21 September, 2019, 10:21

We asked chefs: What is your favorite thing about Tucson’s culinary scene?

"We asked chefs" is a regular feature in which we ask local Tucson chefs a range of questions about chef life and food.

“We Asked Chefs” is a regular feature in which we ask local Tucson chefs a range of questions about chef life and food. Read their responses to the latest: “what is your favorite thing about Tucson’s culinary scene?”


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)

“Without a doubt the amazing Sonoran food culture — a staple that may be overshadowed at times by a growing city and burgeoning downtown.

Not to be forgotten are the tortilla makers, mesquite grillers of carne asada, and the harvesters of indigenous ingredients like nopales, prickly pear fruit and cholla buds.

Being a native Tucsonan has given me culinary ‘noshing’ advantages. I remember eating at Club 21 as a kid after soccer games and I still go there today nearly 30 years later. Same owner with great hospitality and I am able to relive all those captured food memories.

Being surrounded by different, yet familiar recipes of salsas, tacos, margaritas, and Sonoran hot dogs is what makes Tucson delicious and unique. It is rooted in locally owned, mom-and-pop start-ups, like Sonoran hot dog carts, food trucks, small businesses, and the door-to-door tamale vendors. These are the distinctive flavors of Tucson that to me, make it such a great food town.”

View our September 2016 Tools They Use with Ryan Clark.

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)

“KNIFE FIGHT KNIFE FIGHT KNIFE FIGHT!!!

I’m so happy and proud of what chef Gary Hickey and I have accomplished in just two years of this cooking competition. The support from Tucson’s hospitality industry and others has turned this event into such a beautiful thing.

This year we have some exciting news coming up and are right around the corner from sign-ups for season three. We love helping our own, and this is our chance to show it and make a difference is some people’s lives.

I believe it is the only 100% skill cooking competition.

There’s about to be a what? KNIFE FIGHT!”

View our November 2016 Tools They Use with Michael Elefante.

Aiden Gould

Sky Islands Public High School
Chef Aidan Gould at his Blue Sky Cafe pop-up dinner at Sky Islands Public High School, preparing duck breast with his father (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Chef Aidan Gould at his Blue Sky Cafe pop-up dinner at Sky Islands Public High School, preparing duck breast with his father (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I think the tight-knit community and chefs here that want to teach the next generation.”

View our April 2019 Nine on the Line with Aidan Gould.

C.J. Hamm

Saguaro Corners • Mulligan’s
Executive chef CJ Hamm at Saguaro Corners (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef CJ Hamm at Saguaro Corners (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“What is NOT to love about Tucson’s culinary scene today?

We have amazing owners, chefs, and teams giving us amazing cuisine in our locally owned and operated restaurants all over the city limits and beyond.

We have the Gastronomic Union of Tucson being the avengers of dope food and kitchen gangsterdom slaying in the name of the city.

We have local talent, homegrown culinary competitions, helping local charities… and in turn, that commercialized fix-fest Iron Chef Tucson has jumped the shark.

We have the great people of Tucson Foodie, Andi Berlin, Metal Mark, Matt Russell, Chris DeSimone and the like, covering and spotlighting our local food scene in an honest but great way.

We have Janos, Doug Levy, Danny Scordato, Flores family, and Jim Murphy still in the game strong as OGs.

We have chefs and restaurants staying in the national spotlight, showcasing our city, and rappin’ hard AF.

We have culinary d-swinging, camaraderie, shit talking, ball busting, secret chef threads, terrible chef threads. Oh man… so much goodness… dude the goose? Bowld? Yes, please!

We got one Don making the sickest knives and another Don making the sickest bread.

Plus, in the great words of Nate Dogg, “it ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none.”

I love my city. In fact…

“I put on for my city, on-on for my city
I put on for my city, on-on for my city.”

View our March 2017 Nine on the Line with C.J. Hamm.

Gary Hickey

Flores Concepts
Executive Chef Gary Hickey at Charro Steak (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Executive chef Gary Hickey at Charro Steak (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Aw man, it is springtime in the Old Pueblo. Things are getting ho.

I just returned from the Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC) last week and the overwhelming consensus is that we are heading for a recession, but the underlying message was watch out for the independents. Please understand these are operators that have a minimum of 100-200 units and they are nervous about independent restaurant groups heading into 2020.

I am super stoked that my friends, chefs, and hotel operators got to travel south to represent my home town. Super cool to see my friends on the global stage. Let’s get that tourism, Tucson.

Coming up this summer

With spring, brings summer and with summer in the Dirty T comes the wine dinners, the beer dinners, and of course the Gastronomic Union of Tucson summer series; what will it be this year?

With summer brings Knife Fight Tucson season 3. Tucson’s only true culinary competition with a cause. This year we have started a new charity Connors’ Cooks will be our 501(c)(3) organization that will carry on Pat Connors’ vision of community and support. Michael and I are truly blessed to partner with Julie Connors to bring this charity to life.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Flores concepts newest lifestyle brand Charro Vida. Our adventure into the past to bring healing foods with Sonoran flavors to Tucson.”

