The Birth of Tucson Cuisine

The story of how Southern Arizona became the haven for foodies that it is today

Time was, this wasn't much of a town to eat in, unless you wanted Mexican food--which, of course, you often did. Mexican restaurants always have been and always will be as characteristic, dependable and life-giving a part of this place as the summer rains.

But 30 years ago in Tucson, if you wanted to get dressed up and "go out to dinner," your choices were almost unbelievably limited, by current standards. There was steak, baked potatoes and scotch at The Iron Mask, Southern Italian at Scordato's, Continental (read: French) at the Tack Room and the Gold Room, Continental with Greek intonations at The Palomino, and ... well, that was about it.

In the second tier, you had undifferentiated Chinese, red-sauce Italian, steakhouses, flocked-wallpaper joints like Gus and Andy's and Redwood Gay Nineties, plus a few frankly eccentric places like The Northwoods on Oracle Road. (The Northwoods had sparkly plaster icicles hanging from the eaves, waitresses in vaguely Scandinavian costumes and a menu centered on Upper Midwestern gamefish. Some of us still miss it.)

"There just wasn't much that wasn't a total dinosaur," says chef Doug Levy, the owner of Feast on Speedway Boulevard.

"There was no, how to say it, appropriately yuppie restaurant," says Levy, who grew up here. "There were casual, hole-in-the-wall places where it was fun to eat, but for a big night, it was basically Frenchy French or steak, and that was it."

In the intervening years, a revolution in cooking has swept the country. Inspired by Californian ideas about freshness and invention, classically trained chefs began to fuse both world cuisines and regional traditions with standard recipes and techniques. At the same time, their customers traveled more, tried new things in ethnic restaurants and learned more about food and wine. And everybody started watching the Food Network.

Tucson has had its own revolution, which not surprisingly has been largely built on what was always best here, the indigenous cuisine--itself a fusion of several traditions--that we airily call Mexican. Whatever you want to call the result, the style and the chefs who invented it have transformed the way we eat in Tucson.

The Class of Terra Cotta

All history simplifies. One drastically simplified explanation of how we got from there to here is that chef Donna Nordin came here from California (by way of France) in the mid-'80s, met economist Don Luria, and Terra Cotta came to be.

Janos and Jerome's may have come first. Boccata may have been better loved, but no Tucson restaurant has been as central to the evolution of the current Tucson restaurant scene as Terra Cotta, which opened 20 years ago this month as Café Terra Cotta. At the beginning, Terra Cotta was doing something so new in Tucson that people had trouble understanding what it was. Don Luria, the restaurant's proprietor, as he calls himself, recalls the difficulty.

"You had a half-dozen chefs out there--in Dallas, Santa Fe, Denver--who were making a reputation in what they called Southwestern cuisine, but nobody in Arizona, the very heart of the American Southwest, was doing it. People didn't know what it even was. We had to keep saying, 'No, it's not Mexican'--not to denigrate that in any way, but people have such a set idea of what Mexican food is. We'd say, 'It's California cuisine with a Southwestern accent.'"

They hit the crest of a wave of national interest in innovative regional cuisine: Nordin was featured on a national TV series just a few months after the restaurant opened.

"I think everyone in the business in Tucson took notice," says Marianne Banes, who went to work at Terra Cotta in 1988 as chef de cuisine. She became the restaurant's executive chef before leaving in 1994.

"It was a great time. We were inventing recipes every week, just seeing what we could do with chiles, lime, cilantro, and corn and beans and squash--the flavors that are native to this place. We were completely devoted to what we did. It got a lot of attention and became very successful, very quickly."

A striking number of cooks who would go on to become important Tucson chefs and restaurant owners came through the kitchen during Terra Cotta's heady early years, or have since worked with people who did.

"That was a kitchen full of foodies. We really enjoyed each other and what we did, and part of that was Donna encouraging a playfulness, especially early on, that made it fun to come to work. And we were a bunch of very, very motivated individuals," says Mitch Levy, who started there alongside his older brother, Doug Levy, under Jeff Azersky and, later, Banes.

"I wasn't satisfied to be on the line: I wanted to be lead line cook. Then when I got that, I wanted to be sous chef somewhere. We all planned to be executive chefs, to have our own places."

