We asked chefs: What do you cook for someone you are trying to impress?

Last modified on March 30th, 2018 at 10:26 am

Chef Riley Chandler grating black truffles over Cacio e Pepe (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“What do you cook for someone you are trying to impress?”

We asked 10 Tucson chefs this question and let them answer as briefly or in as much detail as they wanted. Here are their responses.

Tommy Begay

Sushi on Oracle
Sushi Chef Tommy Begay III at Sushi on Oracle (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Sushi Chef Tommy Begay III at Sushi on Oracle (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“So of course the only time I’ve ever tried to impress somebody with my cooking was over a girl.

When I first started dating this Navajo girl, I was tasked with cooking mutton stew for her family. They gave me the “in-law test.” The test basically requires you to assist in butchering an entire sheep, while keeping everything intact to be either utilized or eaten.

It didn’t end there — when we were done butchering, I had to break down the spinal column and neck bone, which is like a bone and meat jigsaw puzzle. Usually this is done with a chef’s knife and skill, which I didn’t have at this point. The goal was to break the entire neck without damaging the meat and without cutting through the bone leaving shards of bone flaking into the soup.

I was scared because I really wanted to impress this girl’s mom and her grandma because I really liked her. Her family teased me the whole time, but her mom helped guide me through the process and I ended up learning a lot. Thankfully, I passed the test.”

View our October 2017 Nine on the Line with Tommy Begay.

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)

“To answer that question, I have two brief stories.

A few years back we lived in Scottsdale and my husband worked at ASU. He called me one morning and asked if we could have Sheikh Hamad bin Ali bin Jassim Al-Thani who was visiting from Qatar over for dinner that evening. He explained that the Sheikh was a real “foodie” and that he especially loved Thai food. I said “sure,” but when I hung up, I started to freak out.

So, what does one serve a real Sheikh from Qatar? I asked my husband to find out the Sheikh’s favorite Thai dish: it was Gaeng Keow Wan Gai (chicken in green curry.) My version is to cut a whole chicken breast into thin strips shaped like a flower petal, braise it in green curry and coconut milk, and serve it with Asian vegetables in an acorn squash. I used the squash as a flower bud, stuffed it with the vegetables and displayed the chicken breasts like a flower pedal. When the Sheikh and his entourage arrived in two stretch limos I could only imagine what the neighbors must have been thinking.

Upon presenting Sheikh Hamad with his dish, he immediately took out his phone and said, “If you don’t mind I’d like to take a photo of this dish. I’ve never been served a green chicken curry so beautifully. This will be added to my food album.” Before we moved from Scottsdale, the Sheikh was back in town and came over for dinner again. Needless to say, I was more relaxed that time and served him lamb chops marinated with garlic and basil. He loved it!

Another example, one I’m facing right now — Senae was honored by the Thai Government’s Ministry of Commerce with the Award of Thai Select: A Sign of Authentic Thai Cuisine, and in May, they are flying me to Bangkok for their International Thai Food Expo, attended by thousands of people from over 50 countries. In previous years, Thailand’s Royal Princess Sirindhorn has participated, and it is possible that I will be asked to cook her a meal, so I need to prepare.

I am thinking that I will serve her my new rice recipe, Kao Saam Chun, translated Triple Deck Rice. The bottom layer consists of Thailand’s newest rice variety called “berry rice” (named because it has the nutritional value of blueberries and blackberries) seasoned with green curry paste, garlic, and spiced rum (similar to the Thai whiskey, Mekhong), served atop a layer of fried long beans. The second rice layer is brown rice seasoned with homemade roasted chili lemongrass purée layered with crispy eggplant, and the top deck is jasmine rice seasoned with coconut milk atop a layer of sautéed shiitake mushrooms served with my green curry sauce. I am hoping the Princess will enjoy this complex and delicious creation.

Even with these two examples, my biggest critics are my immediate family, who have been the subject of my experiments for nearly three decades.”

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

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)

“If I’m aiming to impress, fresh truffles are a good way to go. Foodies love truffles, girls love truffles, and of course I love them too. Who doesn’t want an explosion of flavor from what is known as the “kitchen’s diamond?” The story of what the hell a truffle is makes good dinner table talk for people who have never tried them as well.

