Heart of Glass

Stephen LemonsMarch 19, 2020
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Photography by Mark Lipczynski
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

Famed Phoenix chef Christopher Gross carefully crafts his dream eatery high atop the Wrigley Mansion.

Looking like a gleeful Bond villain in his chef’s smock and round, blue-tinted, John Lennon-esque specs, renowned Phoenix chef Christopher Gross chooses his steps with curious abandon, given that he’s nursing torn menisci in each knee and is about 50 feet above the ground on a plywood shell that currently abuts the northeast façade of the Wrigley Mansion.

He points to an area in front, which he says will be a cutting garden for the eponymously named restaurant of his dreams, Christopher’s at the Wrigley – a sleek, glass-walled vision of desert-inspired urbanity that will boast a wood-burning hearth, a 16-foot cantilevered wine display and stunning views of Camelback Mountain and the Papago Buttes.

“That triangle there,” Gross says, pointing to a gaping hole in the midst of the construction. “That’s [going to be] a 30-foot tree shoved in there.”

Designed by Arizona architect Wendell Burnette, famous for co-creating Utah’s futuristic, five-star Amangiri Resort, the 26-seat eatery will be “posh at night [and] simple in the daytime,” according to Gross, who envisions a fixed, one-price tasting menu, a concept pioneered locally by his friend and fellow James Beard Award-winning chef Kevin Binkley.

With the largest wine list in the state curated by Wrigley’s CEO and wine director Paola Embry – also Gross’ ex-wife – and with the draw of the historic Mission Revival-style mansion itself, owned by Gross’ longtime girlfriend Jamie Hormel, widow of recording genius and eccentric hippie heir to the Hormel meat-packing fortune, Geordie Hormel, the food only has to be “so-so,” Gross cracks.

False modesty? After all, Gross was one of Arizona’s first celebrity chefs, scoring his Beard Award in the mid-’90s  for his seasonal, French-influenced cuisine, just one of many encomiums he’s collected over the years, including the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence, Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and too many local “Best French Restaurant” nods to count.

He’s fed presidents and heads of state, from President George Herbert Walker Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and celebs out the wazoo, including Martha Stewart, Oliver Stone and Julia Child, who featured a cherubic, clean-cut Gross on her PBS cooking show, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, where he had her swooning over a plate of alder-smoked loin of beef with a sauce of red wine and shallots.

For years, his self-titled Christopher’s restaurants, first at 24th Street and Camelback Road, and then within Biltmore Fashion Park, drew adoring diners. Then in 2018, somewhat shockingly, he closed his Biltmore restaurant – Christopher’s and Crush Lounge – and joined Wrigley, a beloved, iconic property with a spotty culinary history.

Romantic dynamics aside, it was easy to understand why Hormel would want Gross in her kitchen. The chef’s repertoire of culinary greatest hits – including wild mushroom foie gras soup, braised neck of lamb and his signature, elegant Parnassienne au Chocolate mousse tower – immediately improved the readability of the menu at Geordie’s Restaurant, a middlebrow resort-type eatery at the mansion that never really captured the collective imagination of Valley diners.

But what was in it for Gross, besides making his girlfriend happy?

Nearing that point in his career at which most of his peers want to simplify and semi-retire, Gross found himself with 15 kitchen staffers to manage and endless events to run, not to mention occasionally checking in on his airport restaurant, Christopher’s at Sky Harbor.

The answer, perhaps, can be found within Gross’ vast, redesigned, high-tech kitchen, in which a small airplane or two could fit quite comfortably. For VIPs and people willing to spend like VIPs, he also keeps a chef’s table in the kitchen, where he can get guests blottoed and stuff them silly, and generally charm them to hell.

But it all comes back to Christopher’s at the Wrigley, which will open in September, he promises, after its original December 2019 target date came and went. It will be another labor of love for the self-effacing maestro, and perhaps the crowning achievement of his 40-year career.

In a breakfast room at Wrigley Mansion, soft jazz fills the air as Gross pours a glass of water for a guest and sighs a bit.

“Most of my friends are like, ‘You’re supposed to be retiring now, and you’re making more work for yourself than you’ve ever done,’” he says.

