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  • Diana Brandt

Sushi With Sous Chefs

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

Or you can read the online issue here:

Photography by Chanelle Sinclair

I can almost taste that juicy burger as I walk towards the front door. I’ll never forget the time I first experienced a Delux Burger with a side of fries in a little shopping cart. Those delicious hamburgers quickly became one of my favorites in town. I push open the doors to the familiar space, booths adorn one side of the small space, a counter runs down the other side and in the middle is a row of steel hightops with blue lights glowing inside them.

I walk towards the open kitchen in the back. Cooks are bustling to get their plates out for the hungry lunch guests. I’m greeted by the manager as we take a left and walk into the other space, now occupied by Zen, their sushi concept. Chef Balo is standing there with a large grin on his face, eager to shake my hand. I can tell he’s excited to share his food with us, while I interview Chef Samantha Sanz of Talavera, from The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North.

I slide into the booth closest to the windows and door because the lighting is optimal. Chanelle starts clicking away at her camera to test the light and grab some detail shots. I look up from the table and spot Chef Sanz walking across the parking lot towards the restaurant, with her boyfriend by her side. I get up from the table, open the door and give her a hug. This is only the second time I’ve seen her without her chefs coat on. A colorful patterned dress blows in the breeze as she walks and her thick brown hair is not up in a bun like usual but falls midway to her back.

We settle into the booth while she tells me about her night off. I gather that it consisted of plenty of eating and drinking at Restaurant Progress, and then continued at a few other places.

She apologizes for being tired and out of it, but I assure her the interview will be quick.

She takes a long drink of her water, then cleares her throat. “I come from Nogales, a small town in Mexico that borders Arizona. We grew up there and crossed the border every day. I came here to Phoenix after high school and went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. One day at school, somebody asked if we wanted to go prep at the restaurant inside the Sanctuary, Elements, for Super Bowl weekend, in 2008. I went, and Chef Beau MacMillan gave me a job on the spot.”

Chef Sanz’s accent isn’t thick anymore, but you can tell it’s her second language.

“I was still going to school and working every day. It was 16 hour days standing. One time, I started crying to my mom that I couldn’t do this anymore because I was so overwhelmed. She told me to just push through it because I only had two more months of school left.”

She transitioned well from school to work, but she had a major obstacle.

“When I got into the kitchen at the Sanctuary, it was hard because I had the language barrier thing going on. I understood what everyone was saying, but it was hard to be confident in what I responded with. I was exposed to English, but I wasn’t good at having conversations with it.”

I’m always curious about the kitchen dynamics for women in an industry dominated by men. The kitchen can be an aggressive space. It takes a tough skin and ambition if you’re going to succeed.

“The guys were all cooking Gods in my eyes. They were all level 1 cooks, and I was the rookiest of the rookies. It was very hard for me to adapt and some of them were really mean to me.”

Food comes to our table, and Chanelle lifts her camera and starts snapping away again. I take my chopsticks and grab a piece of the roll, staging it in the air for pictures, before devouring it. Delicious!

“They would slam the doors on me,” Chef Sanz says with aggravation., “and there was this one time this guy was talking crap about me, calling me lazy and all this other stuff. I told him to go fuck himself. It was the first time I had ever said something bad in English, but after that, they stopped bothering me. They just needed me to stand up for myself.”

She takes the chopsticks in her hands and begins to eat before continuing with another story.

“Another guy was so mean to me, but he was the one that taught me how to cook. One night we went out, and he was so sweet. He was kissing on me. I was shocked because of the way he treated me at work. I asked him why he was nice to me now when he was always so mean to me at work. His response was, ‘Oh, I’m just building your tough skin for the other kitchens.’ I realized then that these guys were trying to build me up and throw me into the fire, to make sure I could handle it.”

Chef Balo returns to our table with another beautiful dish of delicate pieces of fish.

“Elements became my school, that’s where I learned everything and where I was brought up as a cook. My goal was to become a cook 1 in 3 years, but by the time I got to that level, I was pretty burnt out.” The tone of her voice saddens. “I had started evaluating my life, sure I had finished school and I was working, but I felt like I hadn’t done anything in my youth.”

At 22 years old, she began to reflect on her life and have doubts.

“I would see my friends Facebook pages, and they would be covered in vacations and all this fun stuff. All I was doing was working. Those were also the first years of my life that I had missed family holidays and that was very, very sad for me. It was heartbreaking. I felt a little lost. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing and I didn’t know if I was following the right path. I just wanted to take a little time off from cooking, and I wanted to be young and do my own thing.”

The waiter comes to our table to clear the plates and fill our water. She takes a sip from her cup.

“I made the decision to leave for Paris. I sold all of my stuff, packed two suitcases and left to become a nanny to a wealthy family. It was wonderful! I lived in Paris in a tiny little apartment on the 14th floor right next to the Eiffel tower. Each day I climbed 14 flights of stairs, but it was worth it.”

