Nine On The Line With Job Corps’ Michael Lopez

Michael Lopez hails from Omaha, Nebraska. With two meat packing house uncles, Lopez found love for butchery at a very young age.

Lopez moved to Arizona in 1993 after a 7 year stint in the Marine Corps to attend Scottsdale Culinary Institute followed by a 13 year stint at Marriott, which included working on, designing and planning teams to open kitchens for University of Arizona Marriott hotel and Diamond Children Medical Center.

These days, Lopez teaches food services, life skills, healthy eating, food budgets, and food safety to at-risk youth at Job Corps. In his off time, Chef Lopez is the Director of Baseball for District 5 Little League.

What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective of food?

I traveled the world while in the Marines spending time in Okinawa, Korea, Philippines and Puerto Rico. Being exposed to the flavors of world cuisine definitely had a major impact, but probably the fresh seafood and sushi.

What are you eating these days?

I tend to gravitate towards Mexican food for the most part, as it’s abundant and the kids enjoy it. Also any seafood, Cuban, Korean, French, and Italian pasta with pesto. Those are some of my favorites.

What was the first dish you remember cooking?

My mother was a nurse and worked her shifts during dinner hours, so my Dad did most of the cooking. I remember learning to make fresh marinara sauce (no Prego or Ragu allowed in the house) would be my earliest memory of cooking. As with everything, my flavors and techniques have changed over the years.

What concept, ingredient or food trend does everyone seem to love, but you just can’t stomach?

I am not a big fan of fusion cuisine. Merging Asian and Mexican to get a Tokyo Beef Burrito? I don’t understand it. I am a traditionalist with most foods. I believe you shouldn’t over complicate them. Just enjoy the dish for what it is.

What chef, with us or passed on, would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?

Chef Andre Soltner former owner of Lutèce in NYC has always been an idol of mine. I have read books, studied recipes and am just generally a big fan of his. I have never met him but dined in his restaurants in New York and Las Vegas. Sadly, since his retirement, all of his restaurants are closed now. I have carried some quotes from his books in my wallet for over 25 years, such as, “Cooking is a love affair, when I cook for someone what I hope to see in return is love in their eyes for what I’ve given them. then I have succeeded,” and, “It is true that you must learn to cook. It is also true that you must love to cook, have feeling, but that is not enough. Love without technique is no good. Technique without love is also no good.”

What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?

I visit San Diego a few times a year. Seaport Village, Old Town and Little Italy are must visit’s when I am there.

Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?

Fresh Kettle Corn. It’s just carbs covered in sugar but the sweet and savory flavors are perfect.

Top three Tucson restaurants?

That’s a hard one. I have certain things I go to specific places for. Overall, I’d say Vivace. Daniel (Scordato) is a local celebrity in the food world and does a solid job. I love the Mussels at HUB on Congress. The Vegas Roll at Sushi Nara at Speedway and Camino Seco is the best I’ve had in town. For family comfort food, I have been going to El Molinito on Ina Rd since the kids were toddlers. The wait staff has been there for years and knows us on sight. It’s always very welcoming with hugs and handshakes.

With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?

In Nebraska there is a restaurant chain called Runza Hut, which is a bread filled with ground beef, cabbage, onion and seasoning and then baked. It’s in the Russian Perogi family and brought to the US by Volga Germans which are Germans from Russia. That is what I am having.

C.J. Hamm is a native Tucsonan and has been covering the local culinary and cocktail scene since 2012.

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