Photos courtesy Christopher Gross; Chef Gross in a 1991 festival brochure
Photos courtesy Christopher Gross; Chef Gross in a 1991 festival brochure

But as far as the idea of retiring goes, he admits, “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

At 64, his hair is shaggy and white, and he no longer races around tracks in California, Arizona and Italy on Ducati superbikes as much as he once did, a passion that began back when he was a teenager in Phoenix, where he and his recently divorced mom moved from his native Trenton, “Missoura,” when he was 12.

“We lived out on the corner of Seventh Street and Bethany Home [in] some little apartments behind a Jack in the Box,” he recalls. “I worked there from midnight to 8 in the morning one summer to buy a motorcycle.”

Gross’ name, demeanor and accent often have had folks assuming he was French or some flavor of European. Being so strongly associated with French cuisine no doubt is part of it, too. But he says his surname is actually Eastern European. His grandparents hailed from Germany originally, and the accent seems a mix of his time with them as a child, his Missouri roots and his years as a down-and-out expat in London and Paris, slaving in kitchens where French was the lingua franca.

But even as a bike rat from Missouri, he remembers fellow schoolkids in Phoenix wondering about the way he spoke, asking him where he was from. “I thought they were making fun of me, like I was from Mayberry,” he says. “And they said, no, it sounds like you’re from Europe or something.”

Food was not his first passion. That distinction went to motorcycles. He thought about racing motocross for a living well into his teens, but couldn’t quite muster the necessary balls-out abandon. “I have this little fear governor,” he says. “It hurts when you fall.”

He wasn’t a big eater and was not born with the hankering to be a chef. Fried bologna sandwiches and buttered toast were mainstays of his youth. He says he didn’t discover Mexican food until the 1990s, while in his 30s: “And that was Los Dos Molinos, still my favorite place.”

His mom was an insurance agent at Stuckey & Company and is now in her 90s and retired in Chandler. Without a silver spoon to gag on, Gross took restaurant jobs for cash and learned that he liked to cook. One of his first gigs was at John’s Green Gables on Thomas Road, the Medieval Times of its day, where a knight in armor would show you to the door.

By the time Gross got there, the get-ups had shifted to waitresses in hot pants. “My mouth was always hanging open,” Gross recalls of his 17-year-old self.

He also had a vocational training job doing offset photography at the old Scottdale Daily Progress – a task he found boring, but one that allowed him to steal naps in the darkroom. As adulthood loomed, he knew he would soon have to decide on a career path.

That’s when he found his “turning point”: the Adams Hotel in Downtown Phoenix. The chef at Green Gables left to take over the all-day menu at the Adams, and Gross followed him for a 25-cent-an-hour raise. At some point, he was assigned to the kitchen at The Sand Painter, a “sort of common, old French restaurant” at the Adams.

Photos courtesy Christopher Gross; Chef Gross with culinary legend Julia Child in his kitchen, circa 1996
Photos courtesy Christopher Gross; Chef Gross with culinary legend Julia Child in his kitchen, circa 1996

“That’s where I discovered that I liked it, that type of food,” he says. “It didn’t taste like anything else.”

When the hotel went Chapter 11, the European chefs at The Sand Painter told him he should go to California to continue his culinary education. Gross headed to Los Angeles, eventually scoring a gig at the Century Plaza Hotel, which sent its apprentices to Europe to work and learn.

Gross was not an official apprentice at Century Plaza, but he asked for the same opportunity. Management gave him six months to save his money and sell everything he owned, because he was expected to pay his own way to London, his first stop.

That was in 1978. He spent about a year in a spot on Kings Road and began sending résumés and letters of recommendation to all of the one-, two- and three-Michelin-star-rated restaurants in Paris. A little two-star joint, Chez Albert, answered in the affirmative, and soon he was cleaning mushrooms and prepping dishes in a kitchen where almost no one spoke English.

Gross worked like a dog and lived in a cheap flat in what he later discovered was Paris’ red-light district while dodging  come-ons from the gals of the Rue Pigalle. Meanwhile, as an illegal alien in Paris, he played dumb whenever the cops asked to see his passport. “I must have really stunk, because I wore the same uniform all week and washed it in a sink,” he says.

After two years in Paris and then a pastry shop in Normandy, he returned to Los Angeles. Wolfgang Puck wouldn’t hire him at Ma Maison – a snubbing Gross likes to rib the Austrian master chef about whenever he runs into him, he says.

