Food is creativity. Food is family. Food is heritage. Food is a map of the soul of another.
For Isaiah “Zaya” Briggs, Executive Chef at Ermanos Bar since 2019, his soul is a hearty stew of New York, Barbados, and Tennessee, and with each dish he creates, more of the map is revealed.
“That has always been my downfall; not showing people what I can do,” said Briggs. “I think I’m at a point in my life now where I need to push to do more and let people know who’s making their food and the reasons why they love coming to Ermanos.”
Originally from Queens, New York, Briggs moved to Tucson with his mother in 2010, which proved to be a bit of a culture shock, ultimately for the best.
“She just wanted a different scenery for me,” said Briggs about his mother. “Where I grew up, at the time, was a very urban area. Now I go back and it’s very gentrified, so completely different from how I grew up. In Tucson, everything's slower and people are nicer. I kind of just became me.”
Briggs got his first job in Tucson at the now-closed Zachary’s Pizza, where he cut his teeth managing the kitchen. By the time he was 20 years old, he stopped working for Zachary’s and wound up getting a job at Shot in the Dark Café, was part of the original staff at Empire Pizza & Pub, and worked in the kitchen at Maynards, eventually focusing all his time on Maynards by the age of 21.
Briggs recalls listening to and learning from chefs such as Adam Buzzalini, Nicole Matson, and Jared Scott while at Maynards. They made sure to tell him he was too quiet and that he needed to speak up to make sure people knew who he was.
“They were aggressive and they were crazy, but they were super talented,” said Briggs. “I wanted to aspire to be like them, and that’s when I knew I wanted to do this.”
It was at Maynards where Briggs learned one of his greatest lessons: simple is better! Instead of striving for complex dishes with multiple sauces and garnishes, Briggs finds comfort in cooking foods people are already familiar with but doing so in a way that introduces new techniques and/or ingredients to enhance the experience consumers are already accustomed to. He describes his style as Caribbean/Southern with French techniques.
“Food is very big in my family heritage,” said Briggs. “My grandfather was born in Barbados, my grandmother was born in Tennessee, and all the flavors I grew up with, I take everywhere.”
It is not just food that has impacted Briggs’ life both personally and professionally. Music is another medium in which Briggs explores his creativity and heritage. Since he could walk, he regularly found himself attending African, Latin, and Caribbean percussion classes at his mother’s behest.
“She wanted me to not be like any of the other black boys in New York who played drums in churches because there was already a line of them waiting to play,” said Briggs. “She told me I needed to learn my heritage and where I’m from, which was studying African-Caribbean music.”
After he takes off the apron, Briggs continues cooking on drums and percussion in multiple bands including, Street Blues Family, Miss Olivia and the Interlopers, and Velvet Panthr.
His desire to grow as a chef and a musician coincide with one another as he discovers new reaches of his own map.
“With everything in my life, including the way I treat music, I direct,” said Briggs. “With cooking, I’m the same way. I have people leave other jobs to come here because I make them feel wanted. A lot of cooks say they don't enjoy it, but I’m trying to give them the environment to at least feel like they can.”
Purchase your ticket to LUNATION: An Immersive Full Moon Celebration happening on Friday, September 29 from 5 – 10 p.m. at Mission Garden. Eat a four-course meal focusing on food from the harvest season and much more! Featured courses include a chili pear glazed beef short rib with a wild garlic beet mole as well as a roasted butternut squash coconut curry soup with heirloom tomato and fried sage.
Tickets are on sale now at eventbrite.com.
For Sonoran Restaurant Week, Ermanos’ Sous Chef Alekz Scrivner will be featuring a roasted shishito pepper appetizer spiced with chiltepin herb whip, toasted pepita chili crisp, carrot jalapeno micro green salad with a black lime dusting and a special dessert, vegan mesquite churros topped with guajillo strawberry whip, chocolate ganache, whiskey caramel and dusted with ancho ash.
Ermanos Bar is located at 220 N. Fourth Ave. For more information, visit ermanosbrew.com.
Tucson Foodie is a locally owned and operated community. Thanks to our partners and members, we are able to offer paywall-free guides and articles. We value your support!
Jake O’Rourke is a Tucson native, writer, editor, and musician. He enjoys tasting his way through Tucson’s copious food and craft beer options, listening to live music, and writing about the experiences he has within these endeavors.