"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: "if money wasn't a concern, what is the restaurant of your dreams?"
"Back in 2007, I had to close my restaurant Cafe 940. I always wondered, 'if I had enough money would I open it back up?' It was definitely before its time and I felt like people didn't really get it. I kept hearing it was unaffordable and too 'San Francisco'.
We were just a little bakery making small cakes and macaroons paired with many types of teas and espresso drinks. The menu was modern Italian and French. We would do things like bake puff pastry between two pans and use it as a pizza crust. Tortellini alla vodka, mussels linguine, poached egg brioche, and all kinds of desserts.
The decor was dark wood floors and chairs with clean white tables and an amazing pastry case. I really miss that place; if money wasn't a concern, that would be the place I'd reopen."
View our October 2017 Nine on the Line with Tommy Begay.
"The restaurant of my dreams would be a small 12-seat tasting counter. It would be fun and lively, yet intimate.
We would play loud music, serve a lot of courses with an adventurous beverage pairing, and not take ourselves too seriously.
Serving fine dining level food, with full creative freedom, and warm hospitality to keep it a fun and memorable experience — that's the dream."
View our February 2017 Nine on the Line with Tyler Fenton.
"One of my many big dreams is to buy a farm and open a super upscale dining room inside of a barn. It takes farm-to-table to a whole new level when you can literally see what’s on your plate growing just outside."
View our April 2019 Nine on the Line with Aidan Gould.
"A taco and beer stand on the beach anywhere. Keep the change."
"My dream restaurant would be an outside open kitchen, p.m. dinner and cocktail hours only, with the main focus on very complex flavor profiles and intricate plating using molecular gastronomy, sous vide and all the other new-ish cooking techniques out there. With all locally sourced produce and proteins.
The menu would change weekly and probably be a prix fixe menu. There would be a full bar, plus cocktails and wines created to match each dish that is prepared for the menu. It would take two to three hours to eat. Probably a five to seven-course meal where the chef would personally come out and explain everything that you are eating and how it was prepared and where all the ingredients came from.
The main idea behind this restaurant is to play tricks on your mind and taste. Where something looks like one thing and tastes like something else completely, as well as have the guest be a part of the plating. You would leave with a memory or experience that you would have for the rest of your life and never be able to forget. After all, what are we doing besides creating great food and experience by playing with food?
The kitchen itself would be hooked up with all the latest and greatest equipment out there. I could go on and on about the layout and how the building would be designed, but that's my dream restaurant in a nutshell."
View our October 2018 Nine on the Line with John "JP" Pratt.
"Were I able to open a restaurant and money were of no concern, I would convert the Benedictine Monastery on Country Club Road to La Misión Gastronomica — a sprawling, convivial space of eateries, edible gardens, public markets, a demonstration kitchen/cooking school, a food business incubator, a research and development space, and a clubhouse for the Gastronomic Union of Tucson. The concept would be similar in some regards to Eataly, but with a tremendous emphasis on Tucson and showcasing why we are a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.
Firstly, the space would feature multiple local & independent restaurant outlets. The first two that I would launch would be a symbiotic duo similar to Chicago’s Frontera and Topolobampo, NYC’s erstwhile Luksus and Tørst, or Tucson’s own J-BAR and Janos. The duo needs a casual and an upscale, a Mary Ann and a Ginger, an Oscar Madison and a Felix Unger.
The first concept would be a tacos sin fronteras spot — global cuisine all in the guise of the ultimate hand food. (I know — just what Tucson needs — another taco shop… but bear with me). We’d do lamb vindaloo in crisp papadum shells, Georgian shashlik in mini khachapuri cheese-bread shells, ma po tofu in bing scallion pancakes, et al. Of course we’d have some tacos less iconoclastic in their fillings (carnitas, barbacoa, etc.), but even the globally-inspired tacos would be anchored in Tucson foods, such as making doubanjiang (fermented bean and chili paste) from Tepary beans and chiltepines — a project that Jared McKinley has been working on.
