Gone are the days of bland continental buffets and dry chicken breasts at your hotel's diner. More and more, talented Valley chefs are decamping from standalone restaurants to helm the kitchens of Phoenix's impressive hotels and resorts. But that's old news to Charles Wiley, who's been churning out impossibly fresh, creative and expertly made food at Valley resort restaurants for years.
With more than 40 years of experience under his belt, Wiley’s list of accolades is impressive: Food & Wine magazine named him one of “The Ten Best New Chefs in America,” and the James Beard Foundation recognized him as “One of the Best Hotel Chefs of America.” He worked for a decade at The Boulders before opening Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in 2001. He went down the road to run the Hotel Valley Ho’s dining program in 2005 and opened the revamped Mountain Shadow Resort’s signature restaurant Hearth ’61 as executive chef and director of food and beverage earlier this year.
PHOENIX recently caught up with Wiley to chat about opening a new restaurant, how the Valley’s culinary landscape has changed since he first arrived, and the current trend of why so many top local chefs are working at hotels.*
Tell us about the opening of Hearth ‘61. Everything go smoothly?
We had construction delays. Shocker, right? It was excruciating getting all the equipment in place and operating because the kitchen is very, very modern. It’s an exhibition kitchen so all the finishes have to be really detailed out… The star of the show is our wood stone oven, [we are] cooking actually in the heart of the oven. The restaurant got its name from this oven.
It’s got a separate heating element for the dome above. And then there’s a separate heating element for the hearth, which is the floor of the oven. And then we also have the ability to burn 20 pounds of wood. So we’ve got very precise temperate all around our food and roasts. And then we also have the ability to infuse a nice smoky flavor with some pecan wood. It’s a great piece of equipment. It’s all state of the art. But getting all the balances and exhaust system and fire suppression systems…hooking everything up. It was excruciating. But we’re up and running now. It’s very successful.
What’s the story behind the name?
It was always my intent to name it Hearth because it evokes this organic feel, rustic, simple, straightforward food that we do, that I’ve always done. Never been one for much fluff and so we have this straightforward cuisine, and I fought for this name. I said, “Hearth.” It’s so rustic, so homey and evokes this feeling of home and community. And one of the owners, just said, “Well, we really need a name to kind of tie it back to the community,” and he came up with the fact that Paradise Valley was incorporated in 1961. So let’s call it Hearth 1961. One of the other owners says, “No, let’s put an apostrophe in front of it and call it ‘61. People will get it.”
What are some of your culinary goals for the restaurant? How did you come up with the menu?
The menu really was a product of relationships that I’ve had with all the artisan farmers and producers that I’ve been exposed to. I’ve been in the Valley for almost 27 years. So reaching out to [farmers] Pat Duncan and Bob McClendon was a natural. We also rely on organic whole grains: farro on the salmon, charred eggplant and ancient grains (quinoa, millet), and Farro porridge. Then I hired my chef de cuisine, Alfred Muro. He was a sous chef for Kevin Binkley for five years. And then my executive sous chef is Christopher Brugman. He worked up at Desert Mountain [a Scottsdale golf club]… We put our heads together.
It was like there were three of us just really combining forces to come up with the menu based on our experiences and our relationships that we’ve built over the years.
Any specific dishes you’re especially proud of?
We call it ingredient-driven cuisine. Because every ingredient and every sauce in every dish is just so, so important. And they’re sourced with great thought put behind it all. We use beautiful fish, fresh herbs and spices. We take the time to toast and to grind and to coax the most flavor out of every ingredient.
[A favorite would be] the warm duck confit, one of our biggest sellers. It’s just the balance. The confit, it’s made with a duck leg, so rich. And we use a reduced chicken stock to moisten it up a bit. What really makes it is the contrast [the duck plays off the smokiness of the fingerling potatoes, the punch of caramelized fennel, the sweetness of candied pecans and the crunch of toasted Noble bread crostinis]. All the flavors – it’s almost a symphony on a plate.
What do you think Hearth ‘61 adds to the Valley’s food scene as a whole?
In my career, so many hotel restaurants have gotten a bad rap… But when you look at San Francisco [where I’m from], some of the great restaurants are in hotels. Even hotel restaurants can take it a step further. First off, you have to define who you are and ownership has to believe in that. And the second thing is we have so many more resources than a freestanding restaurant as far as the labor and the prepping, the butchering. It’s a little city in a hotel. What it brings to the Valley is, I think, it brings a dignity and kind of a marquee value to hotel restaurants everywhere. This is a hotel restaurant that acts and cooks [as if] it could be a freestanding restaurant in a corner in L.A., San Francisco, anywhere. The quality of the food, the emphasis on the food and the creativity that goes into the dishes… Even something as simple as chicken. We get our chicken from a gentleman up in New River – it’s Two Wash Ranch chicken. Even as something as simple as that, we’re taking it to the next level just by respecting the quality of the ingredients.
What do you think of the current trend of many top Valley chefs flocking to hotels (like Chef Dushyant Singh at The Camby, or Alex Stratta at Found:RE)?
[At resorts] we could pay more than competitive wages. We always had health, dental, medical, 401(k), things that maybe freestanding restaurants can’t offer… I get excited about the diversity of a hotel. Because there’s a restaurant, and we’re serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then I’m doing a wedding for 150. Beautiful, beautiful food, because we’re a small, boutique hotel with 183 rooms. We’re not doing weddings for 1,200. Our weddings are around 100, 125. You can still do gorgeous food. I love the diversity of a room-service department, where you can do gorgeous amenities. When you check into the hotel and you send me an email, I’m going to make sure there’s a note in your room and there’s something beautiful. It might not be a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot, although I’ve done that before, but I’m going to make you feel welcome into our house.
How has the Valley’s food scene changed since you’ve been here?
When I moved here from the Bay area in ‘89, I had two choices of lettuce: iceberg and Romaine. And I literally flew lettuce out from California. There was nowhere to buy fresh fish. The purveyors weren’t up to speed. I used my source up in Seattle and got everything three times a week. And I couldn’t even get it from the airports. I had to send somebody out to get it… Now, it’s changed dramatically. The bar is so much higher than it was 25 years ago. It’s just unfathomable. There was still good food, but there wasn’t much of it. It’s really improved dramatically.
Is Hearth ’61 where you finally hang your hat for good?
Opening restaurants isn’t anything new to me. I think I’ve got a couple more in me. We’re working on another one as we speak over at this crazy little place called Castle Hot Springs.
It was Arizona’s first resort. Opened in 1891. It’s over by Lake Pleasant. We’re planning to build an eco-resort there. Do some guest rooms, a six-acre organic farm. There’s 180,000 gallons of water that comes from the center of the Earth – every day, for millions of years. That’s what’s going to irrigate the pools and the ponds and this wonderful garden. Maybe we’ll even brew some beer there.
*Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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