Restaurant and retail stores: FnB, AZ Wine Merchants, Bodega (Scottsdale, AZ)
Experience: Café Terra Cotta (Tucson); Lobster Club, Inside (New York City); Rancho Pinot (Phoenix)
Education: Stages at Chez Panisse (Berkeley) and Del Pescatore (Canneto sull'Oglio, Italy)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I didn't go to school—I'm a firm believer in not going to culinary school. So every person I've worked for has taught me how to cook. And I've made a point of working for women chefs, so I have to list three:
Through a program in high school I started with Donna Nordin at Café Terra Cotta. She taught me everything, from cooking to putting the napkin on my lap at a restaurant. I grew up in a family that didn't eat out a lot. Not that we were savages, we had paper napkins in a holder, but you were lucky if you grabbed one of those. She also taught me about traveling. I worked with her for six years, and after I graduated from high school we went to San Francisco every few months, where she had an apartment.
In the early '90s I went to work for Chrysa Robertson at Rancho Pinot. She's been called the Alice Waters of Phoenix. She'd just come back from cooking for California chefs like Nancy Silverton, so she was focused on seasonal and local ingredients, all things that are now so popular. She worked hard to cultivate local growers in Arizona. And she taught a lot of us how to do it. I have all these farmer contacts now because of working for her. She taught all of us. I also met Chris Bianco through Chrysa; back then he was making all her pastas and breads. Rancho Pinot was in a small spot, maybe 24 seats. Bianco ended up taking over that space to turn it into his first Pizzeria Bianco.
Then I went off to New York to work for Anne Rosenzweig. She still teaches me every day—I spoke to her this morning. She taught me about how to find a middle ground between running a business and keeping your integrity. When people ask me what food we serve, we try to say seasonal driven, but it's whatever I'm interested in. That's how Anne wrote her menus: If she had just come back from Spain, we made Spanish dishes. We made Turkish foods if she'd just come back from Turkey. With her background in anthropology and living in Egypt, she has this worldwide idea of how a menu can be. I felt really honored—last summer she sent her daughter out here for a couple of weeks to hang out and cook, because her daughter's getting into the culinary thing as she finishes up school.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I started baking when I was about six years old, so I used to make brownies and other basics. The dish that sticks out was the lemon meringue pie, because my parents constantly remind me that I forgot to put sugar in it, and we had guests over. There I was all proud and I'd forgotten to put sugar in it. Every time they come for dinner and love everything, they bring up that lemon meringue pie.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Anything with vegetables. Because you can go to the farmers' market. And then you can do something simple with them, like grill them. Right now we have grilled broccoli on the menu. I blanch it first, toss it in a little chile sauce, with some oil, salt and pepper and throw it on the grill. You can grill any vegetable quickly. It's clean but tastes great. It adds some nice smokiness as it brings out the flavor.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
What's a technique everyone should know?
How to use a zester. You can really screw it up. When it says not to scrape the white part off, so many cooks will take a zester and just start going at it! You can ruin a dish by sticking all that pith into it.
Is there a culinary skill or a type of dish that you wish you were better at?
There's always something. Patience is one, and I'm trying, I really am. I do a lot of yoga, but my staff can always tell if I miss a day.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Lemon juice. In Arizona people bring me lemons, so they're free. But any citrus. It's an acid, so it's going to bring out the best in any dish. Whatever ingredient you're using, it's going to make it sing.
Are there any new store-bought ingredients you're excited about?
Wonton wrappers! We make manti, a Turkish dumpling pronounced mant-ah. We use a lot of wonton wrappers for that. You can make your own dough, but to keep it consistent I buy a wonton wrapper.
What dish are you best known for?
The leeks featured in Food & Wine in 2010 as a best new dish, with mozzarella and a fried egg and bread crumbs. It's been a few years since that mention came out, but it's very powerful! People still come in and ask for them. I keep everything seasonal. When Arizona gets hot, around the middle of May, leeks start to grow a woody piece in their centers, so I have to take the dish off, and I don't put it on again until late October. But people still come in July and ask for it!
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Soy sauce. I love adding it for that mystery umami-salt thing. I'll also use liquid aminos for people who are gluten-free.
What restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year and why?
The Publican. I like that they do so much with meat and also have plenty of vegetable options. I try to do that here. Lincoln in Portland, Oregon. It's Italian-influenced, but Jenn Louis has a huge section of—I hate using the phrase "small plates," but smaller bites, so I'd be able to try so many more things. Zahav in Philadelphia. Anne [Rosenzweig] just took her daughter for her 21st birthday and raved about it. I look at that menu all the time. I just want to go and eat all the hummus.
