Serving a whopping 700,000 meals a year, Phoenix Convention Center Executive Chef, Jesus Cibrian, is blazing a locavore trail on a scale rarely seen in the Valley or elsewhere.
At a recent tasting at Maya’s Farm at South Mountain, Chef Cibrian prepared a breakfast feast to showcase how he incorporates local ingredients into his menus. With local favorites like Schreiner’s Sausage, Queen Creek Olive Mill olive oil, Arizona Cheese Company cheese and, of course, Maya’s veggies and eggs, Chef Cibrian concocted a three cheese and roasted bell pepper frittata with sides of roasted root vegetables, red potatoes and Southwest turkey sausage.
Over sizzling skillets, Chef Cibrian described his passion for local as a “religion” and a reason why, five years ago, he convinced Aventura, the Phoenix Convention Center’s catering contractor, to give it a try.
He also wants out-of-town guests to experience the flavor of Arizona — literally — through his food. Chef Cibrian says again and again, “The difference in taste is like [the difference between] night and day.”
Through partnerships with local distributor, Stern Produce, and small farms within 150 miles of Downtown Phoenix like Maya’s, Chef Cibrian is able to ensure that 20-25% of his ingredients are local, seasonal and hit the table within 48 hours of harvest.
The biggest challenge to this is, as you might expect, is scale. Individual small farms are not able to produce the amount of product needed to meet Chef Cibrian’s needs. And, that’s where Stern’s comes in. Stern’s takes the food orders and then fills them by making stops at several farms. They then clean the produce to ensure food safety standards are met before making the final delivery.
Another challenge is consistency, both in terms of product look and availability. Chef Cibrian has to plan his menus months in advance to coincide with Arizona growing seasons. And he has to be creative when his pesticide- and herbicide-free produce doesn’t look exactly like it would in a supermarket. That’s when, Cibrian says, ingredients like tomatoes that have unsightly lumps and bumps become tomato sauce.
And, it’s not just about what is served here. It is also about how it is served and disposed of. Chef Cibrian uses reusable dishes and cutlery or biodegradable versions made from corn or bamboo. Any prepared meals that go unserved are collected by Waste Not, a local nonprofit that delivers catering and restaurant leftovers to shelters and soup kitchens. Cibrian estimates that this equates to a donation of about 5,000 meals a year.
So, what does it mean for Downtown Phoenix that such a huge economic engine like the Phoenix Convention Center is doing business this way? Maya Dailey, owner of Maya’s Farm at South Mountain and one of Downtown’s original advocates for the local movement, discusses the impact of Chef Cibrian’s preference for local ingredients.