to improve on … I’m not an expert on the area,” he says. “But at least from a national perspective, I haven’t seen the kind of growth, I would say, the creativity that at one point I expected to see out of the city.”
For many in the local food community, Knowlton’s assessment is fair, if a bit painful.
On the surface, metro Phoenix seems like it should have a thriving food and drink scene: It’s the sixth most populous city in the U.S., it has one of the fastest-growing dining sectors in the nation, and it’s been cited as one of the country’s next hot dining destinations by national outlets like the Huffington Post and Zagat. Yet the transition from up-and-coming food town to full-blown, nationally recognized food city remains elusive.
For many in the local food community, the main problem with Phoenix food is the city’s conservative dining culture, which has produced a market oversaturated with chain restaurants and familiar concepts.
But what exactly makes up a great, modern American food city? Most definitions include some of the following:
A great food city is one with maverick chefs that revel in creativity, and whose work is supported by the local dining public — a city where chefs and restaurateurs receive national press coverage and acclaim. It offers some kind of regional identity or flavors (usually in the form of a signature dish or two). It’s a city with purveyors and makers of high-quality ingredients and food products, a city that sets or influences national trends. It’s a city that boasts a healthy number of Beard Award winners, or one that at least remains actively competitive.
If these things represent the essential building blocks of a rich, vibrant dining scene, the verdict seems clear: Phoenix is not, at least not yet, a great food town.
Andrew Knowlton says he remembers a period not too long ago, when it seemed that something interesting was happening in Phoenix.
He remembers the buzz around Binkley’s Restaurant in Cave Creek, and the early years of the Pizzeria Bianco cult, when long lines were a common sight around Heritage Square. He remembers “falling in love” with Matt’s Big Breakfast.
“I thought [Phoenix] was on the cusp of something,” he says.
Today, he says, the city doesn’t seem to generate that same level of buzz.
If there is a recipe for building a great, modern-day American food city, a big part of it seems to be buzz, the widely held perception that there is something culinarily interesting happening in a city.
It’s tempting to dismiss something as nebulous as “buzz.” But it’s a force that can be instrumental in shaping a food scene — and people’s careers.
Christopher Gross, chef-owner of the French-inspired Christopher’s Restaurant & Crush Lounge at Biltmore Fashion Park, notes that landing national press can lead to bigger acclaim and recognition.
Gross is one of a handful of Beard Award-winning chefs currently working in metro Phoenix. He won the award in 1995. Many Phoenix chefs, including Nobuo Fukuda, Robert McGrath, and Alex Stratta, he notes, were featured in Food & Wine magazine’s annual “Best New Chefs” feature before going on to win the regional James Beard award.
“When you get that one, it brings you a lot of exposure,” says Gross. “And a lot of times, the next thing you know, you’re nominated for a James Beard Foundation award.”
Lately, though, the Phoenix food scene has not gotten much play in national taste-making outlets like Food & Wine. And along with a dearth of national press, Phoenix also suffers from a lack of marquee-level destination restaurants — the kind of nationally recognized food and drink temples that bring distinction to a city, and help drive tourism.
One example of such a restaurant is Kai, the ultra-luxurious and uniquely Arizonan restaurant, tucked deep in the recesses of the Wild Horse Pass Resort just south of Phoenix. It’s currently the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star restaurant in Arizona.
Metro Phoenix also doesn’t have an instantly recognizable signature dish, something many argue helps build a city’s culinary identity and gives it some bragging points — the proverbial Philly cheesesteak, Nashville hot chicken, or Charleston shrimp and grits.
There is the chimichanga, a midcentury Mexican-American dish that is quintessentially Arizonan. Tucson claims the dish as its own too, though, and neither side seems particularly invested in winning that battle.
Some argue that great food cities often set national trends, or at least help shape the national palate by exporting homegrown concepts.
Phoenix’s most successful exports — the city’s major contributions to the national food scene — include P.F. Chang’s and Fox Restaurant Concepts, both mega-successful restaurant groups headquartered in the Valley.
Both are wildly popular with consumers in Phoenix and beyond. Both offer pleasant yet formulaic dining experiences, sprung from templates designed to be replicated across various regions and cities. And both are known for strictly curated, stylish dining rooms, with menus designed to appeal to as many consumers as possible.
