Chef Devon Sanner (Photo by Jackie Tran)

Nine On The Line With Devon Sanner of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

September 4, 2015
By C.J. Hamm
By C.J. Hamm

Devon Sanner is Chef de Cuisine at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. Born and raised in Tucson, Sanner studied Russian and Political Science at the University of Arizona before enrolling at Scottsdale Culinary Institute.

After culinary school in 2005, followed by an externship at Janos, Sanner worked his way up the ranks at Janos and J Bar, to his current position in 2009. When both Janos and J Bar closed in 2012, Sanner joined Janos at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.

Sanner has also cooked at The American Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival three times, staged at Tru, Alinea, and at Momofuku Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar in New York.

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

Last year David Solorzano (Chef de Cuisine at Hacienda del Sol) invited me to harvest a couple of pigs he raised. Along with a few of his junior crew, we slaughtered and butchered the sows ourselves. As a cook, you’re taught to treat food with respect, to take care of it. But actually taking the life of an animal and butchering it – that’s an entirely different and sublime responsibility.

I think that every cook, and probably anyone that eats meat, should have that very visceral experience. (We’d probably have a lot more vegetarians.) Meat isn’t something in sanitary packaging at the supermarket – it’s an animal that has ceased to be so that you could eat. This animal just gave up its life so that you could make food. Treat it with the utmost respect. Don’t fuck it up. Don’t waste it. Use every part of the animal to its utmost.

I took one of the heads of this beautiful black pig and made some torchons that I fried and served with caper berries, pickles, spicy mustard, and edible flowers. I’ll remember the dish for how that experience really demanded that I be conscientious in a way that I don’t think I could have been if it was just product rolling off a delivery truck.

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What are you eating these days?

During the summer at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, we run our “Around the Globe” menu series, where we create tasting menus around a different city for each month. We’re just launching our Chengdu, China menu September 1, so I’ve been eating a lot of Sichuan food lately. I put a good amount of research and development into recipe testing and dining out when and where I can for reference points on flavor profiles. I’ve been putting up variations of Ma Po Doufu for staff meal at the restaurant, cooking Yu Xiang eggplant at home on my days off, and putting together impressive tabs at Jun Dynasty and Szechuan Omei.

What was the first dish you remember cooking?

Since the days when my brother and I were knee-high to a poodle, we made pizzas with our dad on Friday nights. We’d bloom the yeast, make the dough, stretch it into the pan, make an oregano-heavy red sauce, scatter it with fresh sausage and spicy pepperoni, and grate a ball of mozzarella over it. It was fantastic. My dad worked a lot, so we cherished getting the time to do things like that with him. The love and the warmth of making a meal together is the best.

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

I hate to yuck anybody else’s yum. There’s room enough for all of us. That being said, I can’t get behind the fetish-ization of certain ingredients and the gustatory extremism that results.

Hops, for example. If you’re in a well-curated shop like Tap + Bottle, Plaza, Axis, or 1702, there are some truly fabulous bottles to be found. If you’re cruising the craft beer aisle at the supermarket, though, it’s suddenly the war of the IPAs to out-bitter one another. I love a good IPA, but I don’t need 400 IBUs, thank you.

Chiles are another victim of this gastronomic dick-swinging. I love spicy food, but as we’ve progressed from habanero to ghost chile to Trinidad scorpion chile to Guatemalan insanity pepper, we’ve lost sight of flavor and opted for YouTube-ready consumption of weaponized capsaicin. Take one step back from the edge, people. It’s OK.

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

Janos and I will be opening an event space/cooking class/guest chef dinner venue in early 2016, and I’m hoping to have the opportunity to work with several of Tucson’s great talents for pop-ups and benefits.

I’d love to cook with Maria Lamadrid from Boca, Kusuma Rao (whose Ruchikala pop-up dinners fuse the cuisine of India with the American Southwest), Travis Peters of the Parish, Ginny Wooters (most recently of Commoner & Co.), and a little reunion with my erstwhile compatriots Bruce Yim and David Solorzano (currently of Hacienda del Sol), just to name a few.

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

Probably New York. It has such a thriving culinary scene with phenomenally talented and hard-working chefs and cooks, as well as a dining public to support them and allow them to thrive. There’s an embarrassment of riches in New York at any price point from Crif Dogs to the Momofuku empire to Per Se. It’s also an ethnographic atlas of food. They have the culinary equivalent of Rule 34; if there’s a group of people that have a distinct food, somebody is making it in New York.

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

Chips and salsa are my needle and spoon. You know the Louis C.K. line: “The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself.”? That’s me with a bag of chips and salsa, guacamole, hummus… whatever. After my baby daughter was born last year, I resolved to get healthier for her sake and mine. Curbing my chips habit, I’ve dropped over 50 pounds in the last 10 months.

Top three Tucson restaurants?

And now for the crimes of omission. Fellow chefs and Tucson culinary types: know that I love you. If I don’t name-check you here, well, mea maxima culpa.

Maria Lamadrid over at Boca has been seeing a lot of me lately. She destroyed me in a taco competition at the Tucson Culinary Festival a few years back, and deservedly so. Her tacos are on point and her infinitely inventive arsenal of salsas keep me coming back.

My wife and I routinely cross our fingers that our baby’s nap schedule syncs up so that we can get over to Prep & Pastry on one of my days off. Very good menu very well executed.

Lastly, I’m already missing The Twisted Tandoor, whose presence parked across from Himmel Park made me delighted for Wednesday nights off. My thoughts are with the Singh family.

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

Take out Chinese food with friends and family. A last meal for me would definitely be about connections with loved ones. If I’m checking out, I want the fun and casual intimacy of passing around the twice cooked pork, taking the chiles and mushrooms that others pushed to the edge of the plate, breaking open the fortune cookies and adding the phrase, “…in bed” as everyone reads their fortunes aloud.

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