Though Alex O’Neill was born in New York, Tucson has been his home since age five. And other than a stint to teach elementary school, he has worked in restaurants his entire professional career.
Now executive chef at Agustin Kitchen, O’Neill serves global cuisine featuring 100% sustainable proteins and a wide range of local produce.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food?
Sushi. I was a pretty picky eater when I was a kid, which drove my parents insane. I remember being 9 or 10 and my father taking me to some hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant on the east side. He didn’t say anything about what he was doing, just sat down and proceeded to order a massive table spread. Of course, when it arrived I protested, but after watching him eat a few pieces I reluctantly tried my first unagi (freshwater eel). It blew my mind how delicious it was and we sat there probably two hours as he and the chef enjoyed introducing me to each new item. That experience is always a reminder to try everything at least once because you never know.
2) What are you eating these days?
Right now, it’s a bunch of R & D – things that we’re working on for the new menu – from curry and dhal to venison and chicken thighs. I made sancocho the other day for staff, which is a traditional Latin stew that always transports me back to a child when I eat it.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
Rigatoni with a meat sauce. So, my sister is seven years older than me, and of course, being the little brother, I was always annoying. I remember her cooking her first meal for the family, lemon pepper chicken, and it being awful. Too much pepper, too much salt, too much everything. So naturally, I said I could do better. I got my ingredients, took my time with the sauce, noodles cooked perfectly — I was very impressed with myself, but in my eagerness I started a bit early and my mom hadn’t gotten home yet. So naturally I left the sauce on the stove with the heat on to keep it warm. When it was finally time to eat I sadly discovered that I had burned my sauce so bad and tried to play it off. I still remember my sister laughing. Karma.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
I think the one thing we’ve been working on the most over the past few years is our pickle and ferments program. I often find that when I go out and get pickles it’s just the same old thing, too much vinegar which masks the flavor of whatever it is that you’re eating and never ferments. I love it when I can get something that is interesting but still allows me to taste the zucchini or carrot or cucumber, etcetera.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
Probably Andrew Zimmern. He’s traveled the world eating odd foods and I would just love for him to take me around one day and introduce me to strange cuisine I would normally never consider — not because of trepidation, but just not knowing what to get.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
I don’t know if it would end up being my favorite place, but I was in New York for a while over the summer and I made a huge list of places that I needed to go to by talking to locals, coworkers, and even cab drivers.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
I am a sucker for chocolate milk.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
Poco & Mom’s, Sher-E-Punjab, and Yamato. I was taught that the trick is to go to Sher-E-Punjab, place your to-go order, then go next door to Yamato for sashimi. Close runner-up is Char’s Thai Restaurant.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
Anything my mom or dad are cooking. Puerto Rican cuisine has such a massive hold on my heart, there would be no other way to go out than with a belly full of pernil and alcapurrias.
Catch chef Alex O’Neill at Agustin Kitchen at 100 S. Avenida del Convento #150. For more information, visit agustinkitchen.com.