The founding of the Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) may be the start of something big for Tucson’s culinary community. Devon Sanner, executive chef at The Carriage House in downtown Tucson, says it started out as a small Facebook group where Tucson chefs “shared pics of dishes, solicited advice on purveyors and products, passed along kitchen/gallows humor, and celebrated the crazy life of [chef] sisterhood and brotherhood.” As the group grew, Sanner says it became clear there were a number of members looking for a more direct way to “come together as a chef community,” and in September of 2016, a group of 20 chefs met at Ermanos to discuss their goals for future collaborations. These chefs, and those who have joined them since, make up the membership of GUT, who describe their mission as “to foster a culinary community of creativity, professional development, and community engagement.”
Among GUT’s current efforts is an ongoing pop-up dinner series. Featuring five courses crafted by a rotating roster of talented local chefs, the dinners are a delicious and inspiring demonstration of just how strong Tucson’s food game can be.
The inaugural GUT Pop-Up Collaboration Dinner was in June 2017. Its theme, Snout to Tail, referenced GUT’s goal of using the whole animal when cooking, and the locally raised pig provided by E&R Pork and butchered by Forbes Meat Company was just one example of their emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.
The bite-size appetizers offered big flavors: arepas stuffed with Fiore di Capra chèvre, local peach salsa, and bacon offered a chewy, savory contrast to the delicate and tangy melon and cucumber gazpacho verde garnished with a crisp piece of prosciutto. Tiny Trotter taquitos drizzled with chiltepin aïoli rounded out the course.
The salad, called Pig & Fig, featured tender handmade agnolotti pasta stuffed with a salty and rich Guanciale, with a taste similar to bacon and a texture that melted in my mouth. This was topped by a cluster of pungent arugula dressed with Midnight Moon, fennel, orange, and Sambuca syrup. A scattering of sweet dried figs completed the salad.
The second course, called Piggies in a Bandera, showcased three styles of enchiladas: puerco verde, puerco en nogada, and puerco chile colorado. All three were delicious, but my personal favorites were the puerco verde with its tangy tomatillo sauce and the puerco en nogada, whose unique almond and pomegranate sauce added a sweetness and richness that I don’t normally associate with enchiladas.
3 Sisters, 1 Hog was the third course. As the name suggests, the dish paid tribute to the primary crops of indigenous North American agriculture. A dense blue corn sope with perfectly crisped edges provided the base, with a creamy white tepary bean purée and a tender circle of smoked porchetta pibil sitting stacked on top. A tumble of calabacitas en escabeche and a generous drizzle of cilantro crema finished the arrangement, and the combination of textures and flavors to be had in every bite was delightful.
Dessert was amusingly titled It’s What’s For Breakfast, and consisted of a sweet mesquite flour biscuit soaking up a Whiskey Del Bac crème anglaise, with chile-spiced chicharonnes sitting on top. Next to this sweet take on biscuits and gravy sat a decadently rich coffee chocolate truffle, speckled with chicharrones crumbles. The result was divine.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of attending a GUT dinner is the opportunity to watch culinary collaboration in action. While only a few member chefs are tasked with creating the menu for any given dinner, everyone works together to run the dinner service, and being able to observe chefs shift from an executive role during one course to being part of the crew during the next course was an inspiring demonstration of the team spirit present in the group. Sanner says that it isn’t easy to cook with an unfamiliar crew and he credits the success of the service to each chef being “mission-focused, egoless, and ready to lean into the strike zone to take one for the team.” GUT chefs who weren’t contributing to the first dinner’s menu took on the roles of commis, server, busser, and dishwasher, with some chefs “taking their only night off during the week to come plate up, bus tables, and wash dishes for this event.” Other GUT members took on the jobs of establishing the union’s website and graphics, promoting the event, and designing the souvenir menus.
GUT’s dinner series is ongoing, with three goals in mind. “Foremost,” Sanners says, “we want our guests to be wowed by a great meal.” Secondly, he says GUT dinners “aim to be fun,” for guests and chefs alike. Finally, the hope is that those who join GUT for these monthly experiences will “come away with an appreciation of the quality of local product and the dedication of those who make it.”
Information about upcoming GUT dinners and more can be found at GuTucson.org. The next dinner is planned for July 30, and tickets are currently on sale through the site. They are anticipated to sell out quickly; make sure to snag yours while they last!