Primo Tucson chef de cuisine Roderick LeDesma grew up cooking with his mom and watching PBS cooking icons Julia Child, Martin Yan, Jacques Pépin, and Graham Kerr.
Just before heading into his senior year at the University of Arizona as a psychology student, LeDesma experienced a culinary epiphany while watching the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille. After switching to culinary school and working at In-N-Out Burger a few years, he earned a spot at Primo at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa.
Two-time James Beard award-winning executive chef Melissa Kelly noticed LeDesma’s talent and asked him to cook under her at Primo Maine. In 2015, he returned to Primo Tucson to oversee daily kitchen operations as the chef de cuisine. Don’t miss out on his cuisine highlighting phenomenal local ingredients and house-made charcuterie.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?
This is really hard to answer, just because I feel it has happened many times in my life. Even something as simple as a quesadilla. I remember noticing the difference between the way my mom and grandpa made them. My mom in a dry pan with whatever cheese, probably Monterey Jack, and my grandpa with butter in the pan and Mexican cheese. But, it made me think how little things can change things in a big way.
The first time I tried produce from Sleeping Frog Farm, I noticed such a huge difference in something that was grown with care, that was organic versus supermarket produce. You can see and taste the difference. When I had a pork chop in Primo Maine from the pigs that were raised there all year, the huge fat cap just melts in your mouth and it’s so flavorful. And you know how much went in to raising these animals, it makes you feel different and you appreciate it so much more.
2) What are you eating these days?
Do any of us [chefs] actually get to eat? I think I survive off tasting things on the line and espresso.
I don’t get to go out to eat often, but lately been making a lot of pizzas at home with my fiancé.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
Chocolate chip cookies. My mom always cooked, we never went out to eat when I was a kid. I remember sitting on the counter when I was very young watching her make cookies and she always showed me how to make them. I actually have a tattoo of a chocolate chip cookie on my arm because of that.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
I wouldn’t say this is trendy, since it’s been being done for thousands of years, but I love charcuterie and fermentation. Been playing around with lots of things with that. It’s amazing how much, at its most simple, just salt and time can change a product. We get a whole pig every month from Starbar Farm & Ranch and the whole team breaks it down together and we use every single bit of it for something.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
Eat with — would have to be Anthony Bourdain. I mean, the guy has been everywhere, eats how I would eat, and drinks. Thoroughly envious of his job. Plus, the guy seems cool as hell. Have you read his books? Fucking great.
Cook with is a hard decision, there are so many I’d love to. I’m gonna say Massimo Bottura.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
Damn, this is hard to pick between the two, but Portland, Oregon and New Orleans. Both places are just fucking incredible for anyone looking to eat and drink. I can’t wait to go back, you really have to try to have a bad meal in those cities.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Can’t say I ever feel guilty about pleasures. But I do like Reese’s peanut butter cups.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
Hard to say. Definitely Elliott’s on Congress, that place is like my Cheers. Go in, know everyone, everyone knows you. A lot of industry people have adopted Elliott’s as their go to, it’s a place where I feel at ease.
BK Tacos — hands down best Sonoran dog. And the al pastor tacos, carne asada, honestly haven’t had anything I didn’t like from there. And it’s always so fresh, the salsa bar is killer, and the Micheladas are so damn good.
Prep & Pastry — they just kill it for brunch. And their pastries are seriously good. I still dream about this snickerdoodle bar they had. I haven’t seen it there in so long, but damn.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
It would have to be something my mom made, cause it would just bring me comfort. I’d say her lasagna and meatballs.
[01/29/2018 edit: LeDesma is now Chef de Cuisine at PY Steakhouse at Casino Del Sol Resort]
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran’s Fats. Although he is best known locally for his work for Tucson Foodie, his work has also appeared in publications such as Bon...