Who is RoxSand Scocos?
If you were around the Valley in the '90s, you probably know — and you'll likely appreciate the significance of the fact that she'll be preparing the dessert course at this Friday's James Beard Foundation Taste America dinner. But for more recent arrivals and the young set of self-proclaimed “foodies” out there, it's not an unreasonable question.
Except that it is.
Not so long ago, the name RoxSand was a huge deal in this town. At the end of the last century, you couldn't talk about food in Phoenix without mentioning the chef (formerly RoxSand Suarez) and her namesake Blitmore Fashion Park restaurant, RoxSand. She was one of the most influential, highest-profile chefs in the Valley, right up there with now-legendary guys like Christopher Gross and Vincent Guerithault. And she had a national reputation. She won the Best Chef Southwest Award from the James Beard Foundation in 1999, and she was the first person to be put on the cover of Bon Appetit magazine. The first, ever.
The food at RoxSand was eclectic, imaginative, ahead of its time. The internationally inspired menu offered everything from Moroccan b'stilla (still a rarity in the Valley) and rice tamales stuffed with curried lamb. Signature dishes included air dried duck that came served on a blue plate with plum sauce and buckwheat crepes — a meal one diner tells me made "a permanent impression," even though he was only a little kid when he tried it. The desserts are also remembered fondly, in particular the B-52 torte that featured Kahlúa and Bailey's-infused chocolate filling.
So, how did RoxSand go from being one of the most famous chefs in the country to being virtually unknown to those who weren't around 15 years ago?
In her own words: “I absolutely split.”
The reality is a bit more complicated than that, but to sum it up, one summer day in 2003, Scocos closed her award-winning Phoenix restaurant literally overnight. The staff showed up for work the next day only to find the doors locked and the place empty. A New Times article skewered her for deserting her crew and her fans, quoting an anonymous former staffer who called her “a 'miser' afflicted with 'cold-hearted greediness' and 'paranoia.'”
Scocos, who now goes by Scocos McCreary, says the negative rumors after the restaurant's closure were part of what drove her so completely from the local food community. She didn't just close the restaurant; she virtually disappeared.
“It really . . .,” she starts, only to trail off and conclude by stabbing her chest with an invisible knife.
At the time, rumors swirled as to why she would shut the restaurant so suddenly — and McCreary didn't offer anything in the way of a public explanation. As she explains now, the simplest answer is that she wanted to retire. By the time she was operating RoxSand, McCreary had already owned six restaurants over a 25-year career in the business.
“I felt that I had said everything I needed to say at that point,” she says.
She had won the Beard award, which she describes as “a real effort, a real mission,” and had seen the Phoenix food scene grow from a restaurant desert into a place including culinary high points like Rancho Pinot and Pizzeria Bianco.
There were other reasons, too. McCreary had recently remarried and her husband wanted her to get out of the restaurant business, which is notorious for wholly consuming the lives of those who work in it. Her lease for the RoxSand space was up, so instead of renewing, she decided to close and focus on her family.
And here's where McCreary admits she messed up. Instead of announcing the restaurant’s closure and celebrating the many years, and the many fans, and the many accolades, she decided to shut down without saying a word. She didn't even tell her staff (except for a few key people) for fear that they'd desert before the end of road.
“It was a mistake,” she says simply.
Fast-forward 12 years and McCreary, sitting outside a Biltmore-area coffee shop on an unusually muggy September day, looks relaxed and refreshed in a loose white blouse. She's been retired for a while now and is peaceful in a way that you'd never see in working chefs. Her poise falters slightly only when she talks about what happened back in 2003.
McCreary isn't active in the Valley's food or restaurant industries. She dines out often, she says, but other than the occasional appearance at fundraising events, she remains all but absent in the local scene. She spends her time making raw cheese just for fun and is going back to school to get a degree in either political science or interior design.
It's a shame. Because McCreary was more than a chef – she was one of the original chef-activists. These days the idea of chef on a mission to change the way the world eats isn't so strange; but it wasn't exactly ordinary two decades ago when McCreary wrote “Menu for a Small Planet,” a 2,000-word column calling for the reorganization of the local food system.
It was controversial at the time, but read it and you might be convinced it was just written yesterday. McCreary suggests things like eating less meat and more vegetables, better farmer-chef partnerships, and making agriculture a financially viable career – in other words, ideas we're still talking about today. In some areas, like getting customers to appreciate organic produce, there's been progress. In others, like getting a central market for the commercial sale of local produce, nothing's changed.
And even if McCreary's passion for restaurant-running has petered out, get her talking about food systems and sustainability and it's clear she's still fiercely passionate about food. She attends conferences of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a food-focused nonprofit, and insists “good, wholesome food should not cost you a paycheck.” (Therefore, her thoughts on Whole Foods, as you can imagine, are pretty entertaining.)
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Considering it all – her influence back then, her persistent passion now – it's hard to imagine the Valley food scene wouldn't look different today if McCreary had stayed. Who's to say what changes a nationally recognized chef with a strong vision could have helped enact? Maybe we'd have the green market she envisioned 20 years ago. Maybe not. In any case, we'll probably never know.
When asked if she ever misses her former life — a life in which she had fame and success and a mission — McCreary pauses, only for a second, then without the slightest hesitation says, “No.”
Tickets to the James Beard Foundation's Taste America dinner in Phoenix on Friday, September 25 at the Royal Palms are available online. The dinner event will feature multiple courses from chefs including Michel Nischan and Chris Bianco; RoxSand Scocos McCreary will prepare dessert. Tickets start at $275 per person.
For more information visit the Taste America website.