Don’t Kai for Me, Arizona

Written by Amanda Kippert Category: Valley News Issue: January 2013
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In his distinctively energetic fashion – when he speaks, “creating” and “pushing” do indeed come to mind – the James Beard Award-nominated chef is explaining why he left Kai, the Native American-inspired fine-dining destination that made him a star, for District American Kitchen and Wine Bar in Downtown Phoenix. He packed up his knives in October.

From afar, it seemed a curious move. O’Dowd assumed control of Kai in 2002 as the executive chef at the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Casino (where the restaurant is embedded) and handcrafted an Arizona-focused, game-oriented menu (sample entrée: grilled tribal buffalo with cholla buds and squash blossom syrup) that excitingly propelled Kai to national acclaim. The restaurant has enjoyed five-diamond distinction from AAA since 2006. It also picked up a five-star grade from Forbes Travel Guide this year, one of only 23 U.S. restaurants so honored. Most pundits rank Kai as the top resto in Arizona.

Compare that with District, located at the Sheraton in Downtown Phoenix, a sister property of the Sheraton-owned Wild Horse Pass. Serving polished, playful iterations of American comfort food, District is a respected restaurant, but also one that has generally flown under the Valley’s culinary radar. Arguably, it’s best known for a controversial incident in early 2012 when a lesbian couple was asked by a manager to leave after other patrons reportedly complained that the couple was kissing. (“The situation was addressed immediately and has been resolved,” says a hotel spokesperson.)

Without question, O’Dowd is good for District’s branding – and for its menu, too. So what does he get in the bargain? O’Dowd says he was enticed to leave the cozy, critically-acclaimed confines of Kai by the opportunity to imprint his culinary value-system on District. “What I want to do here is bring a lot of my knowledge of life in general and places I’ve been and really focus with [Chef de Cuisine Jarod Bogsinske] on what’s already in place. I don’t want anyone to come in say, ‘Oh, this is regular food, thank you and goodbye.’ That’s expected. We have to work harder.”

O’Dowd definitely has an enchanted food-and-beverage air about him, one that dates back to his childhood years as the son of a Seagrams executive, kicking around in the company wine vineyards. As a neophyte gourmand, O’Dowd audited classes at the Culinary Institute of America, and worked under Michelin-starred chefs Gunter Seegar and Boris Keller. Jackie Onassis reportedly developed an addiction to his scones at The Stanhope luxury apartments in New York City. Rockers Mick Jagger and Bono sought out his culinary stylings at the Ritz-Carlton. He’s never lacked for moxie or creativity.

O’Dowd’s enthusiasm is palpable as he talks at a breakneck clip about being haunted by his own ideas, scribbling down his 2 a.m. bursts of inspiration “like a crazy madman.” He derives his inspiration from scents and textures that surround him. “It could be coming to work and smelling the leather from my car and what that does to me to create a dish inspired by that scent and smell. I could lick this” – he picks up a butter knife – “and I’m going to get a silvery taste and I’ll be like, I can do a banana vinegar with vanilla and pair it with seared scallops. That’s how it comes together.”

The conversation excitedly snowballs into new methods of cooking, returning to antiquated and forgotten techniques like cooking on rocks. He says he wants to “burn memories” into District diners by doing things like inverting a shot glass of smoked American cedar upside down in a rocks glass, pouring a drink over the top and letting the smoke rise up through the cocktail.

Waving his hand over the selection of elegantly-plated appetizers that appear at the table during our interview – taunting us with the lovely aroma of Schreiner’s-bacon-wrapped dates with chive cream cheese and Vermont maple syrup, and crispy shrimp tacos with chile lime mayo – O’Dowd talks about redefining the concept of American cuisine. “American cuisine is the hardest cuisine to do because it’s so diverse. I really want to drill down, do the history, so everything has a story, so everything makes sense.”

It should be noted that Sheraton holds no contract over his head, so one may speculate that his move from the Kai – located on the Gila River Reservation, a good 45 minutes from Downtown – to the big city was fueled in part by the desire to be more in the middle of the action. R.J. Price, spokesman for the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, agrees. When District opened in 2008, it was “ahead of the curve,” preceding such standout Downtown eateries as Blue Hound, Province and Arrogant Butcher, and the wave of positive press they enjoyed. Price says he imagines O’Dowd “wants to be a part of what’s going on Downtown.”  He adds: “They’re trying new things and they’re dedicated to local ingredients. I think locals owe them a little bit of credit.”

The local-first ethos at District would appear to be a good match for the locavore-minded O’Dowd – as is, possibly, the structured corporate milieu. Though an outside-the-box soul in the culinary sense, the 40-something O’Dowd – husband to wife Linda, father to three kids under 13 – clearly prefers stability and continuity in the workplace. With his Jagger- and James Beard-starred pedigree, O’Dowd would have little trouble finding investors for an independent dining venture; one can only imagine how many happily-sated, pleasantly-drunk multi-millionaires have propositioned him in the past.

So what about opening his own restaurant? O’Dowd doesn’t seem to be in a rush. “Perhaps, one day,” he says. “If I find a prime location and the timing is right… but right now, I’m very happy where I am.”