I heard you got into cooking earlier than most. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I started cooking, actually, when I was a little kid. The first toy that I really enjoyed was a little Playskool cooking set; my parents talk about it all the time. And I was always embarrassed by it, like when my friends would come over I’d hide it. Then my brother, who was four years older than me, worked at a Chinese restaurant when he was 16 and they needed a dishwasher … so I actually started a little bit under age when I was there. I started out at $3.75 an hour washing dishes, then when I turned 13, I had to go on the official wages, so then I got $4.25 an hour. So, that was how I got my start. It was kind of under the table at first.
I worked there for a while, and then I went to a Holiday Inn in Cody, Wyoming. And in Cody, basically it’s the reverse of Tucson; busy in the summer, dead in the winter, and so everyone works the summer tourist season to save up enough money to go to college the next year, or whatever it was. I lived in Yuma for a year because my brother was my legal guardian, and he was a corpsman in the Marines stationed there with the Navy. I was attending a junior college there, but I spent the summers working in Wyoming. I was going through my second year of college when I realized the classroom just wasn’t working for me, but I didn’t know what else I was going to do. My brother said to me, “You love cooking. You have so much more fun doing that. Why don’t you look at culinary school?” So the next year instead of going to college after the summer, I went to Portland for culinary school.
How did you come to find yourself working at—
eventually rising to executive chef of—the Arizona Inn?
I had a job at a restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon, but it just wasn’t quite what had been advertised to me during the interview process—it was very institutional-grade, not-edible-for-human-consumption kind of stuff. It just seemed like it wasn’t the way I wanted to go in my life, so I ended up moving down here because my brother was in Tucson at that point in time.
I actually found the Inn through an ad in the paper. I interviewed here, and then when I left I had an interview at Blue Willow and I got hired there on the spot. The next day was supposed to be my first shift at Blue Willow, but I got a call to do a second interview here and I thought, “Maybe I should go.” It was more the direction I wanted to go with my culinary career, and so I ended up getting the job as a banquet cook here. I worked for about nine months before becoming a banquet supervisor, and I got to run the banquet on the chef’s days off. Then, when he stepped down, I took over as banquet chef. I did that for about eight years, then was executive sous chef for Chef Odell Baskerville for about a year and a half. I stayed on as de facto chef for about six months, then in August of 2009, I got the official title … If you talk to most chefs, they’ve kind of jumped around to get to where they are unless they’re at a place where everything just works out perfectly. And it kind of did for me—I got lucky.
Do you use any local ingredients on your menu?
Local is everything to us; we just don’t put it on our menus as much. But because we’re trying to maintain a consistent quality throughout the resort—in the dining room, by the pool, for banquets—it’s hard to source everything locally. A lot of the local places, when they get started, their operations aren’t big enough to support our whole operation. So, I’ve kind of got to think about everything because I don’t want to use an all-natural grass-fed beef in the dining room, for instance, if I can’t also use it for banquets. So, we’re using Willcox tomatoes, we’re using local prickly pear syrup, local ingredients like that, but we don’t always label it as local on the menu.
What’s on the horizon for your dining room?
We’re doing whiskey dinners with Whiskey del Bac. We did a wine dinner with Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. Now I’m trying to put together dinners with Iron John’s Brewing and Sentinel Peak Brewing for the fall. Me, I’m a beer guy. That’s what I prefer to drink. I can drink wine. I just don’t get as much satisfaction out of it as with a good beer. I’ve had $300 bottles of wine; I’ve had a $1,000 bottle of Dom Perignon. I’d rather have a $10 Stone IPA, or something like that. So we’re trying to get that started.
The Arizona Inn has played host to a slew of old-Hollywood celebrities in its 85-year history, and has been owned and operated by four generations of the same family, beginning with Arizona’s first congresswoman, Isabella Greenway. What’s it like working in that atmosphere?
We’re very much a family and a team at the Arizona Inn—that’s just the way it’s run. Where else can you come to work at a place like this every day and see the owner [Will Conroy] walking around? And it’s been the same core group of people since I’ve been here: the general manager [Patrick Cray] is the same, the PR people are the same. I mean, there’s a guy who works with me who’s been there longer than I’ve been alive. His name is Danny Seymour. He runs garde manger for the banquet department and he started here in January of 1978. It’s kind of a different culture—kitchens can be cutthroat and it’s not really like that here.
There are a few dishes on the menu that will probably never change because they’re traditional—like the chicken salad. If I come back when I’m 50 or 60 years old, that’ll still probably be on the menu. But we’ve also got families that have made it their tradition to eat here for the holidays every year. We see the same faces on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas. And then they bring their kids, and they bring their grandkids, and that’s really the tradition for us. That’s the history that we tie into, and it always comes back to the fact that we’re all like a family here. ✜
Arizona Inn. 2200 E. Elm St. 800.933.1093. ArizonaInn.com.
Craig S. Baker is a local freelance writer. You can see more of his work at CraigSBaker.com.