Food For Thought - The Apprentice - Devon Sanner


Photo by: Fat Tucson

Photo by: Fat Tucson

The scholar, the apprentice, the one and only chef Devon Sanner from The Carriage House met with me to discuss food, obviously.


As you know, Devon is the executive chef of The Carriage House and has worked along Janos Wilder throughout his cooking career. So, what makes The Carriage House so special? He said "It certainly goes without saying Janos the man, the legend, the true classic who has put Tucson's culinary scene on a global stage and being his brainchild in Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails and The Carriage House bringing his passion, his four plus decades of experience and commitment to excellence to the downtown dining scene. Secondly, it's fun. What we do here is just a lot of fun for the guests, it's fun for us as chefs and cooks to be able to execute the many things that we do. Given that Janos has the reputation that he does, people are willing to indulge us in some risk taking and doing cuisine that doesn't fit strictly within a specific genre and they keep coming back and trying and let us impress them with whatever it may be. So whether they're booking a party at The Carriage House or coming to one of our events or coming to Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails for just a happy hour or dinner we think we bring something that's unique to Tucson. We bring a sense of place and having local roots and using a lot of locally sourced product and tying into traditions that have been in Tucson for centuries, even millennia in the case of some of the native seed search products that we use, but also always looking forward".


As a consumer and lover of ingredients I think it's always important to know where they come from and how they are used to make such beautiful and delicious dishes. Devon shares with us that their ingredients come from all over. "I've got some blood oranges that were harvested by Iskashitaa a local refugee network that does produce gleaning so they harvested these from somebody who had trees up on like Silverbell and Cortaro that let them know they couldn't use them all so they harvest thousands of pounds of citrus in a couple of weeks and then I'm the beneficiary of that. A lot of our product comes from native seed search houses. I've been on the Board of native seed search for many years and we have just an abiding love of that institution and their seed saving and preserving heritage strains of all types of agricultural products. Some we source from the San Xavier Co op, the farm by the mission, some stuff we source from foreign sources. So they really come from all over and it's a matter of you pick it up, you taste it, you play around with it and figure out what works".


Every chef I've learned has their favorite ingredient to work with or have a little more love for certain things in the kitchen. I learned that acid and salt are two of Devon's favorites. Salt for obvious reasons, food needs to be seasoned and acid because it helps bring the right balance to certain foods or dishes that need it and really enlivens the flavors. "If you have an under ripe watermelon you squeeze a little bit of lime juice and a pinch of salt and grate a little ginger over and you've got something phenomenal. So I think the use of acid judiciously in dishes really make flavors pop".


Certainly with this extraordinary list of local and worldly ingredients harvested to make the dishes at The Carriage House and Downtown Kitchen there has to be more that goes into this that makes their menus special, and as a person who has dined at either of these places knows, the menu certainly pushes the boundaries of food and really strives to give you a different culinary experience that you might not have thought you would like or appreciate. Devon strives to make your experience one of ultimate satisfaction and excellence and really something you will never forget and want to come back for.


As a kitchen involved in some very innovative stuff there's always something you can look forward to, and being the city of gastronomy that we are there are definitely some cool things you can expect from Downtown Kitchen and The Carriage House. "Right now we're just on the cusp of launching our next Downtown's Around The Globe, summer series of menus of Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails. So, we have been focused the past couple of years and this year on sister cities of gastronomy. This summer we're going to be looking at one of the newly minted cities; Macau and getting to delve into that cuisine, which is loose, so Asian, Portuguese and Chinese influenced and so it's very exciting getting to wade into those. Janos and I were on a trip to Chicago, had a fabulous meal at a place called Fat Rice, which is perhaps the only Macanese restaurant in the country now, and the chef there was the James Beard nominee (won the award).  We'll also be doing a menu from Alba, Italy, another city of gastronomy and Jeonju, South Korea and I'm excited to learn all I can from another chef that I find inspiring Paulo Im of Obon".


And speaking of Janos, knowing he has worked beside him for quite some time I made sure to ask if he has been his only mentor along the way and turns out the man has worked alongside some pretty amazing Michelin Star chefs that have been such an inspiration to his work and have really taught him a lot throughout his career. "I've taken inspiration from a number of other chefs here in town and I've been blessed to work with some really great folks. Bruce Yim at Hacienda Del Sol, he worked with me at Janos & J Bar and then I came on board on his staff he was the opening chef at Downtown Kitchen. John, who was the chef de cuisine when I first started there who cooked at L'Auberge and helped establish its reputation in Sedona. I've been blessed that Janos has encouraged me to take stagiaire positions elsewhere and work in other kitchens. So I did a stage at True in Chicago, and studied with chef Tim Graham there. I did a stage at Momofuku in New York Ssäm Bar and Noodle Bar. I did a stage at Alinea with Grant Achatz and his chef Dave Barron. So I've gotten to work with some phenomenal chefs, very inspirational and instructional and at times almost bringing you to tears, but it's tremendous having that opportunity and being encouraged and fostered to take those opportunities. It's been terrific".


There's always the one important thing you learn while being a chef for some time and the one thing you focus on in the kitchen and I wanted to know what that was for Devon. His words of wisdom were "The most important thing that I've learned is probably not to be afraid of failure, but don't stop that until you get it right. Fail big multiple times and fail upwards. Also, trying to be mindful in the kitchen. I think it's very easy to get caught up in the 3000 things that you're doing and having your name called another 200 times a day by different people and having to respond and literally sometimes figuratively putting out fires. It's maintaining a mindful presence and being the calm in the storm. It can be a very grueling job at times. Sixteen hours on your feet for some shifts so just having the presence of mind to breathe, remember, focus and bring that calm energy because frantic energy will wreck the kitchen".


We ended our conversation having a little laugh. Devon for sure takes the time to support other local chefs in the community when he's not in the kitchen. "My family is probably going to end up putting Maria Mazon's son through college, just on our abiding love of Puerco Verde Tacos. So that's a popular one. Also, we are just around the corner from Fresco Pizzeria and Mat Cable is the owner there who's become a dear friend of mine through what we've done with the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, and so we're probably going to end up putting his daughters through college 😂.


I support all your food choices Devon!

Here's a little behind the scenes to the creation of a beautiful salmon dish that is a variation of a dish on the Downtown Kitchen & Cocktails menu.

Video by: Frank Armendarez

Thanks for reading! Leave your comments below.

Food For Thought is a platform which highlights chefs and their personal stories and interests. It is a space where food creativity and passion come to life.