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  • Diana Brandt

What's Eating Chef Binkley

You'll find this article in the March 2017 Issue of the Arizona Foodie Magazine. Want a subscription, so that you'll be the first to get the next issue? Go here: Arizona Foodie Magazine Subscription

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Written by Diana Brandt

Photography by Constance Higley

I knew Chef Binkley’s reputation. He’s earned many James Beard Award Nominations. His restaurants Binkley’s and Bink’s Midtown were dining destinations, and they were favorites in Arizona, but what did I really know about him? I met Chef Binkley a handful of times and the encounters were brief yet friendly. One night my girlfriends and I were enjoying dinner inside Christopher’s Crush, when we ran into Chef Christopher Gross and Chef Binkley inside the bar. Until this chance encounter, I believed that he was intimidating and intense. What I learned changed my perception of him. I felt compelled to find out more and peel back the complex layers of the real Chef Binkley. As I drive up to the newly remodeled Binkley’s off of Osborn and 24th St, I am greeted by Chef Binkley and his warm smile in the parking lot. I forgot how tall he is, standing there in his black Binkley’s shirt and blue jeans. With childlike excitement in his eyes, he takes me around the new property. We walk to the front yard, past the patio and fireplace, to a flourishing young garden. His voice is deep and nearly drowned out by the passing cars. “The idea really, is that you’re coming into our home. We just want you to come to the event and enjoy the experience, once you’re done, you can take off and not worry about waiting for the bill. Come in, enjoy yourself and leave happy.” We move to the patio, which has plenty of comfy seating for all 24 guests. He paints an image of what I’m to expect. “The dinner is a whole process. You’ll move through the house starting on the patio where you’re greeted with a house cocktail. You’ll have about seven courses on the patio, all finger foods. From there you’ll go to the bar, where there’s designated seating. The height of chairs is different, and the room feels different. You’ll get five to six courses all plays on bar food. For instance, you might get puffed chicken wings with pok pok sauce and carbonated blue cheese.” My mouth waters. Heading into the main dining room, I see an open kitchen space built intentionally so the guests can watch the action, mingle with the chef, ask questions and take pictures. A pleasant aroma of a five-star meal fills the air. The Chef’s crew is currently working to prep food, and I feel guilty taking him away from his work, but he’s eager to share his story. “The menu is constantly changing,” he says. “Timing has been an issue for us, as we try to not only showcase things that are interesting and different but showcase when things are done right. Everybody knows how great bread right out of the oven is, but I’ve never worked at a restaurant that’s cooked bread to order.”

I can personally assure you that Chef Binkley has gotten this process down so that you’ll have a fresh warm loaf waiting for you just as you sit down in the main dining room. Details like this are fantastic, but details aren’t enough. His goal is to search out and make each experience specific to each guest to create the perfect dinner. I follow him over to one of the long tables, and we begin to chat about the process of going from multiple restaurants to making the executive decision to only own one. He sobers his expression. “For about two years before making everything happen, the conversations between Amy and I started. I had a $5.5 million company with 130 employees,” he says, “There were so many things that quite honestly aren’t the reason I got into this business, I got into this business because I love food. I never wanted to be a CEO, a CFO, I never wanted to manage 130 people. I just wanted to have cool restaurants and make a better food scene.” I think we can all agree that Chef Binkley helped pave the way to a better food scene. He continued, “I was really trying to do something that I was proud of and what ended up happening with the four locations is there were days I was driving five plus hours. What was happening wasn’t sustainable. I don’t think Binkley’s was a viable location up in Cave Creek.” I’ve heard whispers of this same struggle at restaurants all around the country, and Chef Binkley was flat out tired of being HR. “For better or for worse, the people getting into this field now, who are few and far between, have a very different mentality than what it was 10 or 5 years ago. People under 30 have a different approach in dedication and cooking style. I have a hard time relating to millennials, not that they’re not bright or great, it’s just a different mentality. The mentality is tough to manage, and we are all fighting for the same employees. It doesn’t feel like anybody cares or wants to be able to cook anymore.”

The choice to close shop was not something Chef Binkley and his wife rushed into. “Amy and I were talking about this, and we weren’t feeling great internally about what we were doing. I just wanted to be a Chef that got to cook great food and hopefully be successful enough to have a decent living. From a financial aspect, yes, we were making more money than we are making now but it wasn’t worth any of it. It was just eating me alive, it was too much, and it was too much of the things I don’t love.” His eyes shift away from me to look at the kitchen. “Today I went to the farmer’s market and picked out the produce.” His voice lightens up. “I got to pick out every potato that will be used this week. This is stuff I couldn’t do before because I was too busy being a bigger picture. I’m a technician, I’m not a manager, I like to cook food.” He pauses and looks down. “So how do I get back to that? I had to make some serious changes. Downsizing seemed inevitable to me to the point where I wanted to downsize so much that everybody sat at the same table when we’re having the staff meal. I wanted to get back to that.” I’ve sat in on a few of Chef Binkley’s staff meals, I’ve listened to their talks before dining service, and I’ve been in for dinner myself. I’ve seen the evolution of the experience from the time it opened to the end of January. One thing is clear. Chef Binkley respects his staff, they have become a family, one that works cohesively to create a beautiful experience for their guests. Chef Binkley recalls some of his employees that were like family but burned him. His voice saddens. “It happens to so many of us, but it really bothers me. It’s not about the money. It’s about somebody being so willing to do that to somebody that’s worked so hard to make them better and give back to them. I’m certainly not the greatest employer in the world, but I’m not the worst, and I certainly care about everybody that works hard for me. I will do everything in my power to help you succeed.” I hear undertones of desperation in his voice as he says a phrase I’m all too familiar with. “I need to find balance. I’ve had five doctors over the past 12 years, all different doctors, tell me that I can’t keep doing this. They keep telling me I’m working my body past its capabilities. I’ve had five different issues. One time I went to my doctor because I thought I had an oil spot on my eye. At the time I was working 80 hours and hadn’t had a day off in two months. What the doctor saw was an ulcer on my eye, and she said that this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people my age, it happens to people that are 20 years older than me.”

I get the sense that he’s holding back and I remind myself that I want to get to know the real Chef Binkley, so I inquire a little more. He clears his throat. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice, I was miserable. We could have continued to do what we were doing, and we could have expanded as well, but it was just a far cry from what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I have a choice of doing this, and if this doesn’t work, I’m still better off than I was before. And if this doesn’t work, I’ll have to leave town.” What’s most important to Chef Binkley is simple, he wants to cook, and he wants to surround himself with people that he can trust. He wants to give people more than just a great meal. He wants to give them an experience. His mood changes back to excitement. “What we are trying to create here is something different than what I’ve ever experienced before. There is no dinner and show - this is it, it’s a three and a half hour experience. I really want to create something exceptional. I think we have all of the right pieces in place to make that happen.” His words hang in the air as he repeats, “I hope it works, I really hope it works.”

Binkley’s Restaurant 2320 E Osborn Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

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