You'll find this article in the June 2017 Issue of the Arizona Foodie Magazine. Want a subscription, so that you'll be the first to get the next issue coming out Sept. 1st? Go here: Arizona Foodie Magazine Subscription
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Photography by Chanelle Sinclair
I am a few minutes late to our meeting and I run across the street towards the Renaissance Downtown Phoenix Hotel. It has recently been remodeled and there is a new Chef that I have yet to meet waiting inside to chat with me. I scurry past the Starbucks right inside and notice the gigantic, sparkling chandelier, barely resting off the floor. It’s quite the centerpiece for the lobby area!
I wander up to the concierge and ask for directions, they point directly behind me. I spy an unsuspecting restaurant filled with deep colored accents, heavy screw like stools, carved wood tables, fur rugs and a comfort not typically found in hotel restaurants. The windows are rolled open like garage doors to let in the beautiful weather and you can see the bustle of downtown wander by. It’s only lunch time but the restaurant is buzzing with suits.
Executive Chef Joshua Murray walks towards me, he towers over me and shakes my hand firmly. His hair is a dirty blond, cut short and he smiles big as he walks me through the restaurant. We find a cozy corner hidden in the back, where we can chat privately and nibble on some of his food.
Chef Murray has been a part of the Marriott family for quite some time. Most recently working in Sonoma at The Lodge before finding his way to Phoenix. He’s also been in Palm Desert, Ft. Lauderdale and Chantilly, to name a few other places.
We start to glance through the menu and he immediately opens his menu and points out a dish that has significant meaning to him.
“The pork belly dish that is on the menu right now, that dish identifies me the most.” I glance at the menu to see what he’s referring to. “I grew up in such a small town in Spotsylvania, Virginia, on the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It took 30 minutes to get to a grocery store. So for me, food was entertainment and it was about breaking bread with the people you love. People are now afraid to cook for me because I’m a chef but my favorite meal to eat is a homecooked meal, that somebody put their heart into. That inspires me.”
The fondness of his upbringing is apparent when he speaks.
“When we would have people come over and entertain at the house, it was all about good people and good friends. It was unpretentious and it was the essences of true hospitality.”
The waiter brings us some waters and he takes a quick sip. “One of the things with food that my dad and I always bonded on was BBQ. Growing up, we worked on this rub together. When I was around 4 or 5 years old, I started doing hog roasts. My dad was an amazing metal crafter and we would make our own hog cookers. Then we would do these 2-day hog roasts where people would come over and put up tents.”
He smirks a bit as he continues to speak.
“My dad was always good on the grill. My mom was a good cook as well, but she’s from New England, so a little bland on her cookery. The salt shaker was prevalent in my hand.” He chuckles, as he pushes his water glass around a bit.
“There are a lot of nostalgic dishes that I have from growing up, like chicken and dumplings, that she makes and I refuse to attempt making them myself.”
A plate of warm cornbread paired with soft butter and some avocado fries are placed in front of us. I grab my fork and ask him what made him decide to become a Chef. He thinks for a minute.
“As time progressed, I didn’t know what the restaurant industry was all about. I knew I loved art and science and I loved togetherness and family. Cooking was an ability that embodied all those things and could put a smile on someone’s face.”
He cuts a piece of cornbread from the skillet and slathers the cilantro agave butter over it. “I continued to work on the spice rub my father and I had started. I was determined to perfect it. During my time working in this industry, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and work all over the country. I learned that there are a million various kinds of BBQ styles. As I’ve evolved as a Chef, I’ve taken different aspects of each one and blended it into this dry rub that I use on the pork belly and its roots tie all the way back to my childhood.”
I’m enjoying the avocado fries while he speaks. I bite into that crisp outer texture and my teeth sink into the soft avocado inside. A plate of chicken taquitos, pork wings and the pork belly arrive at our table. Chef inspects the dishes and I grab my phone to take pictures of them.
“For me and with my love of BBQing and smoking, I began to play with this pork belly dish. Pork belly is something that got pretty trendy and was on all the menus. When someone doesn’t do it right, you end up with this gelatinous and fatty style of pork belly.”
I pick up a piece of pork belly on my fork and take a bite, it’s tender and flavorful. “I smoke the pork belly for 6 hours, after I use my special rub to dry rub it. When it comes out of the smoker, I press it and weight it in the cooler for another 24 to 30 hours. I want to get any of that fat out of there, so that what is left over is a desirable, palatable amount of fat.”
He grabs one of the pork wings and slides the meat off the bone. “One of my favorite things to do is take a dish that somebody loves and is near and dear to their heart and build on it. If your favorite thing is lasagna, I want to take what you honor about that lasagna and expand on that memory or connect with the soul in a new way.”
I ask if his family ever visits him here. He shakes his head no. “Having a family as a chef is a difficult sacrifice. I have a 3-year-old son that lives out on the East coast with his mom. I FaceTime him every day, which isn’t enough, but I try to keep up with him.”
He bites into another piece of wing, “Going home every couple months for a dedicated 10 days, allows me to spend a level of quality time with him that I never really had even when I lived with him every single day. So when I take time off, we go back to where I grew up.”
“My parents have over 40 acres out in the sticks. We built their home ourselves and every log came off our property. My dad’s mom lives back there and both of my sisters have a home there too. We call it Shady Pines. When I go back home, I get to see the whole family and expose my son to my roots. That’s a culture that is important for my boy to be a part of too.”
He glances over to the open window and continues to speak, “I’ve missed out on so many holidays my entire life. Two years ago, was the first Thanksgiving I had off in about 15 years. I got to go home and cook dinner for my family, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Now I know I have this one anchor day and it has become this new tradition for me to go back and cook for my family. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, it’s everything a holiday should be.”
I ask him if he has plans to move closer to home as I nibble on a piece of the crispy chicken taquito. “I do have a desire to get back to my son and I will. I have a little more time before he starts school. That’s my mark for when I want to be closer.”
His voice softens, “Obviously, it rips me apart day in and day out that I’m not there now. I do the best I can to manage through it. It’s not about buying him a bunch of gifts, it’s about exposing him to what is important. We go fishing and build bird houses and go 4 wheeling. It’s never enough but it’s good and it’s the best compromise I can make right now.”
I thank Chef Murray for his time. He’s a very down to earth person and I can tell family is important to him. As with Chef’s family, food can be used to bring us together, and I hope that it will bring Chef Joshua Murray and his son closer together soon.
Pork Belly with Copper City Bourbon & Date Glaze
Preparing the Pork Belly
Dry rub pork belly with Chef’s BBQ Seasoning. Smoke pork belly at 225 degrees for two and a half hours. Transfer pork belly to a roasting rack, cover with a sheet pan and cook at 250 degrees for four hours. Then roast pork belly on a roasting rack and cover top with a sheet pan. Once finished cooking, transfer each piece to a 200pan or a heavy duty baking sheet. Place another 200pan or baking sheet on top and use cast iron pans to press pork belly. Press pork overnight in the refrigerator, and then cut into cubes.
Copper City Bourbon & Date Glaze
1 Bottle Copper City Bourbon
1 Shallot, diced
1 Each Dates
1 Orange, Sliced
1 Maple Syrup
1 Each Rosemary
¼ Cup Butter
Sweat shallot in a small amount of oil. Add bourbon and let alcohol burn off for 1-2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except butter and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove rosemary and orange slices. Puree in blender until smooth. Emulsify in butter. Put the pork belly in the glaze and top with decorative flowers.
Renaissance Phoenix Downtown
100 N 1st St, Phoenix, AZ 85004