Mitch is now chef/owner of Cuvée, a half-mile down Speedway Boulevard from his brother's place, Feast, and just around the corner from Doug's old restaurant, The Dish.

"That's Tucson," says Doug, with a shrug. "There are maybe two degrees of separation."

Tucson restaurant history goes off in all directions from the early years of Terra Cotta. Take Banes, now pastry chef at Kingfisher and Bluefin Seafood Bistro. Banes has cooked or baked, or both, at the Blue Willow, Janos, Jerome's, Garland's Oak Creek Lodge (in Sedona), The Good Earth and The River Road Brewery. (She's been at Kingfisher since 1998.)

She took over at Terra Cotta from Azersky, now one of three co-owners of Kingfisher and Bluefin. Pat and Julie Connors, who went on to own Pastiche Modern Eatery, were working the front of the house. Another member of Terra Cotta's crack weekend crew during that time was Bob Petersen, who left to open Boccata--with Mitch Levy and Azersky--for owner Ellen Burke Van Slyke. Petersen is currently pastry chef at Cuvée, bakes the bread for that restaurant and for Feast and Barrio, and is soon to open his own bakery. Van Slyke is food and beverage director for Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. (The resort's Ventana Room was one of just three restaurants in Arizona to receive a five-diamond rating from AAA this year.)

Doug Levy was spending a year in Italy at the time Boccata started up, but came back and took over as sous chef when his brother and Petersen left to go to cooking school. Doug worked at Boccata for five years, becoming executive chef. He later co-founded and ran The Dish with his wife, Laura Ott, for another five before opening Feast in 2001.

For his part, Azersky joined up with Tim Ivankovich and Jim Murphy, both formerly of Jerome's and Boccata, to open Kingfisher in 1993 with John Burke, who would later revive FioRito's in partnership with Tess O'Shea (formerly of Presidio Grill, which used to be where Cuvée is now). O'Shea was a server at the Blue Willow while Banes cooked there; Murphy cooked at Jerome's while Banes was there, as did Galo Hurtado, chef/owner of Galo's out on Wrightstown Road.

Got all that?

"I wouldn't want to try to draw the family tree," says Mitch Levy.

"And we're all tight with other people who weren't part of that group--like Danny Scordato, who's done as much as anybody to raise the level around here," says Levy. And in yet another twist of the ties that bind, in 2001, Scordato moved his highly regarded Vivace into Terra Cotta's old space in St. Philip's Plaza, where it's been ever since.

Unlike the Levy brothers, the Kingfisher crew or Galo--or other noted chef/owners like Albert Hall (Acacia), Jonathan Landeen (Jonathan's Tucson Cork) or Alan Zeman (Fuego)--Banes has only flirted with the idea of opening a restaurant of her own. Cooking is hard, physically demanding, stressful work; cooking and running a restaurant is all that, plus responsibility, book-keeping and financial risk.

"I decided at some point that I was getting too old to put in six nights and 100 hours a week. You get to where it's too hard on your body. Plus, I wanted a life," she says. "When you run a restaurant, that's all you do. For years, the only people I dated were other chefs. My dad used to ask me whether I'd ever thought of dating somebody in another line of work, and I'd just ask him who that would be--the guy driving the produce truck? Because I never had the opportunity to meet anyone who wasn't hanging around a restaurant kitchen."

Banes finally broke out of dating cooks and has been married for seven years to Tucson writer Gregory McNamee, whom she first met back when they were both in college and working at B. Dalton Booksellers. They spend a month eating their way through Italy almost every year, and he's just completed a book about food that she proofed for him. Banes gardens and rides, and is deeply involved in horse rescue through Equine Voices in Amado.

"But I can't stay out of the kitchen. I love food; I love fiddling with my recipes, getting them perfect, and I love the people. We all work constantly, so the only time we can all get together is at the big fundraisers, and then we have just a fantastic time, tasting each other's food and networking and shooting the breeze.

"A kitchen full of chefs who are getting into the wine and plating 200 entrées at once--that's what I call fun."

The Coming of the Chains

Two worries come up when the chefs of Tucson converge at the high-end fundraisers or the Tucson Culinary Festival: the invasion of the chains and the invisibility of the next generation of Tucson chefs.

