Nine On The Line: NoRTH Italia Executive Chef Kevin Handt

Chef Kevin Handt, long time sous chef to Carlos Calderon, is the newly-promoted executive chef of North Italia. Handt is a Tucson native, who discovered his penchant and talent for cooking at the age of five when he first successfully flipped an egg.

Chef Handt is a graduate of Pima Culinary Institute and has worked in some of Tucson’s best kitchens before joining the NoRTH team as sous chef in 2012. Handt loves NoRTH’s open kitchen concept and the personal interaction it gives him with guests on a daily basis. When he’s not at North, Handt enjoys spending time with his family, and flipping eggs.

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

Growing up, I always had an interest in food, but the one dish that really changed my perspective would be the octopus salad that we made at Primo. It isn’t just the dish itself though, it was the process in which I learned how to make it. Braising it in red wine with basic mire poix then using wine corks to ensure that the octopus would come out tender. And you can’t use these newer foam rubber corks, they have to be the real corks made out of wood. After it’s braised long enough to be tender we would marinate it in Olive Oil, Basil and Garlic and grill it to order in a salad with frisee, pesto vinaigrette, charred fingerling potatoes and haricot verts.

Octopus Salad at Primo (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

Octopus Salad at Primo (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

What are you eating these days?

What am I not eating? In culinary school I witnessed a lot of picky eaters that wouldn’t try anything. I vowed, right then and there, to at least try everything once. This is how my love for Vietnamese and Korean food began. Pho, ramen, street tacos and Korean barbecue – I can’t get enough of this stuff. Kimchi, pickled vegetables, I throw it all on my plate. I especially love to recreate these dishes at home.

What was the first dish you remember cooking?

My mother will tell you that I was flipping eggs at an early age, but I don’t remember that. The dish I remember making first is the “after Thanksgiving turkey soup.” I cut all the mire poix and gathered everything in the pot to make my mom’s simple egg noodle recipe with flour all over the floors and counters and my hands covered in dough. We would drop the noodles right into the soup, causing the soup to thicken a little as noodles cook. I still make this every year that I have the chance.

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

Kale. I don’t get it. We eat this as a great health food, a “super food,” but the only way to make it edible is to either braise it in stock and butter, or make it in a salad with so much dressing and other ingredients to mask the taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love braised kale with a short rib, or a nice seared steak, but you won’t catch me eating it raw.

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

Thomas Keller. When I read about his kitchens, or look into his cookbooks everything is so simple. I love it. Taking that one ingredient and making it the star is what all food should be about. I believe it was in The French Laundry where he talks about his carrot soup. Simply taking carrots and gently sweating them, adding a little stock, some cream and seasoning it after blending. It doesn’t get any simpler and you don’t mask the star of the show. If I could cook a meal side by side with him, finish the night with some wine and just listen to some of his stories, I would be in heaven.

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

I love eating in San Diego. It could be that while I’m there I eat an insane amount of fish tacos, but it could also be that I have caught fish from the ocean and two hours later we’re all eating taco on the beach around a bon fire. These fond memories might have influenced my choice a little, but every time I’m in San Diego we eat at a place downtown called Café 222. It’s a basic breakfast place, but they have a tamale breakfast with “Mexican gravy,” which is basically enchilada sauce, that I can’t get over.

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

Sonoran Dogs. Bacon wrapped around a hot dog, guac sauce, chili sauce, beans and other condiments, you can’t beat this. They’re usually $2.50 and there’s always a cart open somewhere. My favorite right now is on the corner of Prince and Campbell. The guy there toasts the outside of the buns. Not all places do this which adds that extra element of texture and flavor.

Top three Tucson restaurants?

Aside from the great restaurants that Fox has, and in no particular order, 47 Scott, Kingfisher and Miss Saigon. Kingfisher is the place to go for seafood. Their lobster roll is something everyone should try at least once. Miss Saigon is my spot for Pho. Even when it’s over 100º outside, I still stop in and for Pho. At 47 Scott, for my birthday, the service was impeccable, the food seasoned perfect and the hospitality was out of this world.

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

Fava beans and a nice chianti? No. Would it be possible to have a taco bar? Carnitas, carne asada, kimchi, fried fish, grilled fish, different kinds of slaws, salsas, limes, and chiles. Get your Sonoran and Korean fix all at once. And, don’t forget the ice cold beer. A nice mix of IPA, Belgian wheats, and maybe a Whiskey. Let’s make it a party when I’m getting fried…

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

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