Becoming Janos

Janos Wilder has spent most of his life in the kitchen. How he got there —and why he stayed.

May 9, 2016

FeaturesIssue 18: May/June 2016

On a warm March morning, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails is empty. Chef Janos Wilder sits in a booth facing the windows that look out onto Sixth Avenue, his phone lighting up with messages every few minutes.

The day will unfold in a series of meetings, interviews, and installations in The Carriage House, Wilder’s new culinary teaching space and dim sum restaurant. The quiet of the morning is quickly broken—a UPS employee raps on the door to deliver a package; a produce truck shows up to unload the day’s vegetables; an accountant brings Wilder a stack of checks to sign. From the kitchen comes the clinking of dishes, the clanging of pots, and the smell of a gas range.

Janos huddles with his waitstaff before every shift, reviewing daily specials and new menu items.

Janos huddles with his waitstaff before every shift, reviewing daily specials and new menu items.

Before he is Janos, a 4-year-old John Wilder watches his mother prepare a leg of lamb. The leg is whole, nearly down to the hoof, all of the small bones, gristle, and fat still attached. His mother, Joyce, rubs it in mustard, garlic, and soy sauce. She makes a flour paste and then studs the leg with rosemary. As always, she is without a recipe; intuition is her guide.

It is 1958 in East Palo Alto, California. John’s oldest siblings are at school, and his father, Dave, is at work. The kitchen belongs to John and his mother. From the record player comes the smooth crooning of Frank Sinatra. For a moment, Joyce is lost in the music; Sinatra is her celebrity heartthrob. She smiles at John, her youngest son, and twirls him across the kitchen.

John equates the kitchen with love, with mother, with the savory-sweet smell of garlic browning in the oven. As he grows older, he sneaks pieces of meat off the bone when his mother isn’t looking. These are memories that John will carry for the next 50 years—as he becomes Janos, moves to Colorado, falls in love and marries; as he works in kitchens in Santa Fe and France and finally lands in Tucson. Just the thought of a leg of lamb floods his senses with nostalgia—he remembers the gamey smell of the lamb, the rosemary, the layers of flavors that permeate the meat as it cooks. For Janos, it is the dish that most expresses the love that can filter through food.

In the 1960s, Berkeley is alive with the civil rights movement. People spill into the streets, carrying signs and chanting. Throughout elementary school, John goes with his parents to community meetings and rallies where they protest housing discrimination and racial segregation. When Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered in 1968, John and his family march through Stanford holding hands with strangers in the street.

In his junior year of college in Boulder, Colorado, where he studies political science, John gets a job as a cook at The Hungry Farmer. It is 1975, and there are so many Johns working at the restaurant that it becomes hard to keep them all straight. Nicknames are doled out by the chef, and he begins referring to John Wilder as Janos. When the chef quits six weeks later, the broiler cook, David Ruby, continues the nickname. David and Janos are two young chefs learning the dance of a busy kitchen. Together they cook fast and well. They are understaffed that summer, and the two must cover the entire line. They cook and plate shrimp, ribs, potatoes, steak, and Rocky Mountain oysters for 450 diners every night. For Janos, the choreography of the pace is exhilarating. Here in the busy kitchen at The Hungry Farmer, Janos lets his new name settle around him.

In the summer, the Colorado mountains smell like ponderosa pine. Gold Hill, population 125, sits 10 miles outside of Boulder. At an elevation of 8,300 feet, steep roads and winter snows keep Gold Hill largely inaccessible to visitors for much of the year. But in the summer, the town buzzes with tourists.

In 1978, Janos meets his future wife, Rebecca, while working at the Gold Hill Inn. Janos is the chef and Rebecca—an artist and weaver who works as the K-3 teacher in the town’s two-room schoolhouse—waits tables at the Inn over the summer.

As a chef in a remote community, Janos faces a major sourcing problem: no one will deliver to Gold Hill. Early each morning, Janos walks down the dirt road to take stock of his ingredients at the Inn. Bleary-eyed from late nights spent in the kitchen and partying with friends, he takes his truck down the mountain to Boulder. In Boulder, he visits supermarkets, the butcher, the fish market. On his way back up to Gold Hill, he writes the day’s menu in his mind. As he rounds the last mountain curve, the expanse of the Continental Divide opens up in front of him.

