Todd Sicolo Dishes on Grant Achatz and His Short-Lived Las Vegas Marriage

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Todd Sicolo T. Cook's at Royal Palms Resort & Spa 5200 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix 602-808-0766 royalpalmshotel.com

See also: -- Josh Riesner of Scottsdale's Pig & Pickle Dishes on Bartending Bullshit and What He Ate That You Never Will - Keenan Bosworth of Pig & Pickle Dishes about Chrysa Robertson, Phoenix as a Food Town and Who He's Had Fun With in the Kitchen - Chef Todd Sicolo Leaves Arizona Biltmore for Royal Palms

This is part one of my interview with Todd Sicolo, executive chef at T. Cook's and the Royal Palms Resort & Spa. Come back Tuesday when Sicolo dishes about what he learned at the Biltmore and why he loves Eddie Matney.

Todd Sicolo is a little picky about his fruit -- apples, pears and cherries in particular. Raised in upstate New York by food-focused parents who had a garden, canned their own tomato sauce and turned apples into apple butter, applesauce, apple everything, he grew up appreciating honest food made with fresh ingredients. By the time he was 10, he was cooking with his grandmothers and by 15, he was peeling potatoes for the restaurant his dad and uncle had recently founded. After high school (which he hated, but who didn't?), he knew he didn't want to work in the family business, so he applied to the CIA, the only school Sicolo says would admit him without an SAT score. He took it seriously and performed well, taking a gig at an allegedly haunted B&B upon graduation.

After zigging at a small-scale operation, he zagged to The Quilted Giraffe in New York, where he learned about game before the cold weather got to him and he signed on with a yachting company in Florida, doing private dinners as well as high-volume banquets up and down the inner coast. His next gig was at the Hyatt in Coral Gables, followed by the Boca Raton Resort & Club, where his job as executive chef tournant brought something different every day.

Feeling lost after his divorce, he moved to Las Vegas, first working as a corporate chef for Warner Brothers, later moving to the Venetian and eventually the Bellagio. Somewhere along the way, he got married in a drive-through wedding chapel, an experience he swears was a cross between What Happens in Vegas and The Hangover. When the marriage fell apart six months later, he moved back to Florida, taking a job at Little Dix Bay in the Caribbean, where he nixed the frozen products the resort had been buying and started foraging and sourcing from local farmers and fishermen.

When the executive chef position at the Arizona Biltmore opened up in 2007, he grabbed it, opening Frank & Albert's and re-tooling Wright's during his five-year stint there. He's just getting acclimated to his new gig at The Royal Palms but feels excited about the gradual transformation he plans to initiate. "We're going to take baby steps," he says, "It would be culture shock" for T. Cook's many loyal customers "if we changed things too quickly." Sicolo plans to bring the restaurant up to date, forging relationships with local farmers and artisans as he focuses the menu on seasonality. You could say he's come full circle.

Five words to describe you: Creative, passionate, prideful, perfectionist, integrity.

Five words to describe T. Cook's: Romantic, fun, comforting, dynamic, legendary.

Favorite cookbook and why: I still love Alinea! The restaurant is amazing and so is the cookbook. Chef Grant Achatz presents some groundbreaking molecular gastronomy techniques. He's ambitious. I'm still having fun experimenting with the recipes.

Favorite food smell and why: I love the aroma of garlic toasted in olive oil with fresh oregano and chili flakes. Reminds me of home, family gatherings and comfort.

Ingredient you love to cook with and why: I'm Sicilian.... so garlic! I guess it's in my genes. I ALWAYS have some on hand to whip up a dish from something so simple.

What's your guilty pleasure?: I can crush an entire bowl of popcorn all by myself. I love salty savory crackly snacks. I keep it simple. The guilty part is the actual amount I eat in one sitting.

Most over-rated ingredient: Field greens! ARGH! When I eat them it reminds me of the days of playing soccer, sliding in the grass and getting a mouth full of grass clippings.

Most under-rated ingredient: I'm gonna actually say two -- fennel bulbs and root vegetables (like rutabagas or turnips.) All are very versatile, and can easily be made into a wonderful salad, sides, or simply cooked with butter, sea salt and pepper.

Restaurant trend you like: Farm to fork, local partnerships with local farms.

Restaurant trend you hate: Grass-fed beef; you really have to do your homework on this item. There are 100 % grass-feed cattle ranches, but there are also cattle ranches that feed the cattle corn the bulk of their lives, then in the last 3 to 4 months they move them to grass feed. Do your homework. Don't take this for granted. Read up on the ranch. It's a good rule of thumb to do with all specialized products.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker 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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