We asked 20 chefs: Which chef influenced your career the most?

January 29, 2018
a man wearing a hat
By Jackie Tran
By Jackie Tran

“Which chef influenced your career the most?”

We asked 20 chefs around Tucson this question and let them answer as briefly or in as much detail as they wanted. Here are their responses.

Dee Buizer

Senae Thai Bistro
Dee Buizer, chef and owner of Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Dee Buizer, chef and owner of Senae Thai Bistro (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“This question is very easy for me, as the immediate and obvious answer is my mother. As a young child in Thailand, I spent countless hours in the kitchen watching mom do her magic. Once out on my own, I would call her from time to time to get ideas, or to remind me of a particular recipe. Of course, I’ve added my own personal touch, particularly in how our dishes are displayed and served, but I can see my mom’s influence in every dish I serve at Senae.”

View our October 2017 Nine on the Line with Dee Buizer.

Ben Caballero

HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery
Executive chef Ben Caballero at HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery (Credit: CJ Hamm)
Executive chef Ben Caballero at HUB Restaurant & Ice Creamery (Credit: CJ Hamm)

“I have a couple of chefs that influence me. And both are still good friends of mine until this day. First is Chris Elkins, my first chef to show me the ropes during my first sous chef gig. He showed me how to run a restaurant, and how to pay attention to the numbers side of things. He also was the guy to push me to do nightly specials.

Ramiro Scavo also had a big influence in my career. He was the first chef that taught me about comfort food and the meaning behind it. He was also the the first chef to give me my stripe and first chef gig. We opened up a kitchen together, and he gave me a chance to start making a name for myself. Gave me a place to call my own and the culinary freedom to do that. I owe a lot to those two guys for the years in training and time invested in me. Thank you uncle Chris and Miro Pistolas.”

View our August 2016 Nine on the Line with Ben Caballero.

Ryan Clark

Casino Del Sol Resort
Executive chef Ryan Clark at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Casino Del Sol Resort executive chef Ryan Clark at PY Steakhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“While attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I had the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of great chefs and instructors, but one chef really inspired me and had a tremendous influence on the path I have taken since graduating from the CIA. Chef Reilly showed me that being a chef involves so much more than cooking, tasting, and chopping. Without his guidance on the real responsibilities that a chef takes on, I might have easily lost focus along the way. ‘Be professional, have pride in your work, and always do your best,’ these are the words that I have tried to live by since then and they form the guiding principles that we use every day in the kitchens at Casino Del Sol.”

Riley Chandler

Barrio Sandwiches
Pop-Up Tucson and Barrio Sandwiches chef Riley Chandler (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Pop-Up Tucson and Barrio Sandwiches chef Riley Chandler (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Devon Sanner. I really didn’t know what a chef was, or what all his responsibilities were before I walked through the doors of Janos. I had cooked with my grandmother at home, but never experienced life in a kitchen, other than a brief stint at 5 Guys when I was 16.  I had just turned 17, and was eager to learn.  I went in there like a young sponge and soaked up all of the expert culinary knowledge I was surrounded with.”

View our June 2017 Nine on the Line with Riley Chandler.

Mahmoud Elbarasi

The Coronet
Executive chef Mahmoud "Moody" Elbarasi at the Coronet (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive chef Mahmoud “Moody” Elbarasi at the Coronet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“So I was very, very late to the culinary game. At 30, I had just been laid off from a dead-end mall job and was drifting around working construction here and there. I moved back in with my parents. I kind of thought life had run dry. I had always been obsessed with restaurants, but other than a couple months of dishwashing, I had no experience. One morning I woke up and decided now or never, my bank account was on zero and I was sleeping on the floor at my parents house.

I got in touch with an acquaintance (now good friend) named Blake Becker who was a chef and begged for a job. He worked at the premier catering company in Naples and hooked me up with an interview. I went and met the owner-chef Brian Roland, who had worked for Daniel Boulud and run numerous respectable kitchens. I told him I’d do anything to learn to cook. In two weeks, my entire world changed. I was learning basic knife skills, how to fry, working dish, and unloading vans for 15 hours a day, and I loved it. I learned stocks, how to mop, and how to think. I spent every waking hour either working or reading about the craft. I had thousands of hours to make up for.