Neither group, though, is recognized for producing restaurants with the kind of attributes that tend to receive national acclaim — things like creative risk, local flavor, or independent vision. Neither feel innately local, either, and few argue that they give Phoenix much in the way of bragging rights.
For independent restaurants, meanwhile, there’s the central question of culinary creativity — the thing that keeps menus across the city from looking like rough facsimiles of one another.
If you study menus across Phoenix, for instance, how many offer something like a Brussels sprouts small plate, usually paired with bacon?
Knowlton says he’s had a hard time spotting a certain level of creativity on Phoenix-area menus.
“I’m not saying everything has to be weird and foamy,” he says. “I just see a lot of foods that I’ve already had around the country, and it seems like Phoenix would do itself some good as to kind of run with what it’s good at, and develop its own thing.”
Finally, it’s hard to dismiss the prestige that national acclaim and recognition bring to a city. Winning a Beard Award is not easy — critics of the prize contend that the foundation’s voting process is colored by politics and regional bias. But winning one, at the very least, would represent a significant groundswell of national support and recognition for work being done at the local level.
Historically, the food genres and dining formats that have found popularity in metro Phoenix are not the kind that win national accolades.
Many of the oldest and most beloved restaurants around town are steakhouses. Stockyards Restaurant, open since 1947, a byproduct of the old Tovrea Land and Cattle Company operation, is possibly the oldest steakhouse still operating in the Valley. And there is, of course, Durant’s, which opened in 1950, its midcentury mystique well preserved to this day.
The region’s upscale resorts — a major part of Phoenix life, culture, and commerce since the early 20th century — have also played a role in shaping the character of Phoenix dining. One of the Valley’s oldest restaurants is El Chorro Lodge in Paradise Valley, which opened in 1937. It’s not a resort restaurant, but its Southwestern design, upscale fare, social-club airs, and views of Camelback Mountain encapsulate the sort of high-end, tourist-friendly experience that is still a major force in local dining. That restaurant, though, has never been on the receiving end of much critical acclaim, and is probably best known for its sticky buns. And today, many proper resort restaurants have come to be understood as repositories of high-end but safe cooking.
Mexican food, of course, particularly the northern Mexican cooking traditions of Sonora, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua, has given Phoenix much of its culinary character, and helped spawn classic Phoenix-area restaurants like Carolina’s, Macayo’s, and Filiberto’s, not to mention countless modern renditions of carne asada.
And chile-blasted, New Mexico-style cooking has been part of the local culinary DNA for decades, a tradition preserved at local institutions like Los Dos Molinos and Richardson’s.
Most local Mexican restaurants are thought of as beloved purveyors of local “grub,” though, and not treated seriously enough to gain national critical attention.
There is also Southwestern food — Mexican food’s culinary cousin. “Southwestern” is mostly thought of as hokey these days, a genre of cooking so broad and undefinable that it’s mostly shorthand for something featuring corn and avocado, then dribbled with “zesty” sauce.
But it was the nouvelle Southwestern cuisine of the 1980s that brought Phoenix dining its first wave of national attention and acclaim.
In 1993, Vincent Guerithault of Vincent’s on Camelback, a French chef who garnered the world’s attention by fusing classic French technique with Southwestern flavors, was the first Phoenix chef to win a James Beard award.
During the 1990s, metro Phoenix began to shed its reputation as a city that was good for only steak and cheesy enchilada platters.
Restaurants like Rancho Pinot, which opened in 1993, brought elevated, seasonal American fare to the Valley. And it was during the ’90s and 2000s that Phoenix, of all places, began to earn a reputation as one of the best places in America for pizza.
Chris Bianco won the regional James Beard award in 2003 — the first pizzaiolo to ever win the prize.
In 2004, Ed Levine wrote in the New York Times that the Bronx transplant was making what might be “the best pizza in America” — and he was doing it in a city “with more golf courses than pizzerias.”
Pizzeria Bianco, possibly the only Phoenix restaurant to have its own, full-length Wikipedia entry, has helped shape and influence a whole generation of young American pizzaioli. And Bianco’s critical success has helped expand the definition of what kind of food an award-winning chef is allowed, or supposed, to make.
The rise of Pizzeria Bianco to the upper echelon of American food circles has helped usher in a modern dining era rich with Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified pizzerias, and wood-fired pizza in general.
There are now so many excellent wood-fired pizzerias around town, they must at least rival the number of golf courses in Phoenix.