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Phoenix Arizona: A Desert Chef

The Hermosa Inn
5532 North Palo Cristi Road, Paradise Valley, Arizona
(844) 267-8738
Cuisine: North American
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Mike Gerrard: Ingredients for chef James's dishes come from the organic garden where we stroll in the fierce Phoenix heat.
 
'I love using local produce,' says James Ducas. 'You have a farm in your own back yard. I'm trying to keep it up and pass it on to my guys.'
 
Ducas has been Executive Chef at the Hermosa Inn in Phoenix, Arizona, since 2013, and the 'farm' is the organic garden that he and his sous chefs tend outside his kitchen at LON's restaurant. LON is named for Lon Megargee, the cowboy artist who built the inn as his home and studio in the 1930s. One of his best-known works, The Last Drop, was commissioned by the Stetson company and is still used inside every genuine Stetson hat today. It's also the name of the Hermosa Inn's award-winning bar, whose bartender, Travis Nass, Ducas works with on regular food and drink pairing menus.
 
'We recently did a food and cocktail pairing - rye cocktails with pork. We even had a bacon donut dessert. It's great to have a mixologist who's creative. It's more of a family place here.'
 
Chef Ducas was born in New York. 'My mother tells me that when I was as young as five I was never happy if she served me a regular cheese sandwich. I always asked for ham on it, or tomato, or something else. So I started making my own sandwiches, even at that age, 'cos I knew what I wanted, and I wanted to try different things.'
 
Ducas was running his own restaurant in North Carolina when his parents and his wife's parents all moved to a sunny retirement in Arizona, and he and his wife followed them. So what was different about coming to cook in a desert climate?
 
'The growing season here is very different from North Carolina. It took a while to get used to. But the main change of course was in the ingredients. I discovered the mesquite tree, for one thing. We have mesquite trees in North Carolina but I never knew anything about the pods. Here we use them to make all kinds of things, including gnocchi. I never used cactus or prickly pears before either. There's a lot of versatility with them, in sauces, vinaigrettes, jams. Arizona Desert Rose salt is another discovery I made.'
 
Many of the ingredients for the chef's dishes come from the organic garden where we stroll in the fierce Phoenix heat. Even in April the morning temperature's well over 30 degrees.
 
'The garden was put in in 1994,' Ducas says. 'I planted these blackberries over a year ago, and want to eventually grow them all across the fence. We have five types of citrus, including a yuzu. We use the zest from that a lot. I let herbs grow till they seed and flower. We grow a lot of basil and for four years we have never had to plant basil seeds.'
 
Ducas catalogues the many things that grow in his organic desert garden: 'We have lavender, okra (which I started), eggplant, beets, radishes. We have bell peppers, jalapenos, habaneros. We use a lot of these because we pickle them. We have onions, scallions, thyme, fennel. Our summer squashes are just starting to sprout. We have butter crunch lettuce, snap peas. We might now plant some cucumber.'
 
It's an impressive array for a 1-acre garden, and the range of produce allows Ducas to produce a different Chef's Tasting Menu every week, as well as ring the changes on his regular seasonal menus. A yuzu curry sauce accompanies roasted halibut, with snap peas and baby carrots from the garden. Grapefruit and mint go into a Garden Grapefruit Tart for dessert, while raspberries from the garden go into bartender Travis Nass's Raspberry Mule, which recently won an award for the Best Mocktail in Phoenix.
 
So how did Ducas go from being a picky sandwich critic as a kid to becoming a chef?
 
'When I was 14 my friend had a job washing dishes. So I started washing dishes too, and started hanging out in the kitchen, and I just loved it. I knew then what I wanted to do. And I'm still passionate about food.'
 
 
Mike Gerrard was a guest of The Hermosa Inn
 
All Photos (c) Donna Dailey except cocktails and Travis Nass, courtesy of The Hermosa Inn
 
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17 July 2015
By: Mike Gerrard
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