As a catering team, we would spend hours together in vans and I considered that my lecture hall. A lot of these guys had gone to the CIA so I soaked up a bit of a free education. I would pick my chef’s brains every night to and from job sites. So I’ll have to say Brian Roland, Kevin Takei, Blake Becker, Josh Cook, and Adam Nardis. No way to pick just one person. Those guys and everyone else at Crave in Naples, FL changed my life, I’ll always be grateful for my start there.”

View our December 2017 Nine on the Line with Mahmoud Elbarasi.

Michael Elefante

Mama Louisa’s
Executive Chef Michael Elefante at Mama Louisa's (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive Chef Michael Elefante at Mama Louisa’s (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Emeril influenced me. I grew up watching him with my father. After my dad passed, I would watch Emeril’s shows to remind me of my dad and in turn wanted to be in a kitchen a lot more.”

Tyler Fenton

Reilly Craft Drink & Pizza
Chef Tyler Fenton at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Chef Tyler Fenton at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I feel conflicted on this one, given the recent headlines regarding years of inexcusable behavior, but the truthful answer is Mario Batali. Watching his show as a kid really nurtured my interest in cooking, and reading his books provided the foundation for my style of cooking. While still in college, I happened to have dinner at the late Jim Harrison’s house and Mario was the chef for the evening. During dinner, I told Mario I was in school but preferred cooking. He told me I should follow my passion, and the next day I began working on what would eventually become Reilly.”

View our February 2017 Nine on the Line with Tyler Fenton.

Roderick LeDesma

PY Steakhouse at Casino Del Sol Resort
PY Steakhouse chef de cuisine Roderick LeDesma (Credit: Jackie Tran)
PY Steakhouse chef de cuisine Roderick LeDesma (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Chef Melissa Kelly has undoubtedly had the biggest influence on my career. Working with her completely opened my mind to a whole new way of looking at and approaching not only cooking and food, but my work ethic as well. The care, devotion, passion, and love she puts into her craft is absolutely inspiring and still influences me. I often still find myself thinking if chef would like this or how would chef Melissa do this? I honestly could go on and on about the influence it has had on my mindset and career, for which I am extraordinarily grateful. Thank you chef!”

View our April 2017 Nine on the Line with Roderick LeDesma.

Doug Levy

Executive chef Doug Levy at Feast (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive chef Doug Levy at Feast (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“While there are chefs who are my heroes (Jean-Louis Palladin combined elegance and rusticity like no one else in this world, with the possible exception of Daniel Bouloud,) career-wise, I’d never have remained in the restaurant industry if I hadn’t worked with Jeff Azersky at Cafe Terra Cotta and Boccata.

Jeff has always been not only someone I respect and admire as a chef, but someone I respect and admire as a human being. He’s a kind and generous person, a talented chef, and a huge influence on me as a chef, as a business owner, and as a member of this community.”

View our September 2017 Nine on the Line with Doug Levy.

David Martin

Red Desert BBQ & Catering
David Martin, owner and pitmaster of Red Desert BBQ (Credit: Jackie Tran)
David Martin, owner and pitmaster of Red Desert BBQ (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I would have to say that the chef who really made me think about a serious food career would be Bradford Thompson. He was the chef at Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale. Just watching him cook and the ideas he came up with blew me away. He was a James Beard award-winner for best chef in the southwest and you could see why. He taught us about time and quality. I would also like to give credit to French master chef Marc Ehrler — working with his great culinary team at Ventana Canyon (John Hohn and Ken Harvey) taught me those skills you don’t learn in culinary school. They encouraged you to think outside box, to try and maybe fail, but to learn from the failure and try again.

Those skills apply not only in the kitchen, but outside it as well. I’m kinda pioneering my own path with barbecue having never worked with a pitmaster before. I learn something new everyday that I apply the next time. I use the skills taught to me from past chefs and create some new skills daily. I think it’s important to remember those who influenced our career path and give credit, who knows where a lot of us would be if not for those moments of influence.”

View our December 2017 Nine on the Line with David Martin.

