Arizona Culinary Ambassadors

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Five Arizona chefs have been given the “Ripe Award” at an event at the Phoenix Art Museum. The award requires them to represent Arizona food culture to the rest of the nation and world in 2014. Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri, who has served as the president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association, will talk about the awards and the mission of the awards. Joining him are Chefs Justin Beckett of Beckett’s Table, and Gio Osso of Vitru, both 2014 “Ripe Award” winners.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear from local chefs recently named as ambassadors for Arizona's food culture. And we'll see the results of a program that sent artists on a three-day trek down the Verde River. Those stories next, on "Arizona Horizon."

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Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The state Republican party's censure of Arizona senator John McCain over the weekend may have backfired. McCain tells the Associated Press that following the censure, he is, quote, more seriously considering another run for the senate in 2016. The party censured McCain for not being conservative enough. McCain blames the action so what he describes as extremists in the party. And a state senator has come up with an idea for hundreds of thousands of private dollars raised to build a border fence that has yet to break ground. Senator bob Worsley says he'd like to use that money plus another $30 million to monitor the border with cameras. Worsley says that not only would the effort be separate from any federal action, it could also be used to verify federal efforts to seal the border. Five local chefs were recently honored for representing Arizona food culture to the rest of the nation and the world. Joining us now to talk more about the Ripe Awards and why these particular chefs were honored is Steve Chucri, a Maricopa County supervisor who has served as a president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. Also with us are Ripe Award winners, chefs Gio Osso of Vitru, and Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table. It's good to have you all here. Thank you so much for joining us. The Ripe Awards, Steve, what are we talking about here?

Steve Chucri: We're talking about acknowledging Arizona's finest chefs that we have in the state, and it's exciting for me as the head of the Arizona Restaurant Association, because these two gentlemen that are with us tonight tried -- they exhibit what we're trying to accomplish. Arizona just last week was named the fastest growing state in 2014 for a restaurant sales growth. That means we're number one. Restaurants are going to boom in 2014 in Arizona. And it's because of in my estimation, the fine work these two gentlemen do.

Ted Simons: The mission of the awards you would say is what?

Steve Chucri: I think it's recognizing the true talent in our industry. Chefs as Justin and Gio can attest, to back in the day they used to be known for masters of the kitchen. But now they're not only masters of the kitchen but their P&L. You're seeing that through virtue of their growth. Justin's got a second location he's opening, so that's the first time we've seen that in Arizona, and really in many ways in the industry. So what the Ripe Awards is doing, it's acknowledging those chefs that kind of are a cut above. That no pun intended, that are making that difference in our culinary variety for the state.

Ted Simons: And Gio, your restaurant, I've seen reviews, I've read some really good things about this. Do you feel, though, that you are representing Arizona food culture?

Gio Osso: Yes, absolutely. As an ambassador, like you said, which is the first time I heard that, that's pretty cool. I think we are. Arizona became -- Is a melting pot, just like a major city. And we're really bringing everything to the table now. There's so much variety, there's so much talent in the city. It's definitely one of the powerhouse cities now.

Ted Simons: Where were you from originally?

Gio Osso: I was from the way far left coast of Italy called New Jersey.

Ted Simons: OK. So you got your New York, New Jersey area, your restaurants, food culture there. Compare to what you're seeing growing here.

Gio Osso: Oh, it's almost on the same level. We're getting close. We're getting to that level. I think Arizona, Phoenix specifically is becoming a major, major food market you can consider alongside New York, Chicago, San Francisco, some of these really big food cities.

Ted Simons: Are we getting there, Justin?

Justin Beckett: I hope so. We're trying. We're trying very hard. I think what's really impressive is that the people that are taking the risks and the people doing it are people like us and people who have been given a chance maybe in the down economy a little bit, with a couple benefits for being able to get into a place for a little bit more affordable rents or things like that, but we're not relying on the chains to provide the future of culinary. We're relying on our peers, our chefs just like us.

Ted Simons: You're talking about taking risks. I know you're from the Bay Area. Is it easier to take a risk here as opposed to New York, New Jersey, or the Bay Area?

Justin Beckett: I think a risk is a risk. No matter where you take it. My family, my kids' college tuition is all in the restaurant. It's all up on the stake. But I think that there might be a slightly larger spotlight maybe in some of these larger cities right now, but I really think that every time we open another great restaurant, like Southern Rail, our next one, every time we do that we're that much closer to being recognized as a culinary destination.

Ted Simons: Over the years what have you seen as far as that culinary destination aspect? Are we getting better?

Steve Chucri: I think it's night and day. As someone who was and raised in this state, we had Mexican food and a different kind of Mexican food. Today it's not the case. You've got Vitru, you've got Beckett's Table, you've got southern rail coming down, Sam Fox has an enormous array of restaurants. You've got independents that I think for the first time feel -- Truly feel comfortable taking that risk or pushing the envelope when it comes to the creative side of their menu. And that's what's making Arizona I think it's putting us on the map. In that the diversity we've seen in some cases we haven't even seen certain cuisines on a menu within 10 years ago, even 10 years ago. So that's what excites me as the head of an industry that I think is one of the best.

Ted Simons: Talk about the dynamic between creativity, risk taking, and good food and making sure I had a good experience when I went to your restaurant.