Pro tip, Annie’s white cheddar mac and cheese is great with some shaved black truffles.”

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

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)

“Easy. Mac N’ Cheese with a side of Chicken Fingers.”

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)

“I’m going to go with simple and nostalgic here.

Steak au poivre, a tiny touch of a blackberry and sherry-barrel Scotch sauce, half-burnt potato au gratin with tons of herbs and Grafton Village Cheddar. All with one huge and hopefully perfect scallop on the side!

I’d pair that with a pitcher of Keila Herrington’s sublime gin martinis which take me back in time — I think of old world luxury ocean liners — by far the most romantic cocktail I’ve ever had.

After that, a simple fruit and cheese board and a long walk.”

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

Tyler Fenton

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

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

“Stuffed pasta. Pasta in general is a labor of love. Mixing the dough, sheeting it, shaping it, preparing a sauce, and then marrying the pasta and sauce together. With stuffed pasta you have the added step of preparing the filling and shaping has an added element of finesse. I tend to favor stuffed pasta served pretty simply with browned butter or in a broth, but adding some freshly shaved truffle does not hurt when you are trying to impress.”

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

Doug Levy

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

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

“When we moved, my wife and I commissioned a mason to build a wood-fired outdoor kitchen. That means we’re lucky enough to have an oven, a grill, and a rotisserie all fueled by wood — usually pecan or mesquite. So it might be pizza, or it might be grilled fish, or maybe a suckling pig or roasted duck, but whatever it is, it’ll be rustic and have black marks on it.”

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)

“Well that’s a complicated question. Really depends on the person and the situation. If on a date and I was going to cook for her, I might find out what kind of food she likes and find something that I know I can make and make good.

If it’s a child I’m trying impress or make happy, I might gear the meal towards things they like — grilled cheese, pizza, nuggets.

If a prospective client, then whatever they desired off my menu. I can nail anything there.

If I had to cook a meal for someone sight unseen and it had to impress, then I would would go with seafood risotto. Arborio rice slow cooked with seafood stock with added mascarpone cheese and heavy cream, shrimp, diver scallops, lobster tail and finished with a beurre blanc. I used to make this dish at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, so I know it pleases. Time-consuming to make, but well worth the wait.

I also believe any chef asked this question has a item or more on their menu that impresses guests, Tucson has such great chefs that each has a specialty item they serve daily that is better than the rest. That’s what is fun about eating out, finding that meal that is better than all the other places you’ve eaten it. I wish I had more time off to go and try all the dishes served by the so many chefs in T-town.”

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

Travis Peters

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

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

“I’m sure other chefs will have much more fancy answers, but in my world, there are only two people on earth that I try to impress: my amazing gymnastic ninja daughter Abigail and my incredibly good-looking wife Karen.

Abigail loves all sorts of things, but if I’m going to impress her, it’s gotta be ridiculous. To her, a beer can chicken, or a whole alligator or roasted pig head is crazy and cool as shit. She loves getting her friends to come over and see that kind of stuff. Her and I even have an adventurous eaters club with some of her friends. So far we’ve eaten fried crickets, black watermelon (that I made), butterfly pea tea, candied scorpion, fried chicken feet, menudo, grilled chicken hearts, blood pudding and the very gnarliest thing was mystery flavored jelly beans. There were a lot of terrible flavors that day, but “rotten milk” and “barf” flavors destroyed us all.

As far as the hotness is concerned, Karen is usually impressed if I get home early enough to cook anything at home so she can get a well-deserved break from it. She might even give me a big smooch if I follow up dinner by cleaning the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, and get Abby ready for bed and tucked in. But when I really want to sweeten her up for some lovin’, I know she is a sucker for a beautiful steak! She enjoys a New York cooked medium with a baked potato and some sort of fresh grilled vegetable.”

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

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)

“Trying to impress huh? Well I guess I would find out what they actually like, make a round of apps, entree, salads and cheeses, sprinkle them with love and serve them with some delicious wine, finished with a lovely pastry and more wine and a proper coffee (espresso).

But if you are trying to impress me, make me anything from scratch and from the heart and I am in heaven.”

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com.
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