Kyle Nottingham

Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa
Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa executive chef Kyle Nottingham at a Pop-Up Tucson event (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa executive chef Kyle Nottingham at a Pop-Up Tucson event (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Every chef that I have worked under or with so far has shaped me into what I am today. Some molded my talents more than others and some gave me more intangible strengths that I still carry with me and reflect on to this day.

My uncle Eric Catalano is the reason why I am a chef. He took me in and showed me the ropes of a real kitchen when I was 16 years old in Key West, Florida. Eric was the executive chef at Salute Bar and Grill where he sent his whole line staff on vacation and it was just him and I cranking out food in 120 degree dungeon of a kitchen and I loved every second of it. That’s when I realized that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

Another critical time in my culinary career was when I worked under chef Ken Harvey and chef Brandon Cathey at Loews Ventana Canyon. They hired me as a sous for the Flying V and I think in that short period I learned more about myself and who I am as a chef than ever before. If any of you have worked under Ken, you know it’s not the easiest but learning the Kaizen philosophy gave me something to hold on to forever. Ken and Brandon expect greatness, perfection, consistency and if you’re not giving it 150%, it wasn’t going to be tolerated. They taught me what it takes to be a great leader and made me a better man at the end of the day.

I also have to say that every crew that I’ve worked with has played a significant role in who I am today. The bonds, friendships, and trust that we have built together will keep me going to be the best version of myself and hopefully I can continue to grow and inspire others.

One day I hope to be on this list of incredible chefs looking back on who influenced their careers. ”

View our March 2017 Nine on the Line with Kyle Nottingham.

Travis Peters

The Parish
Executive chef Travis Peters at the Parish (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive chef Travis Peters at the Parish (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Chef Pamela Rinella at the Mount Lemmon Cafe.

Pam had a love and passion for food and that mountain unlike anyone I have ever met. She literally took care of the mountain, her shop, all of us that worked for her, and even the animals that lived around us.

I remember a family of skunks, mama and two babies, would come into the shop every night when it started to get cold and sleep under a particular oven, then they would head out every morning to do whatever it is that skunks do. Some people might freak out over that, but I thought it was a beautiful thing to see her so in sync with the nature around her.

She chased a bear away with pots and pans, showed me where to pick blueberries and told stories about Summerhaven that spanned all the way back to the sixties. She loved her little pie shop and her passion was infectious.

Pam was the very first person to see a culinary spark in me and she pushed me hard to light it. She had me make my first menu ever which ended up being the very first dinner menu they ever had in thirty-plus years of business. Looking back, it was not a great menu because I was such a rookie, but her faith in me and knowledge literally changed my entire life and launched my career. She was a wonderful and powerful woman and I will always miss her. I hope I have made her proud.”

View our April 2017 Nine on the Line with Travis Peters.

Devon Sanner

The Carriage House
Executive Chef Devon Sanner at The Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive Chef Devon Sanner at The Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I guess I have to state the obvious — Janos Wilder is the chef who has really mentored me to become the chef I am. I’d been a fan of his cuisine and his approach to food for a long time; I took my high school prom date to Janos at the original Stevens House location. Years later I proposed at his restaurant. And years later when I was changing careers, I went to work at Janos and JBAR as a commis straight out of culinary school.

I’ve been with Janos for over 12 years now, and his influence is readily apparent in my work. How I approach menu design, how I strive to learn about cuisine from all over the globe, how I think and talk about food all bear evidence of his mentorship.

During my time with Janos, he’s also encouraged me to learn from other chefs, giving me the opportunity to do stagiaire stints at the restaurants of Rick Tramonto, David Chang, and Grant Achatz to broaden my repertoire and see the workings of other operations. I’ve also been blessed with Janos’ support in fostering the development of GUT, the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, a collaboration of over 30 local chefs to promote the local food scene and provide a forum for collegial exchange and continuing culinary education.”

View our September 2015 Nine on the Line with Devon Sanner.

Coralie Satta

Ghini’s French Caffe
Owner and chef Coralie Satta of Ghini's French Caffe (Photo provided by Coralie Satta)
Owner and chef Coralie Satta of Ghini’s French Caffe (Photo provided by Coralie Satta)

“My mother and grandmother influenced my love of the culinary arts. They made everything with love and is every bit of the reason I cook from my heart.To be able to turn a simple vegetable, piece of meat, or seafood into a mind-blowing creation that gives you a foodgasm is my second reason and driver in my culinary life.

