Gary Hickey, born and bred Tucsonan (although well traveled), is currently the General Manager and Executive Chef at McMahons Prime Steakhouse. He has been working in professional kitchens since 1992, where he started as a prep cook at one of Tucson's most memorable Northwest restaurants, Keaton's in the Foothills. He then went on to work at Café Terra Cotta with Donna Nordin at its original location in St. Philips Plaza, which is where his passion for food really began. Gary left Café Terra Cotta to go work at a new restaurant that a young Sam Fox was opening on the east side of Tucson—the iconic City Grill. After linking up with his current employer, Bob McMahon, Gary left City Grill to open up the sister restaurants Metropolitan Grill, Firecracker, and the new City Grill a few years later. Gary then took a hiatus and worked out of Tucson in numerous other restaurants learning both the back and front of the house operations. The news of his mother falling ill, brought him back to the Old Pueblo and to the former Bamboo Club. With the passing of his mother, he took a step back and out of the kitchen and management all together, landing a bartending gig at Montana Avenue. After a while Gary found himself wanting more, and that's when he decided to go back home to the company he had helped start in its infancy. Join Gary and his team for McMahon's Prime Steakhouse 16th Birthday Celebration, Friday, Oct. 31 with $16 steaks and bottles of wine all night long.
What was the first dish you had that changed your perspective on food? The mussels at Pier 9 on Fisherman's Wharf in San Fran. I was 20 at the time and had never experienced such clean flavors and delicate balance. Nineteen years later, I still think about that broth and the subtle brine of the mussels and I try to recreate that dish whenever I get a chance.
What are you eating these days? That's a funny question, my staff constantly makes fun of me because I am surrounded by prime meats and great local produce, but I usually wrap chicken in a tortilla and go on about service. Guess you can't take the Tucson out of the chef.
What was the first dish you remember cooking? My mother was a single parent, so I have been making mac and cheese since I could reach the stove, but the one dish I always remember taking pride in was searing T-bone steaks in an old cast iron pan with my grandmother. We would make steaks every Saturday night. She would always tell me "The more butter you use, the better it will taste" and she was absolutely right!
What concept, ingredient or food trend does everyone seem to love, but you just can't stomach? Molecular gastronomy! I get it already, but if you source quality ingredients, treat them with respect and care, then well composed food with clean flavors will win over smoke and mirrors all day long.
What chef, with us or passed on, would you most like to cook or eat dinner with? Graham Kerr, "The Galloping Gourmet." Hands down, he had the biggest influence on me growing up. He and Julia Child are the reason we have the Bobby Flays and Alton Browns today. I just love his wit and the ease he would cook with no matter how messed up the dish or the recipes would be, he would push through with a smile and finish. I always respected the way he carried himself and would love to have cocktails with him.
What city, other than Tucson, is your favorite place to eat?
The Big Apple, NYC, has anything and everything you could ever crave, and you can get it any time of day. I mean it's nicknamed after food for Christ's sake.
Speaking in junk food terms, what is your favorite guilty pleasure? Anything crunchy! Chips and salsa are probably my go-to when I am snacky, but mostly it's the leftover French fries left in the bowl on the line. Don't tell my wife.
Top three Tucson restaurants? Wow, that's a tough one ... at the risk of sounding like a douche, I will not say McMahon's Prime Steakhouse. I think Poppy Kitchen does a great job of coaxing amazing flavors out of simple ingredients. Brian Metzger and Chef Wooters have put together a great team up there. I respect them tremendously. Wildflower—their approach to rustic comfort food and desserts are the best in town, one word Spike! Mi Nidito has to round out the list. We take our out-of-town guests here when they want "real Mexican food." I mean if it was good enough for (former President Bill) Clinton, it is good enough for me.
With a figurative electric chair in your immediate future, what is your last meal?
It would have to be the three dishes I mentioned before, the mussels, T-bone and mac and cheese. Those three things had such impact on my life and I would love for those fond memories to be my last.