Executive chef Keith Parker at Zona 78 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Zona 78 executive chef Keith Parker began his culinary career with fast food. It all started at Church’s Chicken and transitioned to Asian cuisine as a prep cook at Iron Grill.
Parker worked his way into kitchen management, opening and operating a prep kitchen for the three Iron Grill locations. However, his gourmet genesis began at Zona 78 when he became a pizza cook, giving him his first taste of a fully-scratch kitchen working under an actual chef.
Although Parker never aimed to be a chef, he became one over time working under the influence of Ramiro Scavo, Kevin Fink, Colin King, Matt Padilla, Matt Levere.
1) What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective of food?
Braised short ribs with herbed mashed potato, baby carrots and jus. Simple meat and potatoes dish, but the technique that was put into it was eye-opening. From making veal stock to braise the ribs in, searing the ribs properly, deglazing, not over or under-cooking the ribs, finely chopping herbs, passing potatoes through a tamis, blanching carrots correctly and heating them in a beurre blanc without breaking it, reducing the braise to a sauce and mounting butter into it properly — not to mention seasoning everything correctly and then plating it nicely. This showed me you get out what you put into a dish and gave me a glimpse of the depth of technique in cooking.
2) What are you eating these days?
Everything. I literally don’t dislike any food I have ever eaten. If I haven’t had it I make it. But the real answer day-to-day is pasta, eggs, lots of veggies, meat-and-potato dishes, and of course pizza.
3) What was the first dish you remember cooking?
Has to be scrambled eggs. They always came out scrambled no matter what I did.
Eggs Benedict at Zona 78 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
4) What concept, ingredient, or food trend are you experimenting with these days?
This may seem a cop-out of an answer, but it ties into what I said about what I eat earlier. I don’t necessarily focus on a technique or ingredient really. If I haven’t cooked an ingredient or done a certain technique I find an application for it. We do monthly wine dinners and I have free reign in the kitchen, which allows me to do stuff out of the Zona box and that’s where I do a lot of different things. From the oldest of techniques — butchering, curing, fermenting — to the newest — sous vide, molecular gastronomy — I use everything. Not to say I’ve mastered everything, but I’m pretty well-versed in food technique. And there are always new ingredients and I actively search them out. In one plate you may get sausage that I butchered the meat for, cased my self, then smoked served with a sous vide vegetable and a modern version — stabilized or thickened — of a classic sauce. I just apply 20 years of cooking to whatever ingredient comes my way.
5) Who would you most like to cook or eat dinner with?
Two-part answer. To cook with — Kevin Fink. His passion for food is unrivaled in any person I have met or seen. He pushes you to do more with and to see more in food. You achieve more than you set out to do when you are in his kitchen.
To eat with — Anthony Bourdain. He has the life and possibly has had some of the greatest meals ever prepared made for him. He is food royalty everywhere he goes and all chefs go over the top for him. And rightfully so.
6) What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
That’s a toss up between San Francisco and Charleston. I’ve had my favorite and most memorable meals in these cities. It’s also a little surreal seeing and eating in places you’ve only seen in a cookbook before. It’s like seeing a celebrity in real life and not just on television.
7) Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure?
I’m not a big sweet guy so it’s gotta be salt and vinegar potato chips or Wheat Thins with too much cheese.
8) Which three Tucson restaurants do you frequent the most, aside from your own?
Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, Penca, and Ginza. I love Italian, tacos, and sushi. And good cocktails, which the first two surely have.
9) With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
The short rib dish from earlier. For nostalgia, and I love meat and potatoes. Plus if I convinced them to let me make it, it would at least be two days to do it properly.
Catch Keith Parker at Zona 78 at 7301 E. Tanque Verde Rd. For more information, visit zona78.com.