My favorite foods are the ones that are prepared, carefully, thoughtfully, ethically-raised and procured and prepared simply. This is my culinary mantra and how I live my life. Buy the best(doesn’t always mean the most expensive) and be the best every day, with passion! #ChefsLife”

Ramiro Scavo

Red’s Smokehouse + Tap Room
Ramiro Scavo, owner and chef at Red's Smokehouse + Tap Room (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Ramiro Scavo, owner and chef at Red’s Smokehouse + Tap Room (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“The chef that influenced me the most would be Kevin Binkley. When I worked for him, every day he was teaching and showing us cutting-edge techniques and a very high standard way of cooking and preparing food that has truly made me the chef I am today.

I’ve worked for other great people that have taught me things that are important for a chef, such as philosophy (Brian Reilly), business (Tom Firth) or leading multiple kitchens (Clint Woods) throughout my career so this was a very hard question for me.

But when it comes down to how I braise meats, break down fish and hold my total mise en place, it’s how chef Binkley taught me… I’m an arize’n (to base with brown butter), stock and wine reducin’ fool!

Anyone who has worked with me knows my tools that I can’t cook without — it’s a stainless steel bain-marie that has, plating spoons, slotted spoon, wooden spoon, fish spat, platting spat, little rubber spatula (for getting every bit of dressing or sauce out of a deli container), and small wire whip, I literally cannot cook without this set of tools and that came from my time working with the great chef Kevin Binkley.

Big shout out to my number one chef Kelly Scavo, she has influenced and critiqued my food at all of my head chef jobs, I wouldn’t have plated food as clean and crisp without her feedback and influence, she’s been my behind-the-scenes consultant for my total head chef career.”

David Solorzano

Cielos at Lodge on the Desert
Chefs plating at a Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) dinner at the Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Chef David Solorzano (left) plating at a Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) dinner at the Carriage House (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Jean-Louis Palladin. I first saw him on an episode of Great Chefs of the World where he prepared antelope loin with rhubarb. I remember thinking how differently he spoke about the ingredients and effortlessly he moved while cooking — right after, I wanted to know more about him. He was the youngest chef to be awarded two Michelin stars in France at 28, soon after he moved to the states to open Jean-Louis at the Watergate in DC and was one of the first to refrain of the thought that everything was better back in France and used the bounty of products that were available to him here. He took the best ingredients and he used them simply with great technique. His kitchen produced some of the country’s great chefs today like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud and unlike other celebrity chefs that capitalized on book deals, products, or shows, he dedicated his time to train and mentor. We take for granted what we use now and we have him to thank for that. He was a chef’s chef. ”

View our July 2017 Nine on the Line with David Solorzano.

Nikki Thompson

Nook's Matt & Nikki Thompson (Credit: Adam Lehrman)
Nook’s Nikki & Matt Thompson (Credit: Adam Lehrman)

“After I graduated culinary school, I did an apprenticeship under chef Danny Morioka at a fine dining restaurant on Oahu, Hawaii. We started with the very basics, in the first days I was learning how to do inventory and food cost, I learned how to do paperwork before we started cooking. Soon after, I was a prep cook, and a year later, I was moved to the line. He never took any short cuts, he taught me how and why things were done the way they were. His passion and love for quality food and the restaurant industry was contagious. When we moved back to the mainland to be closer to my family we stayed in touch, and we are still close.

He now owns a restaurant in Kauai called Dani’s, and the day we signed our lease for Nook, we bought tickets to Kauai and stayed with chef Danny and his wonderful family for a week going over pointers and tips on running a successful restaurant the smart way. This man is not only one of the biggest supporters in my life when it comes to my career, but he is also a dear friend and someone that we consider family. We will never be able to repay him for his constant support and endless knowledge, we are so lucky to have him in our lives.”

View our September 2015 Nine on the Line with Nikki & Matt Thompson.

