For Ryan Clark, executive chef at Tucson’s Casino Del Sol, playing a central role in fostering a burgeoning cuisine scene in the Southern Arizona city is a driving force that carries through to his work at the large casino-resort that employs him.
Besides running the F&B operation at the 215-room property with more than 100,000 square feet of meeting and event space, Clark shares his knowledge of fine cuisine with Jr. Culinary Students in the AZ C-CAP restaurant and hospitality program; heads the Southern Arizona Slow Food “Snail of Approval” program; and operates a monthly collaborative “Dinners With Chefs” event in which he invites area chefs to collaborate by creating a meal for guests.
It’s all about growing the Tucson food scene, giving back to the community and putting the city on the culinary map.
“I’m a Tucson native, and I’ve been cooking in Tucson for 15 to 16 years now,” Clark said. “I’ve watched our food scene develop so I feel it’s important that we continue to develop chefs in the community.
“Whether having chefs out or developing and mentoring chefs in culinary schools, I think it’s important that we give back and progress as a whole here,” he added.
[Feature Recipe: Chef Ryan Clark's Beef Tartare]
Part of growing the Tucson food scene is dispelling the myth that its cuisine begins and ends with Sonoran-style Mexican dishes, and the best place to demonstrate that is at Casino Del Sol.
“We’re based in the southwestern Tucson area, and that doesn’t just mean Mexican food,” Clark said. “We have great pork and chicken and beef. You really get a taste of what Tucson is.
“But obviously, we’re going to offer those Sonoran-Mexican foods—we have a history of humble Sonoran-Mexican food, and agriculture that dates back to the earliest time of harvesting,” he added.
Clark takes advantage of the many farms in the area, stretching up to Phoenix, by incorporating indigenous ingredients such as cactus, prickly pear, cholla buds and chiles.
An interesting aspect of the area’s history is that the influx of Chinese immigrants that came in to work on the railroads in the 19th century has resulted in that culture’s phenomenal culinary influence working its way into menus, with figs, pomegranates and bok choy finding a home in recipes.
A product of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he graduated at the top of his class and earned a spot on the Dean’s List, Clark has racked up an impressive list of achievements.
Notable achievements include: being named one of the Top Sixteen Junior Chefs in the U.S. by the American Culinary Federation at age 23; holding the title of Tucson’s Iron Chef for three consecutive years; and receiving a nomination from Food and Wine Magazine as one of the top 10 Best New Chefs in the Southwest in 2012.
Casino Del Sol is set to break ground on another hotel and conference this fall, which will provide even more opportunities for groups who want a lot of meeting, reception and dining options on-site, which is already one of the resort’s selling points. Clark said many groups love to see his crew engaged in culinary action.
“Some of our signature things are our action stations, which are cutting-edge in our industry now,” he said. “[Groups enjoy coming in and seeing] a wall of lettuce where the chefs are cutting off lettuce to serve a salad, and cooking over mesquite wood, which is sort of a signature here, in the foyer just outside of our event space.
“We are a very big resort but I see us as a large mom-and-pop in a way; everyone here is so hands-on and interactive in what’s going on, and guests give us great feedback in that,” he added.
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