What's the most cherished souvenir you've ever brought back from a trip?
A square ice cream scoop I bought in Paris when I was cooking at Lobster Club. We had a puff pastry tart on the menu with pecans and caramel in the shape of a square, so I wanted a square ice cream scoop. I was with a friend who spoke French, she got the guy to sell us the last display model. It cost $50, a lot at the time.
What are your talents or hobbies besides cooking?
Yoga and gardening.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
The one that we always go back to is The Flavor Bible, from Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. I've been meaning to buy a couple of copies for my cooks. When we're coming up with a dish, like we just put on a Hungarian flatbread with potato in it, sour cream and cherries on top. One of my cooks, who's very young, only 21, she said, "We have to figure out an herb that goes with this!" I said, "Well, we need The Flavor Bible!" So she needs a copy.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
I'm a one-restaurant person. My business partner Pavle [Milic]and I opened two places within two blocks of each other, and it almost killed us. One was only open for lunch, the other for dinner, but ultimately we combined them into FnB. We have to be at our restaurants at all times.
So this place would definitely be imaginary. But I'd love to do a combination restaurant and yoga studio in downtown Phoenix. There's nothing wrong with Scottsdale, but I like the feeling of downtown.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
I would take Anthony Bourdain around Phoenix. When he came here, I think he went to Alice Cooper's restaurant and ate a hamburger. I was shocked. It's like when Obama came here and went to Macayo's, a Mexican chain restaurant. Whoever figured out where these guys should eat blew it!
I'd take him to FnB, and Bianco Pizzeria, and I'd take him out for some real ethnic food. He needs to check out some Mexican food, to start. Then there's a Korean restaurant called Café Ga Hyang on 40th Avenue in Glendale in the middle of nowhere, owned by this little tiny woman, about 5-foot-2. She has a disco ball in the center of the restaurant because she likes karaoke. It's open until two o'clock in the morning, when the rest of Phoenix shuts down at 10 p.m.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Dried fruits and vegetables, salt and pepper, dried grains and quinoa and nuts. I don't really eat meat outside of my restaurants.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
V for vegetables and vinegar. Verbena is also one of my favorite herbs; I have three plants in the backyard. But vegetables are my favorite thing to work with, and vinegar.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Grains. Quinoa's gotten popular, but I think people will also discover lesser-known grains like freekeh and wheat berries, and locally grown ones. I think it will become important partly because so many people have either a gluten allergy or celiac disease. But it's also the natural next step to knowing who grows our veg and our meat.
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
At FnB, we do only Arizona wine on tap. We're really fortunate to have so much good wine being made here in our state. We just took our staff down to Sonoita. At that elevation, at 4,000 feet up, it's much cooler. You have other weather problems like hail and frost. But they're producing some phenomenal wines. Dos Cabezas, Kent Callaghan, Maynard James Keenan of Merkin Vineyards, Sam Pillsbury, we're very fortunate to know these people personally. Our guests can know the people who grew their food, and the people behind the bottles.
What is your current food obsession?
Anything Middle Eastern; Turkish in particular. Like those manti dumplings. We also have falafel on the menu. I like making socca, chickpea flour pancakes.
We're getting into growing our own grains and keeping them in Arizona instead of shipping them to Italy (most of Arizona's wheat gets turned into Italian pasta). This is something [Chris] Bianco is pioneering, too. There's a gentleman named Jeff Zimmerman growing grains for us, from wheat berries to farro to the chickpea flour for our socca. He has this tiny mill in the back of Pane Bianco, Chris Bianco's sandwich place. It's called Hayden Flour Mills. He took the name from an old mill in Tempe.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Greek nonfat yogurt. And chilled water.
What are two or three dishes that define who you are?
When I was 19, I went with Donna to Greens restaurant and had arugula for the first time. I loved salads: eating them, composing them. My salads have always been my stronger suit, and I think that's partly because of that experience. I just remember the arugula was the most important element. How I make my salads, I start with a green, and then always include a fruit, a nut and a cheese. I think I got that from that salad.
And my leek dish. Partly because it's gotten so much attention. But it was also the first dish I made from a vegetable that that isn't nearly as liked and used. Leeks usually aren't the center of attention. I love all of those overlooked vegetables: broccoli, rutabaga, spaghetti squash. Those leeks probably started that.