When I interviewed chef Ryan Clark in the rear dining room at the Lodge on Desert, he was patient and relaxed. He listened to my questions, gave thoughtful answers, and seemed to be completely stress-free, but his plate was astonishingly full. He was in the midst of preparing for the World Margarita Competition, finishing a cookbook, running the food and beverage service as the (former) executive chef at the Lodge on the Desert, and overseeing the construction, finalizing details, and opening of his new restaurant, Agustín Kitchen. At age 28, this talented young chef is one of Tucson’s rising culinary stars.
“It’s been a wild year,” says Clark.
Clark is the picture of calm, although he might just be used to the flurry. He won the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Tucson Iron Chef competitions; the 2012 and 2013 World Margarita Championships; the 2009 and 2010 Tucson Meet Yourself Iron Chef; the 2010 Copper Chef; and was named by the American Culinary Federation as one of the top 16 junior chefs across the nation. Food & Wine magazine nominated him as People’s Best New Chef 2013.
Although he’s obviously talented, Clark works hard, too. He started preparing for the margarita competition six months before it happened. His typical work week runs Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and involves not only cooking and prepping but also scheduling, meetings, ordering, managing finances, booking events, and interacting with guests.
Clark’s culinary career began at Fuego Kitchen (which has since closed) while he was a student at Sabino High School. He worked his way up to sous chef at Fuego while he was playing soccer for Pima Community College and considering a career in architecture or business. But working at Fuego Kitchen ignited his passion for food and, with encouragement from chef-owner Alan Zeman, Clark decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
The CIA is often considered the most prestigious and rigorous culinary school in the United States, and the institution has churned out many celebrity chefs. Known for it military-like precision and high standards, Clark was one of seven of his class of 33 to graduate.
“Every single morning the chef would make sure that your whites were pressed. He would smell your breath not only to see if you brushed your teeth but to check if you were drinking the night before,” says Clark. “He checked your nails to make sure they’re clean, and you had to be clean shaven. If any of that was not right, you’re gone.”
After completing an externship with Beau MacMillan at Elements in Scottsdale and finishing the CIA program, Clark returned to Tucson and did stints at Canyon Ranch and Dish Bistro before taking the reins at the Lodge.
It’s easier to get Clark to talk about food than it is to get him to talk about the awards he’s won. (I don’t recommend chatting with him on an empty stomach.)
“Just because it’s farm fresh produce doesn’t mean you can’t use the most modern techniques. You can play with food and make it really good.”
Last year, the secret ingredient of the Tucson Iron Chef Competition was cuts of lamb. “It was tough literally because they weren’t tender cuts, so we had to grind them, we had to mince them very finely, we had to braise them, all to manipulate the tenderness of the meat,” says Clark. All that effort paid off when Clark and his team defended their title for the third year in a row.
To do well in cooking competitions, the contestants need to be able think on their feet quickly, cook à la minute, and come up with creative, tasty dishes on the fly. “One thing you can do to prepare is sharpen your knives,” he says with a laugh. “I always say if you’re not nervous, you have no passion or you don’t really care about it. So of course we’re nervous, every year we go into it. Once you start cooking, the butterflies go away, and you’re in your zone. Then, we’re able to do what we do: cook.”
Perhaps working with MacMillan, an Iron Chef America winner, set up Clark for his winning streak, although Clark wasn’t directly involved with the preparations or the competition. With the trajectory he’s on, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Clark on the Iron Chef America someday, but Clark says he’s retired from the Iron Chef Tucson competition.
In October, Clark defended his title at the World Margarita Championship for the second year in a row. His winning cocktail, the Salted Lime, won the people’s choice award. It begins with blanco tequila infused with “black limes,” a technique from Middle Eastern cooking where fresh limes are juiced, cooked in salt water, and dried outside in the desert sun until they turn black. The result is a bitter, earthy, umami-like flavor. The infused tequila is mixed with a citrus simple syrup and Grand Marnier, and the winning concoction is finished with a jalapeño tincture spray.
Despite his youthfulness and rising-star status, Clark does not fit into the egocentric celebrity chef mold. “I never asked to be in the spotlight, so it’s kind of weird to win competitions and get all of the publicity. I hope it inspires people more than anything.”
Clark just released his first cookbook: Modern Southwest Cooking, published by Tucson-based Rio Nuevo publishers. “The whole book is driven toward the Southwest with a little bit of modern twists in the dishes,” says Clark. Inventive recipes include southwestern ingredients such as chiltepines, mesquite flour, prickly pear, heirloom vegetables, local game, ostrich, and, of course, chiles.
“It’s a sweet spot in my life, I guess,” says Clark when reflecting on all that’s transpired in the past year.
Opening Agustín Kitchen was perhaps his most ambitious project yet. Located in the space formerly occupied by Agustín Brasserie, the new restaurant features Clark’s farm-to-table modern American cuisine.
“I’m about to turn 29, and a lot of people would say you’re crazy for trying to open a restaurant,” says Clark “It’s a very tough industry, but I feel like I’m young and have the energy and passion to do it, so what better time than right now? I’d rather start now than do it 10 years down the road.”
The Agustín Kitchen menu will feature a few of Clark’s poplar dishes from the Lodge, including the brûlée goat cheese appetizer, but the menu also features new and creative offerings. “We have a couple of cool high-tech gadgets, including a kick-ass immersion circulator,” he says. Called sous vide, this method of low-temperature cooking prevents cell walls in the food from bursting, which keeps meats tender and moist, while thoroughly cooking vegetables, leaving them firm and crisp.
