When Tommy Begay turned 16, he scratched his culinary itch working in fast food.
Begay’s real kitchen experience began at Pei Wei Asian Diner, where he moved up the ranks to trainer, kitchen manager, and assistant general manager. A fellow chef offered him the chance to open their own restaurant, Café 940 at Main Gate Square.
After the restaurant permanently closed, Begay jumped right back into Asian cuisine at Neo of Melaka. Once Neo implemented sushi onto their menu, he learned the beauty of sushi’s simplicity while making rice for sushi chef Yasutaka Kojima.
After his sushi epiphany, Begay applied around and RA Sushi was the only place to call him back. After four years at RA, Sushi on Oracle’s owner and sushi chef Yoshinobu “Yoshi” Shiratori walked in, bought a beer for Begay, and offered him a position. Seven years later, the two still continuously supply some of Tucson’s best sushi.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective of food?
Growing up Navajo, food is a major part of our culture so I think everything I ate shaped the way I taste food. One dish from my childhood sticks out though. My grandma Bernice made this huge meal — this huge feast — with lobster, steak, mutton ribs, fry bread, and all the fixings. She even had out these cool tealight butter melters. It was probably one of the most extravagant meals anyone in tiny rural Sawmill, Arizona had ever had. I hated it. I mean, I was six. I sat there for what felt like forever until I had nothing on the plate left but peas. Irritated, my grandfather finally sent me to my room while grumbling, “You should learn how to cook if you don’t like what your grandma made.”
2) What are you eating these days?
Everything from delicious home-cooked meals like Navajo tacos my better half, Marlana, makes, to experimental dishes that chef Travis Peters brings through the back door for us to taste. When I’m at work, I eat a lot of natto or avocado hand rolls for a quick bite.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
My mom was a full-time student and worked full time, so occasionally she would come back late. To help out, I tried to cook for my brothers every so often. Usually simple meals — let’s just say I wouldn’t blame my brothers if they hated ground beef.
One day my brothers straight-up got sick of my food and wanted something like my mom would make. My mom often had salmon in the fridge that she cooked all the time. So I decided “eff it.” I took the salmon, a bunch veggies, potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, and some salt and pepper, wrapped it with bacon and tossed it in the oven. I don’t remember what temp or how long it was in but it was the best thing I have ever made.
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
I’m always playing with food and flavors. I really like making dishes with Japanese influence or trying fusion concepts. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with fusing ramen and New Mexico red chile posole and slow-cooked pork. One of my favorite fusion ideas is to make a green tea and red bean twist on crème brûlée.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
Paulo Im. We have unique, paralleled, and contrasting views on food. We have worked together before and did a pop-up years ago, so it would be so much fun to work on a menu and concept together. He is also fun to sit down and enjoy a meal with.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
I hardly leave town. However, when I do, I love eating at any roadside or flea market food stand on the Navajo reservation. Roast mutton sandwiches are the best. They’re deliciously simple. In addition, the original Diablo Burger in Flagstaff is pretty great.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Taco Bell hands down. With a ton of Fire and Diablo sauce. I keep it simple, just soft tacos and bean burritos.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
The Parish is amazing. Whenever they have an event, we try to be there. They’re the greatest neighbors a foodie could have.
Miss Saigon — my family and I used to eat there all the time until the Ina location closed. Even still we try to travel all the way across town to get our pho fix.
Can’t forget Prep & Pastry. I often go alone so I slide right in and sit at the bar. However, it’s totally worth the wait when I go with a group or my family.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
That would have been the meal my late grandmother made all those years ago. Minus the peas.
Catch Tommy Begay at Sushi on Oracle at 6449 N. Oracle Rd. For more information, visit sushionoracle.net.
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...