He appeared on The Today Show and Top Chef Masters, dated talk show diva Star Jones and rubs elbows with the likes of Anthony Bourdain. Still, Herb Wilson refuses to think of himself as a “celebrity” chef. “I would never attach that connotation to my name. We’re all just cooks,” he quips. A gypsy at heart, Wilson attended New York’s Culinary Institute of America (aka the “Harvard of cooking schools”) before whisking off to work under Gérard Pangaud in France. Afterward, he did executive chef stints at Le Refuge and Bull Run Restaurant in his native Manhattan, and Latin-Asian trailblazer Sushi Samba in Las Vegas. The bi-continental expertise he cultivated in Vegas will serve Wilson well in his latest adventure: partnering with restaurateur German Osio to launch East-West fusion eatery Sumo Maya in Scottsdale. The restaurant opened in early April.
How has the culinary scene changed since your early days at Tavern on the Green?
There’s no more fine dining as we knew it. I grew up with captains in tuxedos and white tablecloths. People don’t want that kind of stuffy dining experience anymore. America’s palate has also become more sophisticated. Fifteen years ago, there was no sushi in America. Now it’s in everyone’s culinary vernacular. You walk into a supermarket and you can buy sushi. OK, really mediocre to bad sushi, but sushi nonetheless.
What is the biggest challenge of opening an eatery in Metro Phoenix?
There seems to be a lot of turnover in this town – 50 percent of your staff will be gone in the first three months, partly because you’ll realize who is good and who is not. In terms of wait staff, I want to have great communication. I’ll tell them what the food is about, talk to them about where the recipes come from. I think it’s great when a server can convey what a dish is really about.
How do you create a new dish?
I dream about food. I have a pad by the side of my bed and I’ll wake up and write down food ideas in the middle of the night. I had ideas for 50 dishes for Sumo Maya before I even moved to Phoenix.
What is the strangest request you’ve had?
In my younger days, I was asked to pose nude for Playgirl. My then-publicist got that gig for me. I said as long as my mother’s alive, I would never do that. Besides, it was 10 grand, maybe five after taxes – totally not worth it. The oddest thing I’ve been asked to make is [a dish using] human placenta. It’s a tradition in some religions and cultures. I didn’t do it, though. They backed out at the last minute.
Do you plan on staying in Arizona?
This is my home now. I love the great weather and the quality of life. They grow things here, unlike Vegas. There’s local honey, date farms, all kinds of vegetables. Plus, I just dropped a whole bunch of money on furniture. The thing about Vegas is that it was temporary. I rented furniture and a lot of my things were in storage. Would I go back to New York? Not with the snow. From what I understand, it’s gotten really bad back there. People are stocking up in grocery stores like it’s the apocalypse.