Finally, it occurs to him to begin sourcing his ingredients from neighbors in Gold Hill. He notices that someone is growing sorrel and rhubarb; another neighbor has a small garden. Oh my God, he thinks,Maybe I could sleep in. He begins buying vegetables, wild mushrooms, and trout from neighbors, avoiding the early morning trek to Boulder whenever possible. This is the beginning of Janos’ interest in local food, and at first, it’s just practical. It’s sleep-motivated. But the concept sticks, becoming an anchor for his career.

Every summer for the next 30 years, Janos and Rebecca go back to Gold Hill. They hike through the woods, taking in the columbine flowers and the green of fiddleheads unrolling. Their walk is a meditation, a casual hunt for the red-orange of lobster mushrooms and the bright yellow of chanterelles, which they carry back to the old miner’s cabin that they now own.

In the morning, while the restaurant remains quiet and unoccupied, Janos Wilder catches up on work is his "office" at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.

In the morning, while the restaurant remains quiet and unoccupied, Janos Wilder catches up on work is his “office” at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.

In 1981, newly married, Janos and Rebecca leave Gold Hill for Santa Fe. They are in their mid-20s, and the world seems to shimmer with possibility. Rebecca studies graphic design and Janos finds a job in a restaurant. They rent a 300-square-foot apartment, a converted stable that still resembles a barn. Too broke to afford furniture, they eat their meals on the surface of a yellow foot locker.

Janos becomes fascinated by French cooking and decides to apprentice under a French chef. He writes letters to the best restaurants in France, offering to intern without pay. One after the other, the restaurant owners say no—except for one, Roland Flourens, who writes that he will be in the United States and asks if he can visit Janos and Rebecca in Santa Fe. In preparation for Flourens’ visit, they buy a picnic table for the living room. When Flourens arrives, Janos serves an elaborate multicourse dinner on the couple’s wedding china. Flourens, though not entirely sold on Janos’ meal, admires his drive and potential, and invites him to France.

Janos is captivated by the smells and sounds of France. For four months, Janos apprentices under Chefs Jean-Pierre Bugat and Didier Pétreau, absorbing the flavors, the technique, the philosophy of French cooking. He goes with the chefs to the outdoor market, where farmers sell produce from the back of their trucks. On one visit, a farmer flags down Chef Bugat and hands him a paper bag filled with the season’s first tarragon, saved especially for him. There is a spark to this exchange and Janos is mesmerized. The relationship between producer and chef, he realizes, is the heart and soul of French cooking.

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Janos met his wife, Rebecca, at the Gold Hill Inn outside of Boulder, Colorado. Rebecca is a painter and artist and works in a studio in the couple’s home.

When Janos returns from France, he and Rebecca leave Santa Fe for Tucson—Rebecca was raised on the border, and they want to stay in the Southwest. In 1983, Janos opens his first Tucson restaurant, Janos,in an old adobe home in El Presidio neighborhood, a national historic district, located adjacent to the Tucson Museum of Art. Soon, it’s heralded as one of the top regional restaurants in the United States. The experience is like being pulled through a tunnel—on the periphery, the world is happening, the desert is blooming, but Janos is moving too fast to take it all in. He stops only for a month, in July of 1984, when Rebecca gives birth to their son, Ben. That summer, the monsoons come early and water fills the streets. For a month when Ben is born, there is no restaurant. He and Rebecca focus on the baby, exploring the strange new space of parenthood. In August, Janos goes back to work. Days begin at 6:30 in the morning, and end at 10 or 11 at night. He often has the sensation of never actually leaving the restaurant.

At the restaurant, they make everything from scratch. They bake bread, they can tomatoes, they make pasta. Janos changes the menu every day. Twice a day, before lunch and dinner, he takes a handwritten menu to the copy store, where he uses a typewriter to type the menu before making photocopies.

After five years in Tucson, Janos and Rebecca start taking Ben hiking in the Tucson Mountains, and Janos begins to fall in love with the desert. He is introduced to Native Seeds/SEARCH, still a new organization focused on saving seeds of desert-adapted plants. He is asked to cater a fundraiser dinner, which he does using only foods sourced from Native Seeds/SEARCH. He begins to connect with the stories of the foods that have grown in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years—tepary beans, cholla buds, chiles. He describes this as “a window, a portal, a door opening.”

