By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, Drinks Editor
What little knowledge most people have of Arizona centers on sweltering heat and stretches of desert. Mention food and they are likely to offer a blank stare. But Arizona is rich in culinary heritage. Last year, Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. And Arizona on the whole is ground zero for a style of Mexican cooking heavily influenced by its neighbor to the south, the Mexican state of Sonora. It was this rich culinary tradition that greeted Adam Sheff when he arrived in Scottsdale as the new chef of the Andaz Scottsdale Resort, one of many hotels in Hyatt’s luxury boutique division.
With a name like Sheff, it may have been destiny that Adam became, yes, a chef. Sheff has been with Hyatt for eight years, most recently at the Park Hyatt in New York where he rose to the role of Executive Sous Chef for the entire brand. Prior to that, he was in Washington D.C. at the Park Hyatt’s Blue Duck Tavern. He had gone to the New York location because it was a brand new hotel and he saw a challenge in getting it established. Once the kitchen was running without issue, Sheff got a call from the Andaz’s GM Scott Mason, offering him the position of Executive Chef at the Weft & Warp Art Bar + Kitchen.
Arriving a year prior to the opening, Sheff was shocked by what he found. Arizona and Sonora, Mexico share a border and, to some degree, a philosophy of cooking. But there was so much more happening in terms of foodstuffs and farming. Arizona’s cuisine has been shaped by other cultures that passed through. For instance, the Spanish brought peppers, which show up in Sheff’s Romesco sauce. Instead of the standard almonds, Sheff uses pecans, which were planted in Arizona in the 1950s and '60s in the then new housing developments.
“One of the brand words is ‘indigenous’”, says Sheff. “I spent a lot of time doing research, going to farmer’s markets, talking to people. I wanted the food to belong here in terms of place and design. The food is really based on the history of Arizona. It’s also meant to support local producers and farmers. And to tell the story of the history of Arizona.”
Many of Sheff’s dishes have been shaped by the confluence of Sonoran cooking with the surprising culinary riches of the state itself. Among the foods available on a daily basis are quail, rabbit, deer, and trout, as well as a wealth of produce, including dates, pistachios, citrus, honey, and tons of goat farms making milk and cheese. “Coming as an outsider,” says Sheff, “I was shocked. I felt like I very much misunderstood this area, at the very least from a culinary [standpoint].”
The idea behind the menu is to keep it relevant. “We call it Contemporary Sonoran,” explains Sheff, “and the purpose of that name is to say that it is ‘now’ – we want the food to be presented in a modern way. We want to make sure that the food has a sense of place, that it belongs here.” Among the offerings are blue cornbread with tomato-jalapeno jam and a butter lettuce salad gleaming with locally harvested trout roe. Nearby purveyors are included as well. The avocado toast is served on dense, seeded bread from Wildflour bakery and the grilled flank steak has a marinade made with Kiltlifter beer.
As Sheff discovered the local foodways, he found an interesting intersection with his own Middle Eastern heritage from which he drew inspiration. For instance, as a bar snack, he serves dates from Sphinx Farms about 10 miles from the resort. Topped with fresh cream and local pistachios, they echo a childhood memory and make the menu even more personal. “I was really happy that I could share that part of my childhood,” says Sheff. "It made me have this feeling of being at home.”
That sense of being at home is exactly the theme that is at the heart of the Andaz brand. “It’s much more personal and much more dressed down,” notes Sheff. “It’s about breaking down barriers. There’s a lot of artistic experience tied in with this property.” To continue this theme, the restaurant is designed around the concept of “place”. The bar is at the center of the room and the kitchen, while enclosed by glass, is open for all to see.
As for the menu itself, it is served family-style. “Sharing breaks down barriers,” explains Sheff. “When you reach across the table and share food with people, you can share the sensation of how that dish looks and tastes to you. And when it comes down to it, it’s more fun to eat as a group.” From the design of the restaurant to the way Sheff has conceived the dishes, the aesthetic here is relaxed, but still presents a haute experience with an artistic bent that is at the core of the Andaz brand.
The message is clear whether you are eating a hearty breakfast, enjoying lunch poolside, or sharing a family-style dinner. While every plate that leaves the kitchen has been painstakingly conceived by Adam Sheff, the overall sensibility is not precious. The food beckons you to sit back, to enjoy, unhurried and unworried. Sheff’s philosophy jibes perfectly with that of Andaz itself. “Come as you are,” says Sheff, “have a sense of place and be integrated into the community."