I can see a twinkle in her eye as she speaks. She vividly remembers her time overseas, and I can tell how much she loved it.

“I would spend my time off going to the markets. I ate all the bread, and I had baguettes in my bag all the time. It was such a cool experience to see how beautiful the food was. At Elements, I was getting crazy creative and overthinking it. In Paris, it’s all about simplicity and good product. The flavor there is so intense and organic, it’s how things should taste.”

We laugh as she tells another story of how she became so tired walking up the stairs at times, she would stop to take a croissant or baguette break. However, the joy of being far from her family and the chilly weather began to wear on her.

“After about a year, I began to get depressed.”

It was a skiing injury in the Swiss Alps that sent her home for good. Once back in Phoenix, it wasn’t long before she found her way back to the Sanctuary.

“I didn’t think I wanted to cook ever again. I stayed away from the kitchen and served at the pool. I was good at it, and at the time, I thought I’d see if the front of the house was for me. It didn’t take very long to realize that it wasn’t.”

With a large grin, Chef Balo places a plate on our table with a whole fish on it. Chef Sanz lights up and tells us about the dish. It’s simple but one that is commonly served as the staff meal or as a dish back home where Chef Sanz is from. I ask Chef where to start, and she begins to pull the fish from the bones. She places some on her plate and mine. The dish may be common, but it’s one of my favorites from the meal.

“My friend and roommate was invited to the friends and family dinner at a new restaurant called Virtu, and she invited me to go with her. I remember looking at that menu and thinking how different the dishes were and the whole thing made me giddy again. I thought I could cook here. I could do this again. I decided to talk to the owner and Chef, Gio Osso. We clicked immediately, and he asked me what I wanted and offered me a job. Once I started working there, he promoted me quickly to his sous chef.”

Chef Samantha goes on to tell me how excited she was to go to work each day and about her fond memories with Chef Gio, eating prosciutto and parmesan while talking about the menu. She stayed at Virtu for three years. Then she got the feeling that it was time for her to move on.

“I had a moment where I didn’t know if I wanted to cook again. For three months, I didn’t know what to do. I applied to a couple of places, but at that point, I would have been happy working at Whole Foods selling cheese.”

She looks down at her empty plate and laughs. “Whole Foods called me and told me I was overqualified, and they couldn’t give me a job.” I start to laugh too.

“At that point, I saw an article on Chef Mel Mecinas and Oaxaca food, and it was so beautiful.”

Her face lights up when she speaks of Chef Mel, and you can tell he means a lot to her.

“I knew I needed a mentor and someone to lift me up and I wanted to go back to a cook job. I didn’t want responsibility at that point.”

The timing was perfect. Chef Mel had an open position, and she was able to start at Talavera. She’s been there ever since.

“Chef Mel was crazy good. He was always happy and so amazing. The best part of working there was watching the staff react to when he would show up. In most kitchens, the staff acts timid around the Chef, but when he would show up, they would look at him like he was their hero. He lifted up the kitchen daily. He was always a very fatherly figure to me. We still hang out, chat, and drink mezcal.”

Chef Mel recently left Talavera and Four Seasons to start on a new venture, but this put Chef Sanz in a unique position to take over his kitchen. “For the first time since I’ve worked there, the menu is mine. There is no other Chef behind it. We have Chef Chuck, who is new and he helped me with a couple of things, but he loves the menu I created.”

We talk about how menu inspiration can’t be forced. It comes from somewhere deep inside the Chef.

“There was some worry that I wouldn’t get a new menu done on time. I had gone on a trip to Chiapas with my parents. It was so beautiful and delicious over there. What was really revitalizing though, was being able to immerse myself back into my culture. On the flight back, the menu wrote itself. It just started flowing out of me.”

I can sense her pride and joy as she speaks.

“This menu has influences of where I come from and what I grew up eating. It has some Latin influence, as well as some influences from what I learned from Chef Beau and Chef Gio. It tells a story of my journey in life and in the industry.”

The pictures stop, and Chanelle reviews her photos. We finish our meal, and our interview comes to a close. Chef Sanz gives me these final words, and it warms my heart to see her feel such happiness and passion in her life.

“It’s been a crazy ride. I was looking at a journal from 2014, which was a very dark time in my life. I was hopeless, and I was heartbroken.” A smile purses her lips, “My roommate back then said we need to manifest things into the universe. She convinced me to write everything down that I wanted. So I did. I wrote it all down. There was no holding back. I found this list a week ago. I hadn’t read it since 2014, and as I began reading it, I started crying because so many of those things have finally come true.”

I’m reminded of what we talked about earlier, that inspiration can’t be forced and it comes from somewhere deep inside the chef. I see this with Chef Samantha. I see her at peace, and I can tell she’s finally at a place in her life where she’s happy.

Talavera 10600 E Crescent Moon Dr, Scottsdale, AZ 85262

Zen 3146 E Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

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