Pop-Up Tucson chef Riley Chandler may only be 23 years old, but his popular, underground dinners sell out as if he's been doing it for decades.
Chandler grew up spending time in his grandmother's kitchen, but developed his hustle at age 16 while working in Tucson's first Five Guys Burgers and Fries location when it opened. The lines from open to close taught him how to handle a busy kitchen line.
Shortly after, Chandler worked for a private catering company, then the University of Arizona's catering. He set his eyes on the restaurants of chef Janos Wilder, Janos and J Bar at the time. He met chef Devon Sanner, who invited him to a stagiaire position in both restaurants. This eventually earned him the chance to work at Wilder's current two restaurants, DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails and the Carriage House.
"I'm playing with mixing Italian techniques with Sonoran flavors. I grew up in Tucson and my family is Italian so those two influences go hand in hand in some of my dishes."
While Chandler still occasionally cooks at Carriage House, he now operates his own personal chef business. Additionally, his Pop-Up Tucson venture has been an underground success — even though the menu and location of events aren't revealed until 48 hours before the dinner, the most recent dinner sold out within a week.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective of food?
Homemade gnocchi that my grandmother made. It was the textures and technique that went into making them that fascinated me. Also, discovering that there was a type of pasta made from potatoes really made me curious of what other foods are out there that I don't know about.
2) What are you eating these days?
I've been eating a lot of sandwiches using Barrio Bread. They’re easy to grab and eat while I’m working and on the go. Lots of tacos too. I frequent taco restaurants around town and shop at carnicerias.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
Professionally, when I started working at Janos I was 17 years old. I walked in the kitchen on my first day and they handed me a few giant cases of squash to make calabacitas.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
I am playing with mixing Italian techniques with Sonoran flavors. I grew up in Tucson and my family is Italian so those two influences go hand in hand in some of my dishes.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
If I could cook dinner with anyone, Mario Batali. If I could eat dinner with anyone, Taylor Swift.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
San Francisco, hands down. It’s the New York City of the west coast. A few of my favorite spots there are Slanted Door, Swan Oyster Depot, and Sam’s Burgers — Anthony Bourdain went in there pretty drunk on his show and said it was the third best burger in the world.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Dunkin' Donuts. And mac and cheese that I often find myself throwing in the grocery cart along with my Fruity Pebbles.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
Tacos Apson, Dante’s Fire, and North Italia.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
I would want to fly Thomas Keller to the prison and have him cook me a 12-course French Laundry menu before they press the button.
For more info on Riley Chandler, visit rileychandlerpc.com.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...