For Tucson chefs, international hype raises friendly competition

Hacienda Del Sol Executive Chef Bruce Yim prepares a lamb leg marinated in pesto. Photo by: Devon Walo

As it basks in the light of international recognition, Tucson has upped its game in the culinary world.

Being labeled North America’s first “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO in December 2015 not only created pressure to live up to the hype, but it also increased competition between local chefs.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, under the Creative Cities Network, recognized Tucson for its unique food culture. The network rates 116 cities across 54 countries in seven fields of creativity: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music and media arts.

Bruce Yim, executive chef for Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, said Tucson chefs already had a strong sense of community, but the UNESCO label increased the friendly competition to live up to the extensive publicity.

Hacienda Del Sol Executive Chef Bruce Yim tastes the fresh produce grown at the resort’s garden. Photo by: Devon Walo

“Other chefs find out new products you are using and new cuisines you are making, and their creative juices start flowing,” Yim said. “They want to put their own twist on it and come up with a better idea, which continually raises the bar and, from there, it just escalates.

“Does that mean Chef B is better than Chef C? No. What it does is raise the food level of the city, and with the City of Gastronomy title, we can actually prove to other cities that we can make just as great of food as they can.”

Janos Wilder, owner and executive chef of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, said the competition has not stopped local chefs from collaborating.

Owner and Executive Chef of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails Janos Wilder stands among his kitchen where is supervises all staff and food preparation. Photo by: Devon Walo

“There is a bright cohort of young, up-and-coming chefs in Tucson with a real eagerness to learn and share knowledge,” Wilder said. “At the Carriage House, our event space, a local butcher holds occasional professional butchery classes at no charge and open to all chefs in town.

“We have also had self-taught classes on fermentation. In addition, we invite and pay our colleagues to teach consumer-oriented cooking classes here, and also make our location available for pop-up dinners for chefs in need of a space to show their chops.”

Yim and Wilder, who have previously worked together, share the same idea that Tucson now has a tremendous spotlight on it.

In a country with highly acclaimed food cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the natural assumption is what does Tucson bring to the table that other cities do not?

A culinary blend of cultures, local and unique ingredients, and traditional food preparation helped the city become recognized, according to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network Secretariat.

Plated meals waiting to be served to their consumers at Hacienda Del Sol. Photo By: Devon Walo

And the “City of Gastronomy” label has paved the way for new innovations.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, along with a committee of local farmers, food advocates and volunteers, established the Commission on Food Security, Heritage and Economy to develop nutritional food access and food security to Tucson locals.

The University of Arizona’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences has opened a new Center for Regional Food Studies to “integrate social, behavioral and life sciences into interdisciplinary studies and community dialogue regarding change in regional food systems,” according to the center’s mission statement by Director Gary Paul Nabhan.

Gastronomy is defined as the practice or art of choosing, cooking and eating good food. Not only does Tucson’s culinary community embody that, it is also the home to the longest agricultural history of any city in North America, dating back 4,000 years, as well as 300-year long tradition of vineyards, orchards and livestock ranching.

“We have been sustaining life here for thousands of years,” Yim said. “At the end of the day, that is all that matters and receiving this designation really is an honor.”

Tucson chefs continue to prove why their practice and preparation landed them in the limelight, as well as partake in a little friendly competition.

“We may not share all of our secrets with each other,” Wilder said. “However, as much as we enjoy working together, we are business people and nothing satisfies more than a full restaurant.”

To see the cities around the world that have been recognized by the Creative Cities Network, and why, click here.

Click here for high-resolution photos. 


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