But Dame Fortune blessed him in a weird way when he was hired by L’Orangerie Restaurant, an old-school French place on La Cienega Boulevard, where he was one of the only “minorities” (read: Americans) in the house and felt right at home.

By the time he returned to Phoenix a couple of years later, fame and glory were right around the next saguaro.

In the Valley of the Sun, with a mastery of French cuisine under his belt, Gross had an easy time selling himself to the toniest Scottsdale restaurants of the day. He served as chef de cuisine at La Champagne at the Registry Resort, then as executive chef at Le Relais, which was located at Pinnacle Peak and Pima roads.

His big break came when Food & Wine magazine named him one of America’s 10 Best New Chefs in 1989. In January 1990, he officially opened Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro at 24th  Street and Camelback Road, the first of a series of restaurants in the Biltmore area bearing his name.

Onward and upward, he would eventually marry the woman who became his business partner and sommelier, Embry. The pair divorced in 2002, but remained in business together, in no small part due to Embry’s financial acumen. “She’s brilliant, and she’s always done the things that I don’t like to do, like paperwork,” he says.

Though he had met Geordie and Jamie Hormel, he didn’t know them very well. Geordie passed in 2006. Gross and Jamie began dating after she came into his Biltmore restaurant with friends of hers and they got to chatting.

Before they began seeing each other, he confides that she once told him, “I like wine that tastes like water.”

But dating Christopher Gross changed things on that front. “Now she’ll sniff out a bad cork, and she’s telling me what I’m doing wrong with the cooking,” he says.

In 2010, Embry migrated to Wrigley to become CEO, while still working with Gross. Jamie Hormel, left with a hospitality empire to grow, initiated a series of changes, overhauls and renovations, opening Jamie’s Wine Bar in 2017, a plush, mahogany-walled effort to capture the Postino-loving, casual drinker dollar with 25 wines available by the glass and a bottle list of more than 800.

Gross advised Hormel and Embry with this and other projects, like revamping Geordie’s Restaurant and Lounge. Before long, he shuttered Christopher’s and Crush Lounge, the last iteration of his Biltmore eateries, and took over as executive chef of the mansion in 2018.

For nine months, he and the staff were packed into a temporary kitchen with poor ventilation as the main kitchen was rebuilt and expanded, installing a state-of-the-art Hestan oven and heightening the low, cavernous roof. The result is the kitchen of his dreams, and the first embryonic twitches of a new Christopher’s.

Geordie’s – now envisioned as Wrigley’s daily-driver restaurant – isn’t going anywhere, Gross says. Ditto Jamie’s Wine Bar. Christopher’s at the Wrigley will be a whole new addition to the existing structure, located at the northeast corner of the mansion, replacing a brick patio that had been there.

Architect Burnette’s website describes the new restaurant as “a faceted glass garden pavilion” that will appear to float in the night sky as it recedes into a garden before it.

Burnette tells PHOENIX that the “big idea” is not to imitate the architecture of a historic building, but to be “a kind of quiet addition” where a panoramic expanse of the Arizona Biltmore, Camelback Mountain, the Papago Mountains and the Downtown skyline becomes the star. “We’re going to reduce the impact of the structure through reflection, transparency – so that it becomes more a part of the landscape and more a part of the Valley view and doesn’t attempt to compete with the historic elevation,” he says.

In the midst, reaching into the sky beyond a motorized, open-air roof, Burnette will place a eucalyptus tree that will be uplit and complement the historical Spanish colonial façade of the property.

Gross is cagey on the menu, only to say that it will be “multi-course, at one price” and dependent on the products available when it opens. “It’s going to be far from molecular,” Gross says. “I like to recognize what I’m eating.”

For Gross, who has no children, the new restaurant is his baby, and part of his legacy, where the young cooks will be the servers, learning to interact with guests and other aspects of the front of the house, like the wine. “I was lost at my first nice restaurant,” he notes. “A good chef has to understand the front of the house as well as the back the house. That’s what I want our chefs to learn, so when they leave, they go on to a bigger, better place and are successful.”

Besides, Gross has no urge to retire. Work is his passion.

“Some people say they retired to play golf the whole day,” he says, employing his characteristically dry wit. “I think I would take up drugs before golf.”