Let’s get right to the heart of the kitchen. In this post, Dine Like a Local highlights some of your favorite chefs local to the Phoenix Valley. The following were nominated and voted on by The Scout Guide (TSG) Phoenix Scottsdale Instagram followers. You may notice some big names are not included in this post, but all who participated had to agree to be a part of it. This was also the first year of the Dine Like a Local campaign, so perhaps next year it will be bigger! We are also getting very close to The Scout Guide Phoenix Scottsdale Volume 1 launch, set for March 24th! Follow me at @texaztaste and @tsgphoenixscottsdale on Instagram for more info.
I noticed a common thread in the history of some chefs, namely that many attended culinary school in Arizona at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Started by Elizabeth Leite in the mid-1980’s, Scottsdale Culinary Institute (SCI), was an important local business that clearly had a large influence on the Valley’s food scene. Leite sold SCI to Le Cordon Bleu, who sadly closed the doors in 2017. After selling to Le Cordon Blue, Elizabeth’s son, Darren, started another cooking school along with Chef Robert Wilson and Governor Fife Symington, and they called it Arizona Culinary Institute (ACI). Here’s to ACI continuing the tradition set by SCI in training some of the best chefs in Phoenix and beyond. Now let’s get to that list…
Alex Stratta – Stratta Kitchen
James Beard Award winning Chef Alex Stratta opened Stratta Kitchen in August of 2020. Chef Stratta is a total culinary rockstar…for AZ foodie newbies, he was the executive chef of what was one of the greatest all-time AZ restaurants, Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician Resort, then of the Renoir restaurant at The Mirage in Vegas, before he opening his own restaurant at the Wynn called Alex, which closed in 2011. The menu of Stratta Kitchen is inspired by Chef Stratta’s health challenges with colon cancer and a 100-pound weight loss, resulting in a menu that is both health conscious and delicious. The entire menu is offered dine-in, take out, or delivery. Chef Stratta also runs an outstanding catering program if you are looking to entertain in-home.
Christopher Gross – Wrigley Mansion
When I moved to Arizona in the mid 1990’s, there were three restaurants my parents treated me to while visiting over parents’ weekend: Tarbell’s by Mark Tarbell, Vincent’s by Vincent Guerithault, and Christopher’s by Christopher Gross. Chef Christopher Gross moved to AZ from Missouri as a young teen. He spent time honing his culinary skills in Europe before returning to opening Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro in the Biltmore area in 1990. They were wildly successful, earning him the James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Southwest in 1995. Chef Gross is now heading up the kitchen at Geordie’s at the historic Wrigley Mansion. Along with his partner, Jamie Hormel, Chef Gross has overseen a complete overhaul of the kitchen, has renovated the bar area and outdoor garden, and plans to open a new concept onsite called Christopher’s at the Wrigley. Designed by Arizona architect Wendell Burnette of Amangiri fame, this sleek 26-seat eatery will be a stunner. I know I will be fighting to get one of the first seatings.
Dom Ruggiero – Hush Public House
Dom Ruggiero is the Executive Chef of Hush Public House in Scottsdale. Chef Ruggiero graduated from Le Cordon Bleu program at Scottsdale Culinary Institute, staged in southern California at Electric City Butcher, and cooked in restaurants in New York. He returned to the valley to work at Charleen Badman’s FnB and The Meat Market in Carefree before becoming a member of the team at LGO Hospitality. He left his long-standing stint at Chelsea’s Kitchen and joined forces with restaurateur Charles Barber, who oversaw the bar program at Zinc Bistro, to open Hush Public House. Overnight Hush became one fo the best restaurants in town, and reservations are hard to come by. If you eat one meat dish this year, you must try Ruggiero’s Chicago-style Italian Beef Sandwich with braised oxtail, smoked provolone, and giardiniera on brioche…heaven! THE SCOUT GUIDE PHOENIX/SCOTTSDALE WINNER.
Doug Robson – Otro Cafe & Gallo Blanco
Chef Doug Robson is the founder of Otro Cafe and Gallo Blanco along with his wife, Denise. Chef Robson’s parents, who are of French Vietnamese and English decent, raised their family in Mexico City before moving to San Antonio, where Robson graduated from high school. His cuisine draws inspiration from the many cultures of his upbringing, but is mainly latin inspired. The menu at Otro Cafe pays tribute to the neighborhood joints of his birthplace where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served all day. Gallo Blanco’s menu is also inspired by Doug’s Mexico City upbringing, the term “Gallo Blanco” being slang for “white guy”. You will find a fresh perspective on street tacos and a truly killer guacamole. Chef Robson was the opening Executive Chef of both La Grande Orange and Chelsea’s Kitchen in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix before opening Gallo Blanco in 2008.