Gio Osso: You know, you have to be on stage every night. It's an act to a certain extent. It's like theater. I have to perform for you every, every night. And it has to be perfect every night. And what you are going to take away from it is that satisfaction of, you know, that was the best meal I've ever had. At least for that moment. That's what we're trying to do with our creativity, with making you feel comfortable, making you feel at home at the restaurant. For that two-hour experience you're going to have, I want you to leave saying, that was the best I've ever had. Until you go to the next restaurant the next night. But at least for that two hours I have you and I'm going to give you everything I can to make that special for you.

Ted Simons: Is it the best I ever had, is it I've never had this before, is it, I can't believe that they're even serving this but I find it interesting? You guys are creative, you're artists. Lots of artists say, I don't care what the audience thinks, I'm expressing myself, if you want to follow, that's good, if you don't, get out of the way. You can't necessarily do that in a restaurant.

Justin Beckett: I've been a huge proponent of give the guests what they want. I think my job is to surprise them or make them stretch that bubble just a little bit. You come in and say I only eat chicken. I'm not going to give you tuna. I'm going to give you chicken but in a special way, I'm going to roast it with these flavors, stuff it with that, so I want to stretch your imagination, I want to make I almost uncomfortable but I want you to enjoy it and get what you asked for.

Ted Simons: And I think we're looking at some of the dishes -- I believe this is from your restaurant?

Justin Beckett: Yeah, those are cast-iron roasted enchiladas stuffed with some wonderful avocado and lobster, and fresh corn, and little chunks of potatoes.

Ted Simons: My goodness. When you come up with that dish and this dish and others that we'll be looking at, what goes through your mind? Have you had something before, you think I want to use this, I want to use that? Is it something that you just come out with? What works here? Creative process.

Justin Beckett: I think inspiration comes from every moment of life. As a dress maker goes down the street and sees a flower or color they want to make the fabric, whatever turns into this dress, for me it really stems from being in the kitchen with the rest of the team, and bantering back and forth, hey, let's make a lollipop out of this, that. A lot of times I joke, but a lot of food comes from a candy bar, or a bite you had once that you wouldn't think turns into something totally different. A lot of our menu dishes come from inspirations and conversations in the kitchen.

Ted Simons: Gio, we have shots of your food as well. Is it a collaborative process? Are you the boss and everyone's got to follow? How does that work?

Gio Osso: No, it's always a collaborative effort. My two sous chefs, we work together really hard at creating the menu, that's our oxtail with morels. We talk about it all the time. It could be a childhood memory, a smell from you walk outside and you smell something and it reminds you of something.

Ted Simons: And if let's say what we're seeing right now, I had this, and I somehow get the message -- I didn't like that. I wasn't crazy about that. How much does a chef take that kind of response? You don't hear about that much, but if someone comes back and says, I wasn't crazy about it. How do you factor that in?

Gio Osso: Well, just like any other art, it's a matter of opinion. To a certain person, whether it's a food critic, a movie reviewer or something like that. It's a matter of opinion. So we can't please everyone, but we can try.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned food critics, and I kind of blundered into that part about people not being happy about the food, but you know what happens, is Arizona rising to the sophistication, are we at the sophistication, to where these two gentlemen know they'll have a steady clientele?

Ted Simons: We are. We have roughly 500 restaurants in the state, our population growth is still happening, we expect that food industry in Arizona will lead job growth for the next 10 years, to almost a whopping 16 percent. Is there an oversaturation? I think in some markets there is, but I think in the Phoenix metro area, as you start to go to the other parts of the state, Tucson and the like, you see restaurants being well thought out. You see the homework being done. When that happens, that breeds success. And so we expect more of it, and I think with the two chefs we have here tonight, I think they're a great example of what is yet to come, to continue to come I should say.

Ted Simons: Back to the food culture aspect, Justin, could you -- Could you put -- Present the food that you have now on your menu, if you were back in San Francisco, if you were in Iowa, if you were in New York? Is the food different because you are here?

Justin Beckett: That's an interesting question. Yeah, I have a lot of friends back at home in San Francisco and they come down and eat and they're like you've got to open one of these in the City! You've got to get back to San Francisco. For me, I always felt maybe we were a bigger fish in a smaller pond here, but I think that perception is changing. And I really believe that if you take food that's thoughtful and done well, and it doesn't have to be super fancy or super cheap, it can be somewhere in the middle, and you present it well with a thoughtful attitude and -- we call it the invisible hug. You walk into a restaurant, you're getting embraced. You're feeling cared for. If you can do that, it doesn't matter the expense or the style of food or the complexity of the food, as long as it's thought out and done well, you will succeed, and you will do very well in whatever city you're in.

Ted Simons: Gio, your menu could apply here, Seattle, Chicago, Miami? Or is it -- Is there something about your menu and your restaurant that is Arizona specific?

Gio Osso: Well, I think the menu, food wise, I think it could work in any city. But the intimacy of the restaurant I have right now, the space I have, being inside the Bespoke Inn, it has this charm about it. That would be really difficult to duplicate in another city, so it would have to be a different style of restaurant. But the food would work.

Ted Simons: All right. And we're taking a look at it right now. Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us. Continued success, and thank you so much for sharing your food thoughts with us on "Arizona Horizon."

All: Thank you.

Steve Chucri:Supervisor, Maricopa County; Chefs Justin Beckett:Chef, Beckett's Table; Gio Osso:Chef, Vitru;

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