But at the heart of the Agustín Kitchen’s menu is locally grown and produced produce and products. That’s what Clark has been specializing in since 2009, when he created the food and beverage menu at the Lodge. Some, like Clay Smith, co-owner of Sleeping Frog Farms, might say that Clark was a pioneer in the local food movement. “He’s a young, inspired chef and has had a large impact on the local food movement in Tucson,” says Smith. “He’s always reaching out to us to see what we have available and building his menus around that.”
Chefs who use local produce need to be creative in the kitchen and skilled with stocking the kitchen because they’re not simply ordering all of their fruit and vegetables from one supplier, says Smith. “Using the traditional supplier model doesn’t have the same challenges as using local suppliers, nor the same result.”
“When I started at the Lodge, farms were just starting to get going here in Southern Arizona, so I thought farm-to-fork and using local ingredients would be the best way to go,” says Clark.
At Agustín Kitchen, Clark will tweak dishes on menu slightly based on the season to keep them fresh, seasonal, and local. Some dishes will stay on the menu year-round, like the local goat cheese brûlée, but the homemade topping will change seasonally: tomatoes in the summer, figs in late summer, and grapes in the winter.
Clark built the farm-to-table menu by finding the comfort foods that Tucsonans like and putting his own twist on them using local products. A few of the highlights from Augstín Kitchen’s menu include: pork chop with prickly pear barbeque sauce, spinach salad with Green Valley pecans, salmon with local vegetables, fried oysters with kumquat, and chicken and spaetzle with roasted chiles. “Even though it’s a new American restaurant, we focus on local; therefore, it’s new American with southwestern nuances.”
Local produce and high-tech cooking may seem like an unusual pairing for those who have been inspired by the local food movement since the rise of Alice Waters. But along with sous-vide cooking, Clark is no stranger to molecular gastronomy techniques like smoking guns and dry ice. “Just because it’s farm fresh produce doesn’t mean you can’t use the most modern techniques,” says Clark. “It doesn’t have to be old school. You can play with food and make it really good.”
There are some challenges to using local produce and products from small farms and purveyors, Clark admits. But the service aspect is key. “When a server can say to a guest, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have the heirloom carrots because groundhogs ripped them out of the ground last night,’ people like that story and like knowing where their food comes from.” Editing the menu is another easy solution. “If the arugula is starting to flower, we’ll just take it off without changing the whole menu.”
More than two dozen local purveyors (not including alcohol) fill the larder at Agustín Kitchen, so the logistics of making sure the restaurant is fully stocked and ready for service is a bit different than the traditional model. For most restaurants, all of the ingredients are delivered to the restaurant’s back door by semi-trucks representing a handful of usually national companies. Clark’s model is more of the Slow Food movement variety. “A lot of time, I’ll go pick it up [from the farmers’ market], just like an old school chef would,” says Clark.
Using local food means his dishes are fresher, healthier, and tastier than conventionally purchased produce, which travels on average 1,838 miles to become part of a meal. Using local usually cuts down on processing and packaging, reducing materials, energy, and landfill waste. But mainly, using local foods means investing in our own community. According to studies by Local First Arizona, locally owned community-minded companies create a greater economic impact in the state, indirectly supporting more jobs, payroll, and output locally. They also create a greater revenue impact because more of the taxes they and their employees pay stay in Arizona.
Clark has stayed local himself. “I’m from Tucson, born and raised here; I’ve lived here my whole life,” says Clark. I would do anything to support the people that are around me. I think that’s really important to build a strong community.”
Clark has had offers to leave Tucson, but since he was born and raised here, and has family here, he wants to stay. “Tucson’s food and beverage scene, I think, is one of the most underrated in the nation. I’ve seen it progress and grow. I feel like I’ve been part of the progress of Tucson’s culinary trend, and I want to follow it through. It’s a great time to eat and drink in T-town!” ✜
Agustín Kitchen is located at the Mercado San Agustín. 100 S. Avenida del Convento. 520.461.1107.
Gretel Hakanson does a little freelance writing and a lot of freelance book editing. She lives in a zero-net-electricity house in Sam Hughes with her husband and two dogs.
Excerpted from Ryan Clark’s Modern Southwest Cooking
There is no right or wrong to this madness, so get creative. Start at the local market and see what vegetables inspire you. Ask yourself what flavors will work best together, and don’t forget to think about robust colors that will create an amazing presentation.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Place the kosher salt in a baking pan and place the beets on the salt with the skins on. Roast for 1 hour or until tender. Remove from the oven, cool, and peel. Cut into 1-inch cubes.
Preheat the grill to medium high. Slice the zucchini, yellow squash, and eggplant lengthwise into slices 1⁄4-inch thick. Cut the red, yellow, and orange bell peppers into quarters and remove the seeds. Toss the zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, bell peppers, portobellos, and asparagus with the herb oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the vegetables on the grill and cook until tender. Remove from the grill and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the thyme, oregano, parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. Sprinkle the mixture over the cooked vegetables. Line a 4 by 8-inch terrine mold with plastic wrap, allowing excess wrap to extend past the sides of the mold. Layer the vegetables in the terrine, being sure to press each layer down evenly. Once the terrine is full, fold the plastic over the top and set the weight on top of the terrine. Place in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. To serve, remove the weight, use the plastic wrap to lift the terrine from the mold, and then remove and discard the plastic wrap. Slice the terrine into 2-inch pieces with a sharp knife. Serves 4.