It's a Saturday morning on a ridiculously warm late-February day in Tucson. Inside a funky old building in a nondescript alleyway that somehow commandeered the lofty name Arizona Avenue, world-renowned chef Janos Wilder stands before a packed house. He introduces his latest project, The Carriage House, a bright and airy setting that will be used for everything from cooking classes to private parties, corporate events to even perhaps an intimate concert or two. In doing so, Wilder (who left his cushy spot at one of the resorts in the foothills to return to his original stomping ground) is doubling down on his commitment to the downtown renaissance.
On this day, Wilder himself is kicking off his cooking-class series with a tutorial on Southwestern and Mexican cuisine, with a focus on the use of authentic (and locally grown) Sonoran ingredients.
He starts off by reminding those in attendance that Tucson has been designated as a City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Old Pueblo is the only city in the United States to receive such a designation and one of only two in all of North America. He points out that some of the ingredients in the day's dishes have been traditionally harvested in the San Pedro River area for thousands of years.
He starts off with street-style roasted corn with lime relish, noting that corn is a nearly universal ingredient in Southwestern cuisine. Standing behind a cooking surface/preparation area, Wilder carefully and enthusiastically lists off the ingredients, the locations (and people) from whence they came and the steps necessary to prepare the item.
The Carriage House is not quite finished on the inside. Over his shoulders, up near the ceiling, are two TV video screens that are not yet hooked up. Future cooking classes will provide attendees with a bird's-eye view of what's being done. For the first class, Wilder prepares the dishes and then walks them around through the audience for a closer look.
At one point while preparing the roasted corn, Wilder mentions one of the dish's surprise ingredients: mayo. While the word "mayonnaise" doesn't exactly elicit a Samuel L. Jackson a la Pulp Fiction style reaction, it does appear that the creamy white stuff isn't among his favorites.
His very Sonoran cholla bud, tepary bean and amaranth shoot salad with local goat cheese and Toasted pepitas is next on the day's learning menu. The salad is served in his Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails restaurant and is a fan favorite. He very carefully and lovingly explains the choice of each ingredient, its cultivation and its nutritional value. Wilder has such a mind for growing and utilizing local ingredients in such an innovative way that he was recognized for his strides in Southwestern cuisine in 2000 by the James Beard Foundation.
He is a tour de force, bouncing easily between such disparate topics as the various methods for preparing tepary beans to the proper way to keep one's knives sharp to the right time of year to harvest cholla buds for subsequent pickling. In between the preparation of two of the dishes, he pauses and recounts a story about the time, early in his career, that he was attacked by his own meat cleaver, being sure to keep the crowd entertained between cooking sets.
However, despite his big personality and comfortable stage presence, Wilder isn't looking to be a rock star, always changing up the hits mid-performance to keep them fresh. Rather, he feels consistency is key in the restaurant world and his stage to create is at home.
"I want everything cooked the exact same way so that everybody who comes to the restaurant has the exact same dining experience," he says. "However, at home, everything is basically riffing. I don't have recipes. Everything is a new adventure."
After whipping up a chiltepin salsa that, if he does say so himself, comes out perfectly, he moves on to chorizo chilaquiles, a sort of a Mexican mulligan stew made up of whatever is left over from other meals and thrown together into a casserole. Wilder piles on layers of crumbled-up corn chips (or old, hard tortillas), cheese, chorizo, some enchilada sauce, more chips, more cheese and more chorizo, then even more cheese, then throws it in the oven.
His final dish is, of course, a chile relleno—coming from the man who has written an entire cookbook on the dish. This iteration includes huitlacoche, corn, mushroom, chipotle and Queso Oaxaca with a roasted corn vinaigrette and chiltepin salsa.
Throughout the preparation of all of the dishes (which are enjoyed by the attendees in a post-presentation, sit-down luncheon), Wilder encourages questions from the audience. Mostly, he stresses that while cooking is a joyous thing, it shouldn't be so much work that there's no time left to enjoy the meal. He encourages would-be chefs to find suitable shortcuts (the use of packaged corn chips or canned chiles, for example) that save time without having a negative impact on the final product.
It is a spirited time, overall, and the ninety minutes fly by. There is absolutely no doubt that, despite the dozens of people in attendance who hang on his every word, no one in the building is enjoying the experience more than Wilder himself.
And he's already got a full slate for the rest of March, with classes scheduled for every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning. Starting things off this Saturday, Mar. 5, executive chef Devon Sanner of Wilder's Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails will explore the preparation of dim sum and other dishes that will be carted out between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays during the space's regular Dim Sum and Then Sum events.
Among the highlights in upcoming weeks, chef Marianne Barnes of Kingfisher will teach chocolate basics on March 15; the trio of Tana Fryer of Blu, A Wine and Cheese Shop and Sarah and Bob Hammelman of Sand Reckoner Vineyards will present a night of wine and cheese on March 8; and chef Maria Mazon of Boca Tacos y Tequila will showcase duck, rib eye, and shrimp tacos on March 29.