Sonoran Smoke

Iron Chef Danny Perez of JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort on what makes Arizona BBQ unique

It seems people are quick to assume that Arizona, which isn’t traditionally known for barbecue, isn’t a place where you can even find good barbecue. Chef Danny Perez says that’s just not true.

Although our state might not be steeped in a long, rich BBQ legacy like Texas, North Carolina or Missouri, Perez says he sees Arizona and Tucson specifically developing a unique voice in the barbecue community.

Using regional ingredients like Mexican spices or raw sugars is one way Perez says Arizona BBQ distinguishes itself. Low temperature pecan wood and higher temperature, bold-in-flavor mesquite wood also add a unique smokiness to Arizona BBQ.

At Catalina Barbecue, one of the three restaurants Perez is in charge of at the JW Mariott Starr Pass Resort (3800 W. Starr Pass Blvd.), Perez hopes to change the perception of what barbecue in the state can be. “I think there’s an opportunity for Tucson to really stand out and do its own thing,” he says.

By using only fresh meat, Perez says his ’cue is a cut above the rest. However, Perez also prides himself on his Piloncillo BBQ sauce, which uses raw Mexican cane sugar—one of the reasons Perez says it took second place at the American Royal in Kansas City. He says the key to a really good sauce is all about balancing tangy, sweet and spicy components.

Perez used his BBQ know-how on June 27 at Hotel Congress as a judge in the first ever Smokin’ Showdown brisket cookoff challenge. In the end, Acacia Café’s brisket slider won over judges, while the crowd preferred Chillin’ N Grillin’s straightforward slab of brisket paired with a spicy sauce.

“Really good brisket is about the texture. There should be a sponginess to it—I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but, yeah, it should be spongey,” Perez says. “Then you also want to look for the smoke ring and see the bark.”

Events like the Smokin’ Showdown give Perez the opportunity to come down from the resort in the Tucson Mountain Park and mingle with the locals.

“Part of the purpose of these events is community outreach. It’s to show Tucsonans that we’re here and not just for resort guests,” he says, adding that the Salud lobby bar does a daily tequila toast free at 5:30 p.m. for anyone interested in stopping in.

Recently, Perez also won the Tucson Iron Chef competition, further expanding his exposure in the community. Going against last year’s winner—John Hohn and his team from the Gringo Grill, Perez says he was most concerned with making sure he and his team were representing themselves and their abilities properly.

“My nerves weren’t about the other competition,” he says. “I try not to worry about what other people are cooking.”

“I have a lot of confidence. We tasted all afternoon and we were proud of our flavor profile,” he says. “But, I mean, I was up against last year’s champion. I was grateful to win.”

Both teams had to make four courses centered on one mystery ingredient, which was bacon for the 2015 event. After the ingredient was announced, teams then had five minutes to formulate a menu and a plan. Then came time to execute.

The JW Marriott Starr Pass team, with Perez in charge, made a bacon gelato float on Stella Artois Cidre beer topped with shaved bacon fat caramel, a kale salad with broken (read: not emulsified) bacon dressing, a Southwestern style bacon carbonara and a ginger marinated shrimp with apple bacon compote.

Perez says his cooking style developed from his childhood in Mexico City where he spent a lot of time in his grandparents’ kitchen. After that, his first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher at the now-defunct Café Melange at 16, and he says he hasn’t left the kitchen since then. Attending Scottsdale Culinary Institute later helped to refine his skills, which eventually landed Perez at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort ten years ago.

“I was drawn to the hospitality of a resort,” he says.

Still, out of the seven potential ingredients for this year’s Iron Chef competition in Tucson, which included chocolate, chiles or crab, Perez says he was hoping for an ingredient that was a little less, well, easy. “I was actually hoping it wasn’t bacon,” he says. “I wanted a challenge—something out of the box.”

Perez may still get the chance to compete with a more challenging ingredient, as he will go head-to-head with a competitor next year to defend his title. He says he hopes for a specific fruit or vegetable—maybe eggplant or a melon.

Until then, Perez says he has plenty on his plate running the maze-like interior kitchens that provide food for the upscale Primo, Catalina Barbecue, banquet and pastry operations and the soon-to-be-remodeled Signature Grill.

For the grill’s remodel, which will take place July and August, Perez says to expect a complete revamp of the interior with a more clean and modern take on Southwestern décor with the possibility of a name change too. While the menu will also be updated, he says to expect the same “trio of cultures” that Perez has become known for in the kitchen: Mexican, cowboy and Native American.

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