It’s been two years since Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, a title reflective of Tucson’s rich food history and culture. In November, the Tucson City of Gastronomy board hired Erik Stanford, who worked as a chef at the Cup Café, The Carriage House, Exo Roast Co., and 5 Points Market and Restaurant before launching his own food hub, Pivot Produce. Now, Stanford is adding the title of ‘assistant to the Tucson City of Gastronomy’ to his resume. We spoke about his new responsibilities, what he hopes to accomplish, and the significance of Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
What is your new position?
I am officially a consultant for the City of Tucson City of Gastronomy. I’m directly employed by them but am working as an outside entity influencing them and helping them with some things they need help with. Basically the board has been around for over a year and they’re managing the designation both from Paris UNESCO itself and working with organizations in town to promote the designation to utilize it toward food justice programs, to utilize it toward tourism programs.
This board has been around for a year but the board is a group of extremely busy people that have full-time jobs elsewhere at the University [of Arizona], Native Seeds/SEARCH, different farms and stuff, so they haven’t had … anyone that’s got time to do a mailing list or a website or social media. They don’t even have a Facebook page. So I’m really just kind of … tackling all of the tasks that have built up over the last two years since the designation has come through. That’s mostly what the position is, just getting stuff done.
How did this opportunity come up?
It was actually posted on the Edible Baja [Arizona] website. There was a short article that [said] the Tucson City of Gastronomy was looking for a consultant position, this many hours, this much money, and a friend of mine pointed me in that direction and it’s a really good fit.
How do you hope to impact the organization? You mentioned some of the goals it has, like influencing food justice and low income groups. So how do you hope to help?
I think me personally being linked to some of those groups, I’m going to be attempting to bring them into the fold. I think there’s a misconception that the City of Gastronomy is just about chefs and tourism dollars and that’s certainly not their intention nor do I have any interest in perpetuating that thought. There’s a lot more to the designation. The designation is around native foods. My focus is extending that.
You also operate and manage Pivot Produce. How are you going to balance the two responsibilities?
It’s figuring out how to separate the two but also work the two simultaneously. But really, before I took this position I was [working] about 35 hours a week in restaurants, working on the line to pay the bills since Pivot Produce isn’t quite there yet. So really, it’s allowing me more time for Pivot Produce. Both of the jobs lean toward each other and bounce off of each other really well and I think in a lot of ways the same reasons that I’m uniquely suited to do what I do at Pivot are the same reasons that I’m kind of uniquely suited to do this job.
You have all of these connections through Pivot, you’ve worked in the restaurant industry here, so how are you going to use those connections to help you with your role now?
A lot of my connections are maybe more on the ground floor, grassroots DIY than the connections that a lot of the board members, that have been doing this work for decades, [have]. We have Gary Nabhan, we have the people from Hamilton Distillers, from Native Seeds/SEARCH. I mean, these people have been around for a long time working on this stuff. In the grand scheme of things, I guess I’m pretty new. But I know all of the line cooks in the city, I know all of the people that are volunteering on the farm. I guess it’s bringing that DIY, boots-on-the-ground insight [to] those more well-versed, academic-type people. Both can learn a lot from each other.
Since the designation, have you seen any changes in the food world in Tucson?
I think certainly. I think the designation is part of the whole. We have Edible Baja [Arizona] magazine, we have this designation, we’re kind of on this tidal wave of this movement of local food being very popular and coming into more of that common mindset of the average Armory Park resident or [whoever]. It’s just a part of the whole. We have a new Gastronomic Union of Chefs in Tucson, we have Pivot Produce’s [emergence], Flowers and Bullets started. I don’t think you can directly say UNESCO led to Flowers and Bullets, but entrepreneurs like myself and activists and organizers are motivated by those things. Direct correlation? I probably can’t make it. But I certainly think that UNESCO is one of many factors that is kind of creating this food economy.
Are you the only consultant?
I’m the only consultant. There’s just all of the stuff that needed to get done so they were finally able to pay someone to get started on it part-time. We’ll also be interviewing U of A students this week for three internship positions starting next semester. So then we’ll have three students.
For you, what is the primary thing that you want to accomplish?
There’s a really exciting project that I just got started on. I can’t really say what the most important thing I want to get done [is] because I’m just a few weeks in and not really sure where the job is going to take me. But there’s a really cool project that I’m working on with the Pima Community College Culinary Program. We’re proposing a certificate track so a student from the culinary arts program can take a succession of classes where the curriculum is teaching about use of native foods, foraging through the three sisters. So we’re going to manipulate the classes that already exist and create this track and create the City of Gastronomy certificate program so then we would have that program. And then also in collaboration with Janos Wilder, we have another chef training program that’s more of a professional chef training, [about] how to be an advocate and travel the world and show off what is Tucson food. So they kind of show off and lead into each other.
Focusing on chef training is a really cool thing we’re working on because … there’s a lack of quality cooks, there’s not a diverse pool of cooks. It’s this weird situation where it’s really well-to-do, maybe like myself, fancy white kids who watch too much Food Network. Then there [are] felons and drug addicts. That’s what the kitchen looks like, which is fine, but we need a more diverse pool. So hopefully in five to ten years when we’re looking at who the top chefs in Tucson [are], it’s not just a bunch of white dudes, which is kind of what we have right now. We’re focusing on the chef training program happening at the Desert Vista campus of the Pima Community College—I think [it] brings in a more diverse population, so I’m excited about that.
Header image by Shelby Thompson.