View our November 2016 Tools They Use with Gary Hickey.

Doug Levy

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

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

“My favorite thing about Tucson’s culinary scene is that chefs here regard each other as colleagues more than they do as competitors; I’m grateful that we promote each other, we help each other out in a pinch, and we’re kind and neighborly.

We’re lucky here.”

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

Travis Peters

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

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

“Just a few years ago, you saw pre-made products all over menus, cooks were forced to cook them in restaurants — ranch dressing and boneless chicken breast dishes reigned supreme — but for the most part, I think those days are over.

I absolutely love our culinary community right now. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a massive influx of chefs wanting to stop, collaborate, and listen to each other. This, in turn, has started to raise the bar on Tucson’s food scene. Chefs are pushing each other in all the right ways and the food is getting better and better. Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know, but what I do know is that this evolution is so exciting to watch and an honor to be part of.
‘Tucson Chefs’ was born
I love watching the new camaraderie of the chefs and restaurants erupt throughout our city and on social media. Some of us started an online group called Tucson Chefs that grew almost overnight to more than 700 members. It is open to everyone in Tucson’s culinary scene and it’s a great place to meet people, post job openings, bounce ideas, ask questions, and share theories and techniques.
From Tucson Chefs a few of us started the Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT), which is a non-profit group of chefs who volunteer our time to raise money through dinners & pop-up events and UNESCO awareness. After GUT was formed, some of the chefs started Tucson Knife Fight. This is a series of cooking events, unlike any other Tucson culinary contest.
Knife Fight
Knife Fight is 100% based on cooking skills, not votes, is the most respected contest in our culinary community. It is definitely is the most exciting contest out there and has picked up tons of steam becoming Tucson’s premier culinary contest. The most amazing part is that it was started ground up for Tucson’s cooks by Tucson cooks. If you are a member of Tucson’s culinary community, flow like a harpoon daily and nightly, then you have an opportunity to try to light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle.
You have folks like Don Guerra, Devon Sanner, Maria Mazon, Gary Hickey, Ryan Clark, Noel Patterson, Janos Wilder, and Jim Murphy — just to name a few culinary giants that all pushed hard to get and keep Tucson on the culinary map of the world. It’s such an amazing time to be a chef here.”

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)

“What I love most about Tucson’s culinary scene now is the collaboration and camaraderie among Tucson chefs. I think a growing number of Tucson chefs have begun to embrace our designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy and are really trying to push forward in the spirit of creative exchange.

The Tucson culinary giants on whose shoulders we stand — Donna Nordin, Jonathan Landeen, Jim Murphy, Alan Zeman, Janos Wilder, et al… when we’ve gotten those folks in for celebrity chef cooking classes or a special dinner to celebrate Rita Connelly’s book Historic Restaurants of Tucson, it’s clear that they have friendship, mutual respect, and a continuing passion for Tucson cuisine. What I think is new with the younger cadre of chefs coming up today, however, is deeper collegiality and community.

GUT

One can see this sense of chef community and creative exchange in myriad facets of Tucson’s food scene. It’s perhaps most readily visible in the Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) dinner series and special events, where teams of chefs collaborate, learn from each other, and have an amazing, convivial time.

Community and collegiality

The community and collegiality of our Tucson’s chefs also (perhaps contrary to expectations) comes to the fore in competition. Chefs Gary Hickey (Flores Restaurant Concepts – the Charro Empire) and Michael Elefante (Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant) launched Tucson Knife Fight a couple of years ago as a way to get chef-driven, food-first, head-to-head battles free from politics, campaigning, and balloting. Just chefs squaring off and the best dishes win the night. Chefs and cooks fill the audience every time,\ and the brotherly and sisterly love is overwhelming.

I am also encouraged by a trend I see among chefs who are eager to share sources, farm out their cooks to do stagiaire stints (mini-internships/continuing education in other chefs’ kitchens), and seek to improve the culinary community as a whole. Sure, we all want our restaurants to be the best, but we want other restaurants to be great, too.

It’s truly inspiring to see so many chefs not just pursuing individual excellence, but garnering international attention for Tucson as a world-class culinary destination.”

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

Fulvia Steffenone

Caffe Milano
Chef Fulvia Steffenone

Chef Fulvia Steffenone “La Fufi” at Caffe Milano (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“More than a thing, I am favorably struck by a tendency of both restaurateurs and customers. More and more frequently, restaurants are appearing on the Tucson culinary scene that are ‘swimming against the current’ and are putting a lot of attention to local producers and eco-sustainable foods; to the documented and proven absence of GMOs, pesticides and preservatives.

It is challenging the international giants that produce junk food (or ingredients that will end up in junk food), and it is an attitude that inspires me and drives my professional choices, day after day.”

View our November 2018 Nine on the Line: Chef “La Fufi” Fulvia Steffenone from Caffe Milano.

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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