As the population of Tucson climbs, more and more chain-restaurant operations are coming in. Don Luria is a founder (along with Janos Wilder, Pat Connors and Alan Zeman) of Tucson Originals, an alliance of independent restaurateurs that's morphed into a rapidly expanding national organization, DineOriginals. The Originals organizations exist to defend independent restaurants against the chains by increasing their buying and advertising power, and by educating the public about the distinction between chain restaurants and homegrown ones.

"In the last 10 years, the number of seats in Tucson has grown much faster than the population," Luria says. "The extreme example was when we had four high-end chain restaurants--800 seats total--open in La Encantada in a single month. Now, you know that many people who eat out in a certain price range didn't move here that month, or even that year.

"The dining-out pie is constantly getting cut into smaller and smaller pieces. Corporate chains have other restaurants in other cities that can take up the slack, so it's easier for chains to absorb overbuilding or a slowdown than it is for the independent restaurant owner. If you've got one restaurant, and your business drops overnight by 5 percent, let me tell you, you feel it."

Chain restaurants also benefit from the sort of economies of scale that have made Wal-Mart a monster: They can negotiate discounts suppliers that reduce their food costs. Suppliers then turn around and raise their prices to small customers to make up the difference. DineOriginals is organizing large numbers of independent restaurants--700 at last count--to get them more buying clout.

"We've realized that our competition isn't each other; it's the chains," says Mitch Levy, who's involved in Tucson Originals. "This gets into deep stuff about our communities. Do people really want their neighborhood restaurant to go the same way as the mom-and-pop drugstore and hardware store?"

The main reason to take your appetite and your wallet to independent restaurants, though, says Levy, is the quality of the food.

"Even aside from why wouldn't you want your dollar going back into Tucson instead of to some corporate headquarters in the Midwest, and why you'd want to eat exactly the same thing here you could get in eight other cities, I'd say the difference is local flavors, and food that's made with love. If it's a labor of love by somebody who really cares about food and knows and loves his customers, it's just going to taste better than something put together by a shift leader at a chain who's working strictly for the paycheck. You can taste the difference. It may sound weird, but it's absolutely true."

The chains' advertising drives both Levy brothers nuts.

"Yeah, that little old Italian lady who teaches all the chefs in the commercials?" says Doug. "Here's the real lesson: 'First, you open up a No. 10 can of alfredo sauce. Then you get the shrimp out of the freezer and throw them in the microwave ...'"

Another effect of the mass influx of chains has been to stiffen local competition for competent kitchen and wait staff.

"The last of the great Tucson wait staffs was at Boccata," Doug Levy says. "That was due to Ellen Van Slyke, who was Boccata. She put together an incredible crew of professionals who weren't going to school, or trying to make it in acting--people who had made a career of waiting tables and who did it extremely well. Not one of those people is still in the business, as far as I know."

The problems with kitchen staff are different. The Food Network has turned chefs into rock stars and made cooking for a living look much easier than it really is, so a lot of people are going to culinary school. But while training is good, experience is all in a restaurant kitchen. Doug Levy remembers a guy with a chef certification who applied for a job at Boccata. He was creative and talented and cooked beautifully--but, as it turned out, only one dish at a time.

"That stove had 12 burners, and there had better be a pan on each one and something happening in it, or you were behind," Levy says.

The guy lasted one night.

Like Banes, Levy learned on the job.

"I get these people who come to me and say, 'Oh, I want to be a chef like you. Which cooking school should I go to?' I tell them they really need to find out whether they like working in a restaurant first."

Banes agrees.

"When I was coming up, it was nice if you'd been to cooking school, but what they really wanted to know was how many years you'd worked prep, how many years on the line, how many covers you did a night and for how long and where," she says.

"It takes passion, and years and years, to get the skills. And I just don't see younger people with the same kind of dedication coming up."

Luria, on the other hand, has been watching nascent Tucson chefs develop at Terra Cotta for 20 years, and he isn't concerned.

"The next generation of chefs is out there, under the radar. They're young--cooking is really a young person's game--and they move around a lot. There's no one, clear career path in this field.

"Donna and I just got back from New York, and one night, we ate at a place in Greenwich Village owned by a chef who started out at entry-level at Terra Cotta while she was still at Catalina High.

"We are very proud of everything that's come out of our kitchen."