star of stage and cuisine
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Star of Stage and Cuisine
Gwen Ashley Walters
January, 2012, Page 37
Photos by Jason Millstein
“I thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m just going to clean house and do it all myself.’” — Christopher Van Arsdale
One-man chef/waiter/busboy Christopher Van Arsdale creates thrilling culinary theater at his beloved Scottsdale café.
When chef/owner Christopher Van Arsdale opened Café Monarch in 2007, he didn’t envision the restaurant – set in a converted extended-stay motel on the western edge of Old Town Scottsdale – as a one-man operation. It just turned out that way.
“After the first year, I ended up with a revolving door of employees flaking out or bringing chaos,” says the charismatic 50-year-old, running a hand over his close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair. “I thought, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I’m just going to clean house and do it all myself.’”
Van Arsdale’s novel solution to his labor problem: Eliminate the labor. In addition to his duties as head chef, Van Arsdale took over as server, busser and dishwasher. Off hours, he works as the reservationist, shopper, prep cook, and sole member of the landscape crew for the property’s charming butterfly garden and mid-summer-night’s-dream courtyard. It’s an unconventional arrangement that makes sense when you consider the one-time aspiring actor’s equally unconventional background. In a city full of culinary “personalities,” this serial micro-manager might have the biggest personality of them all.
If you’ve heard of Café Monarch, it was likely through word-of-mouth. Van Arsdale doesn’t advertise or formally promote his business. He has no website. Yet Café Monarch ranks high on Trip Advisor and Yelp, often occupying the top user-ranked position for Scottsdale dining. Customer reviews are flush with praise: “hidden jewel,” “magical,” “magnificent.”
Hooked on such Van Arsdale favorites as lemon-zested chicken salad and almond strata with Italian sausage, Scottsdale resident Judi Diemand describes herself as a Café Monarch “plate-licking” regular. “Christopher is an artist. Not just in how he decorates the place, but how he presents dishes and coaxes flavor out of the food. It’s truly remarkable.”
Cafe Monarch’s presentation is as dramatic as its bold New American cuisine. Dining in this quirky culinary Shangri-La is equal parts community theater and intimate dinner party, and it resonates with people who are open to a different dining experience. Like a stage actor in a single-man play, Van Arsdale does all the cooking in a scaled-down matchbox kitchen facing a handful of high-top tables. There is no hooded six-burner stove, no blazing flattop and hardly any counter space – all of which would necessarily gum up Van Arsdale’s one-man production and delivery system.
Between cooking, serving and bussing (he sometimes employs a runner on busy nights), Van Arsdale still manages to engage his customers on a one-on-one basis.
Scottsdale resident Janet Zimmer says she tries to visit Café Monarch once a week and ends up in playful banter with Van Arsdale. “I’ll say, ‘I want this dish,’ and Christopher will say, ‘No you don’t, you want this instead’ – and he’s never steered me wrong. He’s so charming, but his food charms, too,” she says.
As a performer, Van Arsdale makes for good viewing. Big blue eyes and a pearly smile dominate his round face. His voice ranges from soft and soothing to thunderous and dramatic when he wants to make a point. He’s animated and magnetic.
Not surprisingly, performing is in Van Arsdale’s blood. The son of a traveling jazz musician with an eye for the ladies – Van Arsdale is the result of one such tryst – he spent part of his childhood on the road with his bassist father, and an even larger part of it coming to terms with his father’s failings, which left him pining for a “sense of home.” He studied piano, but like many expressive children who have uncertain, itinerant upbringings, he ultimately chose acting and theater as his creative outlet of choice.
Van Arsdale graduated from high school early and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York until he ran out of money. To stay in New York, which he found far more palatable than his small hometown in Iowa, he took odd restaurant jobs, which eventually led to his culinary career. Prior to opening Café Monarch, Van Arsdale was a live-in private chef for 18 years, cooking in the Long Island beach house of an executive couple in the costume jewelry business, and later as the live-in chef for a TV producer in Phoenix. Along the way, he grew accustomed to working alone.
Van Arsdale’s years as a private chef also imbued him with an almost telepathic service instinct. By the time guests arrive for a dinner reservation, Van Arsdale already knows plenty about them. He calls each of them before their appointed reservation and probes for food preferences. He knows who can’t stand eggplant and who has an aversion to shellfish. At the end of it all, he might send a can of Café du Monde coffee home with a couple to extend their celebration the next morning. “I love playing a role, using my imagination,” he says. “When I was a small kid I had no interest in baseball. I wanted to play house and pretend to cook and eat elaborate meals. I’m domestic at heart.”
Dining at Café Monarch is sometimes imperfect. Your water glass isn’t always replenished. If you want beer or wine, you have to bring your own bottle, and you may end up pouring it yourself because the chef is busy plating. Owing to the small-scale logistics of the kitchen – Van Arsdale rarely cooks for more than 12 people at once – he also has a habit of exhausting menu items. Thus, the promised portabella in your salad could transmogrify into a shiitake.
Judging from Van Arsdale’s spotless Yelp scores, most guests gladly endure the odd misstep. “If the water glass is empty, so be it,” Diemand says. “It’s about the whole experience, not some minor imperfection.”
Make no mistake: Van Arsdale is a pleaser, which perhaps explains his lone-wolf ways. Unlike a distracted line-chef, or a skirt-chasing jazzman father, a satisfied customer will never let you down.
“I’m under no illusion that I’ll ever get rich,” he says. “And it’s not my heart’s desire to go solo, but the difficulty in relying on other people is that sometimes you find yourself standing alone.”
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