When Tamara Stanger abruptly left her executive chef gig at Helio Basin Brewing Co., many folks were surprised.
But Stanger says during the past year or so, she and Helio’s owners were “moving in different directions.” She’s grateful for the opportunity she had to grow while there, but she’s ready for the “next step” in her career.
Stanger’s passion for Arizona cuisine is propelling her forward, but to a much smaller venue. She’s taken a job at Cotton & Copper, Sean Traynor’s new craft food and cocktail-focused restaurant that just opened in Tempe. “The theme is turn-of-the-century … and even the plate ware is old china. It’s like you’re going to grandma’s house and eating,” she says.
With only 50 seats (compared with Helio’s 130 seats), Stanger will have a more hands-on approach and will make most everything that comes out of the kitchen. “I’m not doing anything terribly different from what I was doing before, but it’s a more intimate setting,” she says.
As for the food, Stanger is developing recipes and planning the menu. She’s featuring rabbit and game meats as well as Pima wheat and pink corn polenta. The menu will be small, about 15 items and weekend specials. “I’m going to educate the staff so they can explain the food to customers. You’ve got to make people interested enough to want to learn more,” she says.
Stanger will continue to use as much local produce and product as she can gather, and will work closely with Arizona farmers to make that happen. “I’m not looking at 90 ingredients on the plate, but something that’s simple and tastes amazing and features the things that make Arizona great.”
When visiting cities like Chicago and New York, you know what to expect from the cuisine and what the specialty dishes are, she says. “In Arizona it’s very scattered because people come from different places and bring their cultures with them.”
Since there’s no rulebook on Arizona cuisine and ingredients, Stanger is blazing her own trail. As she learns more and introduces her customers to new ingredients and native dishes, she hopes to create a sense of community and pride in being an Arizonan. “I think it’s a really slow moving effort, but will be a movement. It’s just a matter of time.”