The menu would be in constant rotation and play off of a well-curated beer program featuring dozens of local taps and bottles. The food would be playful and engaging while maintaining serious regard for sourcing and technical execution. I’d either call it El Mundo en la Mano or something totally cheeky and reflecting my juvenile sense of humor like Dunya Kulakova (the Russian equivalent of Rosy Palm and her five sisters).
The second concept would be an upscale, very limited seating, multi-course degustation menu-only space. We would do Tucson kaiseki: taking the ingredients of Sonora and pushing them to the edge with technique and composition, like what chef Blaine Wetzel has done with Willows Inn on Lummi Island, or of course, what his mentor, René Redzepi, has done at Noma. There are myriad edible plants indigenous to our region (see Wendy Hodgson’s Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert) that are essentially unavailable except through hiking and foraging, but they deserve to be explored and exposed to the public. Think of a native wild grape (vitis arizonica) sorbet with desert hackberry fruit leather, saguaro seed, Bellota, and pine-nut brittle, and prickly pear mead reduction. Although it would be impossible to do for 200 covers a night, it would be a 'world class and nowhere else but Tucson' experience for a couple dozen diners per night.
Other restaurant spaces would be filled in by perhaps Michael Elefante bringing his third-generation cuisine to a new location and breaking out of the Mama Louisa’s mold. Maybe a spot for Travis Peters to continue pushing the boundaries of American regional cuisine with an eye on local sourcing and Tucson food traditions. One of the spaces might be Mat Cable’s outpost for Tucson mesquite barbecue.
In synergy with the local, independent restaurant spaces, La Misión Gastronomica would have market spaces for local makers and purveyors. Erik Stanford would have a Pivot Produce outlet for what he hauls in from all the little farms throughout the region, complemented by gleaned produce from Iskashitaa Refugee Network. Forbes Meat Company would have a full-service butchery and charcuterie shop stocked with local meats. Native Seeds/SEARCH could have a second retail location to showcase heirloom and heritage foodstuffs and seeds. A fishmonger would sell fish from local aquaculture farms and sustainable catch from the Sea of Cortez.
La Misión Gastronomica would also have a demonstration and teaching kitchen for multiple uses. Local chefs would be able to conduct public classes, engage in professional-development practical and creative exchanges, host visiting chefs from other cities of gastronomy and members of the Délice Network, conduct research and development for their own spaces, mentor young food entrepreneurs using the space as an incubator, and partner with the culinary education programs at Pima Community College, Caridad, Café 54, GAP, and the many JTED culinary programs. The space would provide a tremendous opportunity for public engagement and for cultivating young culinarians.
So, would-be angel investors for whom money is no object… here’s an opportunity to amplify Tucson’s amazing food scene, create an unparalleled community space, and make a destination that shows off our City of Gastronomy to the world."
View our September 2015 Nine on the Line with Devon Sanner.
"The restaurant of my dreams would be an old chateau in the south of France, where we also have a few rooms to rent. Our vegetables, meats, and wine would be grown, harvested, and made on the premises. The menu would be chalkboard written daily — according to the days of harvest — with fields of lavender adorning the grounds overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Did I mention the minions feeding me grapes (aka rosé) and fanning me while I work? Finishing with my daily massages."
View our March 2018 video with Coralie Satta, Women's History Month Episode 2.
"My dream is to have an elegant restaurant with few seats distributed on round tables; well-spaced; covered with white tablecloths (long to the ground), silver cutlery, and crystal glasses with an excellent design.
Of course, the main part would be the menu. In fact, I would like to present foods solidly anchored to the Italian tradition, prepared starting from perfect raw ingredients, but also open to suggestions from other countries – first of all, Asia — and avant-garde techniques, such as the molecular cuisine (not too much, though).
Each recipe should find its place in a single and precise dish, perhaps created by a ceramic artist following my instructions. I would like to arouse amazement and curiosity in my customers, which are very important ingredients for the success of a great dinner, and can make it unforgettable.
I think I'm still pretty far from this goal, but I try to get closer every day. Because, as Freud said, "The mature person is not the one who does not dream, but the one who knows how to realize his dreams."
View our November 2018 Nine on the Line: Chef “La Fufi” Fulvia Steffenone from Caffe Milano.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...