Scott Volpe

Fiamme Pizza
Scott Volpe at Fiamme Pizza (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Scott Volpe at Fiamme Pizza (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“The one pizzaiolo or chef who influenced me the most would be by far Nino Coniglio of Williamsburg Pizza in Brooklyn, New York. I met Nino about four years ago at international pizza expo in Las Vegas. We share a strong sense of community in the pizza industry and Nino and I had a unique connection from the first moment we met. He has helped me tremendously in both my culinary skills and acrobatics as well. Nino is a great mentor and is known as the crazy mad genius of pizza, in our world. We usually talk on the phone weekly and bounce ideas off of each other both business-wise and for pizza competition. He comes out to Tucson from time to time to check up on me and I have been to his many pizzerias in New York to get insight from him.

The one quote that sticks out in my mind most about this question is something he told me when I met him. ‘The second you think you’ve won, somebody is going to creep.’ And to me, that means I will always be a student and always getting better at my craft everyday, once I believe I am the best pizza maker or best pizza acrobat, is the day someone else is working harder than me and will beat me.”

View our March 2017 Nine on the Line with Scott Volpe.

Janos Wilder

DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails
Executive chef Janos Wilder at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Executive chef Janos Wilder at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“By 1977 I’d been working in kitchens for about six or seven years. Not great kitchens, rather the usual jobs you get as a kid: washing dishes by hand in a family-run Chinese restaurant, making pizzas in my home town at Magoo’s with my best buddy Kevin O’Neill. We were hired because we were hanging out there every day after school anyway, perfecting our skills on the two pinball machines and learning to shoot 8-Ball from the assortment of drunks, derelicts, and broken-down jockeys who were fast becoming our circle of friends. Mostly I was concerned about making pizzas faster than Kevin. Not too tough a task, as he was meticulous but only knew one speed, slow. Later I BS’d my way onto the line and broke the kitchen color barrier at a T.G.I. Fridays in Nashville where the guys I learned from, Freddy – fast and sloppy, and Billy – built like a 16-year-old body builder who’d never lifted a weight – knew more about scoring pot in the projects than how to cook. So it was in Boulder at The Catacombs where the cooks spent break time getting high in the walk-in.

By that time, the allure of learning how to be a screw up had worn off. I was beginning to get serious about learning how to cook and I’d gotten word through our vendors that there was a new chef in town trying to build an opening crew for soon-to-be-opened Yocom Studio restaurant right on Boulder Creek. Not wanting my chef at The Catacombs to know I was looking for work elsewhere, I applied under an assumed name, Janos Kastilanos, told the chef Joe Boches that I’d be happy to interview but really wanted to work a shift or two for free to show him what I could do. In those days, that was unheard. I brushed up on my sauces, grilling, and sautéing techniques and took my knives to Yocom’s where Joe put me through my paces making emulsified sauces, stocks, busting down lamb racks, and working the middle station on the line. And he offered me a job, starting pay $1.90 per hour. I negotiated up to $2.10.

I only worked for Joe for a year, but in that time he taught me the basics: the mother sauces, proper braising techniques, how to fillet fish, make a proper fumet and court boullion, how to run the line and his brand of being a leader. Joe yelled at me every day for that year. I loved it. He cared and I learned. He recommended books to read. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London exposed the underbelly of European kitchens. Jacques Pépin, in La Technique taught me every technique in the French canon. During my spare time on the line, I’d flute mushrooms or carve reliefs into them with my paring knife. I begged Joe to let me put specials on the menu. It was a time of expansiveness. I was smitten. I learned that being a chef was so much more than being a fast cook, or learning technique. You had to be smart, facile, pay attention to every detail, learn to communicate, and develop a vision.

As it turned out, Joe was a better chef than kitchen manager and he lasted only a year at Yocom’s, as his food costs were out of control. Another lesson I learned and I was launched.”

Marcus van Winden

The Dutch Eatery & Refuge
The Dutch Eatery & Refuge executive chef and co-owner Marcus van Winden (Credit: Jackie Tran)
The Dutch Eatery & Refuge executive chef and co-owner Marcus van Winden (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Looking back, I would say the most influential chef I worked with was Chris deVreis, from Restaurant Parkzicht, in Oostvoorne, Netherlands. He was the chef owner and the eerie silence in that kitchen, and the perfect consistency, was a beautiful thing.”

View our July 2017 Nine on the Line with Marcus van Winden.

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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...

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