Steven "Chops" Smith Dishes on the Weirdest Thing He Ever Ate (It Smells Bad) and Why He Loves Japanese Cuisine

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Steven "Chops" Smith Searsucker 6900 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale 480-664-3777 www.searsucker.com/scottsdale/

See also: Top Chef Brian Malarkey Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Searsucker's Grand Opening

This is part one of my interview with Steven "Chops" Smith, executive chef of Searsucker. Come back Tuesday when Smith dishes about Chris Curtiss, the guys at Citizen and what he learned from Ivan Flowers.

Everyone calls Steven Smith "Chops" because of his signature 70's-era sideburns. But there's something about this light-hearted, high-energy guy that says "elf" not "Elvis" to me. He's got a twinkle, and the enthusiasm bubbling up from his kitchen staff (usually a top-down situation) is downright infectious. Everyone seems genuinely excited to be part of Top Chef Brian Malarkey's Searsucker and none more so than Smith.

Although he began working in restaurants at an early age (busing, bartending and serving at Eddie's Grill on 7th Street in high school and junior college), the restaurant business was a means to an end at the time. Smith's passion was Motocross, and he worked the California circuit until a string of accidents made him re-think the sport. By 2000, he knew he wanted to go to culinary school and enrolled at SCI, where he graduated with honors. His first professional stint at Furio (under Jager Griffin) was followed by a gig as sous chef at Different Pointe of View, where he was mentored by Ivan Flowers. When Flowers left to open his own spot in Sedona, Smith followed, later moving to Luc's (which he calls a "shit show"), then Sushi Roku "for a quick, hot minute," then St. Francis for 7 months and finally Noca, where he worked with Chris Curtiss for a year.

He and a pack of close friends spent nearly two years trying to open Monroe's Social House, which never came to fruition. Meanwhile, Smith was making ends meet one way or another, working for Michael DeMaria, jumping back to Noca and consulting for Kelly's at Southbridge. He's a pickle-whisperer who brings his culinary chops and his playful side together at Searsucker.

Five words to describe you: I'm a Taurus - stubborn, intense, passionate, artistic, crazy.

Five words to describe Searsucker: Eclectic, fun, vibrant, soulful, energetic.

Favorite food smell: Anything being pickled.

Favorite cookbook and why: The French Laundry Cookbook. It changed me and the rest of America's culinary world.

Name an ingredient you love to cook with and explain why: Avocado. It's creamy, delicate and delicious. Have you ever had avocado-banana guacamole? Insanely rad.

Most over-rated ingredient: How does an ingredient get over-rated and who decides??

Most under-rated ingredient: Vinegar. I finish everything with it. It's all about balance.

Trend you like: Self-sustainability. Dish/trend or catch-phrase you wish would go away and why: I'll tell you what's horrible -- hamburger sliders. Who wants overcooked little burgers? Unless its White Castle or the Chicago Hamburger Co. That's different.

Your favorite cuisine and why: That's a toss up between French and Japanese. You take two classically trained chefs in each cuisine, put them anywhere in the world in any kitchen and they'll figure it out.

Weirdest thing you ever ate: Fermented tofu when I was working in China. You could smell it from a few blocks away and it tastes just like it smells. Merit!

Describe a meal you like to cook at home: Any kind of hand-made pasta. My daughter Ivy is three and she can already roll it out on our Kitchen-Aid and fill raviolis.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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