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Janos Wilder sits in the refrigerated seed vault at the Native Seeds/SEARCH conservation center. He has been involved with the seed-saving nonprofit for more than two decades; he’s currently the acting chair.

By the age of 30, Janos has spent half his life in the kitchen. His palate is developed; his technique is honed. The flavor profiles of the desert Southwest begin to collide and intersect with his French technique. He studies regional dishes of the Southwest as though they are science projects—chilaquiles, tacos, enchiladas. He takes the chile relleno and reverse engineers it, questions how and why it is prepared the way it is—the batter, the type of chile, how it’s roasted. And then he rebuilds it.

He stuffs Anaheim chiles with lobster and brie. He covers it in French sauce. He pairs it with jicama salad. He makes taco shells out of egg roll wrappers. He infuses it with place: his California childhood, a visit to Tokyo with his parents, the mountains of Colorado, the French countryside. “I’m a guy that has tremendous respect for what’s come before me,” he says, “but tremendous respect for what’s possible.”

In the spring of 2010, Janos is planning the menu for Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, set to open in October. At the end of April, Governor Jan Brewer signs Senate Bill 1070 into law, which sets off widespread protests against the anti-immigrant legislation. At Armory Park, just one block from the new restaurant, thousands of people gather to protest the law. Janos feels compelled to make a statement against SB 1070, and the new menu is the perfect vehicle. Since his youth, he has experienced the power of protest and the power of food—how it defines home, and how it returns us there, despite time, borders, or miles traveled through the desert.

Let’s do American food, he thinks, But let’s do real American food. And so the menu is born, an eclectic mix of worldwide cuisines, full of the foods that follow people as they migrate, dishes that serve as “touchstones to home.”

By now, Janos is conditioned to change. In 1995, he opened Wild Johnny’s Wagon, a food truck enterprise well before the era of food trucks. In 1998, Janos relocated to the scenic Westin La Paloma. J Bar was created in the same location in 1999. In 2002, Janos spearheaded Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Phoenix. And in 2010, Janos returned to downtown Tucson to open Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.

There is a fire in Janos that keeps him dreaming and creating. Perhaps it’s this same fire that has made him a self-professed browbeater in the kitchen. Janos admits to having developed a chef’s temperament that he is not entirely proud of. He wants his employees to be great, and cannot understand why anyone would give less than their best. Now, he says, he has softened, perhaps with age, and “would rather inspire people by appealing to their highest selves.” Time has also decorated him with numerous awards and recognitions, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southwest, the MOCA Local Genius Award, and acceptance into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. He is chairman of the board of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

The Carriage House is the latest of Janos’ endeavors. A culinary teaching and event space, The Carriage House is the manifestation of a decades-long dream of integrating education and cooking. In October of 2014, Janos was walking back to his restaurant from a meeting when he noticed a 1917 brick building in the alleyway directly behind Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. He contacted the building’s owner immediately. The design process began in May of 2015; construction began in October. In order to function as a restaurant, the space required new plumbing, grease traps, sewer connections, new electrical, gas lines, hoods, and extra ventilation.

“After so many moves, you gain perspective that everything will be all right, but you don’t take that for granted by any means,” Janos says. “It’s exciting, but there are times when the stress just mounts. It doesn’t all go perfectly. Things come out of left field that you had no expectation of.”

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The Carriage House’s Dim Sum brunch takes its inspiration from Hong Kong tea houses, which feature classy push-carts laden with small plates to share.

In February 2016, The Carriage House finally opens. On a Sunday afternoon, Janos hosts a Friends & Family Dim Sum event, which happens to fall on his mother’s 87th birthday. As she sits with Rebecca, Ben, and other family members, Joyce Wilder watches her son move around the room, greeting the many friends and colleagues who have come to celebrate his latest endeavor. The dining room is expansive, with high ceilings and exposed beams. Bartenders pour mimosas and servers push rolling glass carts filled with plated food. At the end of the meal, Janos surprises his mother with a birthday cake. His voice wavers as he honors the woman who inspired his love of cooking. She stands, tears in her eyes, and embraces her son. Nearly 60 years after they danced to Frank Sinatra in their East Palo Alto kitchen, the cooking space belongs once again to this mother and her son. ✜

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and the co-founder of the Farm Education and Resource Network (FERN). She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, as well as the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council.







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