His name is E.J. Marx, and he's the executive chef at FioRito's on Grant Road, between Tucson Boulevard and Country Club Road.
"I was a horrible student in high school and college," he said the other night while showing me how to make a lemon-arugula sauce that can be used for any number of wonderful things. Sometimes, I think I'd like to take a bath in it, actually.
He had graduated from Rincon High School and had taken business classes at Pima Community College and the UA before dropping out to get a handle on what he wanted to do.
"But then I went to culinary school and started getting A's." He found his place.
It's a shame, in an economic sense, since the cost of tuition for a year at the Arizona Culinary Institute could have paid for a full ride with change to spare through his undergraduate years at the UA. On the other hand, there can't be too many happy chefs in the world, for my money, and there does seem to be an ample supply of businesspeople. From ACI, he went to Terravita Country Club in Scottsdale to cut his teeth before coming home to Tucson. He got a job on the line at FioRito's and, this past summer, was offered the opportunity to become the head chef.
It suits him, it seems. I've been in a lot of kitchens where there is a lot of tension, and the dynamics seem sharper than the knives. This is a tiny kitchen, with a lot of movement and careful dodging. Intense. But there are many smiles, with palpable goodwill in the air--and not because of the season. This is a kitchen where people genuinely like each other, and it's evident not simply in the automatic ways that one person appears with what's needed at exactly the right moment (which is what you'd expect, after all, with a compatible staff), but in the supportive chatter and talk passed back and forth.
E.J. Marx is a young guy, and there are folks who have been in that kitchen for a long time. He clearly has their respect.
I've been going to FioRito's for years, from my post-college days when it had the best pizza around and was known primarily for that, and the carousing cheeriness of it under proprietors Tess O'Shea and Johnny Burke, to its present buoyancy and spirited seriousness under the ownership of "Patch" Finan. It's a good place to be, and that's as obvious in the back of the house as in the front. There are a lot of nights when it's very difficult to get a table in the joint, and in a community with the abundance of choices we have, that says a whole lot.
On the particular Thursday night I was in the kitchen, it didn't start out that crazily out front, although it picked up as the evening wore on. But the pace stayed even and comfortable, sane and talkable throughout. Lasagnas and parmigianas, portabella raviolis and baked halibuts, grilled salmons and bruschettas clicked through as computerized orders to the kitchen and were almost effortlessly assembled and sent out with a minimum of fuss--and a lot of fun, actually.
Not to minimize the work involved, of course. Marx started out early, in a way, and didn't have a lot of experience at management when he took this job. He's finding his way, and it seems to be working. There are always challenges, he notes, and 60-hour weeks are the norm, even when he takes two days off. But the work fits him.
And the future? He's not planning to go anywhere. He's having too much fun and loves the growing and the people around him. One of these days--not immediately, but one of these days--he wants the brass ring of being a chef-owner.
It's all good.
This is the first in a series about being with Tucson chefs in their kitchens. I've got a list of places I want to go, but I'm really interested in suggestions from others. What are you your favorite places and fave recipes? Have questions?