Samuel Murillo of Orange Sky

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This week we chat with Samuel Murillo, Executive Sous Chef at Orange Sky at the Talking Stick Resort and Casino.

Chef Murillo recently won a regional paella competition hosted by the American Culinary Federation and will go on to represent the West in the national paella cook-off in Dallas on July 24th. When we sat down to talk shop, life, and paella we were also overjoyed to secure his winning recipe for the traditional Spanish dish with a Southwestern flare. (We'll share it later this week.)

Chef Murillo met us in the casino lobby and proceeded to lead us deftly through a series of kitchens and prep rooms and eventually up to the luxurious Orange Sky itself. Along the way, kitchen staff and line cooks greeted the chef cheerfully and he did not hesitate to make pit stops to catch up with them. Though the restaurants at Talking Stick are some of the largest and most saturated operations in the Valley, the mood in the back is cordial and welcoming to say the least. We couldn't help but wonder how a place as hectic as a restaurant kitchen could be so chilled out.

What goes into creating this atmosphere, what's your philosophy for working with the staff?
We as chefs are are instructors, we're here to teach. I myself work on the line quite a bit...Just because you're a chef doesn't mean you know everything. I learn every day from my cooks...I like to listen to their experiences because they can always help us out. In a crunch, they may have a technique that'll get us through, you never know.

Things are bound to get hectic at some points, aren't you tempted to lay down the law?
If we yell at them and degrade them then they won't do anything for us when we need them...if we don't show them that we care and the passion that we have, they're not gonna have that and that will spill on to the guests...I look at crises or mistakes as learning blocks...I never get after the staff, I never raise my voice or try to talk down to a cook, because they're learning.

Alright, so tell us how you came to compete in this paella cook-off
We were hosting the ACF regional meeting here. There were several competitors and they had narrowed down to like four or five. Something happened to one of the competitors and the ACF asked if anybody would want to join...It was last minute for me....I was kinda familiar with paella and what it's all about, but working with Mark Miller and some of the well-known Southwestern chefs I knew more about chili.

But somehow you threw together a winning entry
I knew right when I started cooking that I had a very good chance just by looking and the ingredients that people had...I really knew in-depth what I was doing, as far as ingredients, the flavor profile I was after, the different chilies I was using. Paella is something that is done outside, open fire, with the wood burning, and it's got all that smokey flavor going on. That's what I was kinda after, so I used poblanos which has got a smokey chili on it, I used chipotle which is also a smoke jalapeno.

Will you be cooking the same recipe in Dallas?
There it's going to be a paella but the ingredients are going to be different. They're going to have some mystery ingredients and it's going to be left for our creativity. They're going to take a recipe, standardize it, "now here are these ingredients, make it unique."

We wish you best of luck out there!
I'm not really worried about the competition. I want to go over there and win already...I'm not intimidated by any of the chefs. I don't know who they are but I feel it's an honor to even be at that table with all those chefs. But someone's gonna win and I will come home with the victory, not just for Arizona but for the casino and most importantly for my family, and i feel proud about that.

Tell us a little more about your family, where are you from?
I'm from Surprise, Arizona. I'm the youngest of three boys so that kinda left me in the kitchen with mom. That started at the age of three, sitting on the counters and watching her do stuff...My parents were hardworking people. I remember at three I was working in the fields...

That sounds rough, what did working the land teach you?
It taught me a lot how to respect hard work, accomplishment, and doing stuff that you want to better yourself. You start with nothing and working with people who have no education, just getting by, and that kind of pushed me to what I do now as far as giving it my all.

What kind of place was Surprise?
The neighborhoods we grew up with, gangs and stuff, it was big...A lot of my friends lived that lifestyle, and today they still do...I grew up where there were towns that didn't like each other. It was difficult because where I grew up we had to cross towns on the buses to get to school, so that school had a variety of different neighborhoods that went there, and that of course caused a lot of problems.

Did you avoid trouble?
I started working as soon as I could at sixteen, working long shifts on weekends, working doubles, i didn't have the urge to go out and party or hang out or do any misfits stuff, I just concentrated on working and trying to better myself.

Cooking to me, it helps me escape a lot of things. It kept me away from a lot of bad, because it's so demanding and you've gotta devote yourself to it. If you do it half way, you're not going to be successful.

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