Rebecca Tillman – Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn
** While nominated back in October, as of the writing of this post, Rebecca Tillman sadly is no longer at The Hermosa Inn. ** Rebecca Tillman replaced longtime chef Jeremy Pacheco as Executive Chef of LON’s at The Hermosa Inn. Chef Tillman served for the last three years as Executive Sous Chef at The Phoenician, and has an impressive career working at large properties in addition to the Phoenician. Chef Tillman was Executive Chef at the legendary Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Executive Sous Chef for the iconic Destination Kohler – The American Club, a Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond luxury resort and spa in Kohler, Wisconsin, and Executive Chef at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in Phoenix. Chef Tillman began her resort career at the Arizona Biltmore after studying Hospitality Administration at Northern Arizona University and earning her Culinary Arts degree from the Art Institute of Phoenix.
Justin Beckett – Southern Rail & Beckett’s Table
Chef Justin Beckett is the eldest of five children and from early on was put to work helping out in the kitchen. With a visible love of cooking, he enrolled at California Culinary Academy right out of high school. After graduation, he was instrumental at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, coming to Phoenix to open Roy’s at the Scottsdale Seville. Incidentally, Beckett has the award for being the youngest sous chef in the history of Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion. He went on to open Canal at the Scottsdale Waterfront, and in 2010, opened Beckett’s Table. This local gem is born out of the inspiration to bring together family, friends, and incredible food for dinner. Beckett partnered with his longtime friends, Scott and Katie Stephens, and his wife Michelle, to bring comfort food highlighting local produce in a neighborly, familial setting. With the success of Beckett’s Table, Chef Beckett opened a sister restaurant on West Camelback Road, Southern Rail, that focuses on Southern cooking.
Kevin Binkley – Binkley’s
Kevin Binkley hails from Reston, Virginia, and moved to Arizona, enrolling in culinary school at Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Binkley honed his skills at the Inn at Little Washington (totally on my bucket list!), working his way up to Executive Sous Chef at only 25 years of age. Next was a stint at the prestigious French Laundry under Thomas Keller before moving back to Arizona to open his namesake Binkley’s alongside his wife, Amy, in Cave Creek in 2004. Chef Binkley is an insanely talented chef, a James Beard Award finalist many times over. He gained fame for his first concept that was located in Cave Creek, and after dabbling with expanding throughout the valley, closed all restaurants to renovate and reimagine a charming cottage on Osborn Road. The dining experience offered by Binkley is like none other in Phoenix, a two-hour multi-course dinner with exquisite food. And through it all, Binkley remains immensely humble, replying to me one evening, “I am just a glorified dishwasher”.
Rochelle Daniel – Fat Ox
Chef Rochelle Daniel is the Executive Chef at Fat Ox, Matt Carter’s most recent concept that serves modern interpretations of traditional Italian dishes. Chef Daniel is from the Valley, having graduating from the now-closed Scottsdale Culinary Institute. She worked for five years in professional kitchens Valley-wide including Arrowhead Country Club, Continental Catering, The Four Seasons, and the Painted Horse Cafe. She also was a personal chef for families with nutritional needs. She first worked for Chef Carter at Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale and excelled, quickly becoming Chef de Cuisine. Daniel has been the head of the kitchen at Fat Ox since it opened in 2016. THE SCOUT GUIDE PHOENIX/SCOTTSDALE WINNER.
Tamara Stanger – Cotton & Copper
Chef Tamara Stanger, a Utah native, has been the Executive Chef of Cotton & Copper, and formerly Helio Basin Brewing. She has extensive restaurant experience working in kitchens for the last 23 years, dating back to her teenage years growing up in a small mining town in Utah. Beloved for her foraging skills and delectable pies, Stanger’s cooking style originated in traditional homestyle cooking, as well as processing game meats and wild edible plants, vintage heirloom pastries, and old world fermented bread. Chef Stanger has recently relocated to Utah to The Lakehouse in Deer Creek, and will be greatly missed. I also understand that as of February 6, 2021, Cotton & Copper is closed, which is heart breaking to hear.
Jeremy Pacheco – Genuine Concepts
Jeremy Pacheco is the Culinary Director for Genuine Concepts, that owns and manages The Vig, Ladera Taverna y Cocina, The Womack, The Little Woody, and The McMillan. Word has it that Pacheco is a ninth-generation Arizonan (!!), whose family owned a cotton farm in the Tucson area. He worked at The Phoenician while taking classes at Scottsdale Culinary Institute, and at 27 became Chef de Cuisine at one of the onsite restaurants, The Terrace. He then moved to Vegas to work at the Wynn, and in 2010 became Executive Chef at LON’s at the Hermosa Inn. Vegas lured him back a time or two, but he is in the Valley to stay, and we are very glad of it.
Looking for more local eats? Check out The Scout Guide’s picks for the best dinner in the valley here.