Photo courtesy Fairmont Scottsdale Princess
A barman perches squat vessels shaped like boater hats atop a row of freshly stirred old-fashioned cocktails. He fires up a kitchen torch and lights each one, letting them smolder for a few moments before lifting the tops to release the sweet perfume of smoke and whiskey. A chef swabs a massive tomahawk steak and a pile of cipollini onions and mushrooms with a butter-drenched sprig of rosemary. She lights a nest of hay resting beneath the feast and covers the whole shebang with a rectangular metal cloche. A few minutes later, the meal makes a dramatic reentry into the dining room amidst a cloud of smoke. A pineapple half is filled with coconut ice cream and doused in rum-soaked fire before being showered with toasted coconut shavings.
These are just a few of the theatrical culinary experiences offered at Bourbon Steak, the Michael Mina concept at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort in north Scottsdale. And with people returning to in-restaurant dining after more than a year of deprivation, these tableside displays are more popular than ever.
“The demand, I think, has exceeded lots of expectations,” executive chef Sara Garrant says. “No one really knew what to expect over the course of the last year, obviously, but everyone that had put off special occasions are doubling down for sure.”
They give us so much of what we missed during the height of the pandemic: grandiosity, glamour, whimsy and, most of all, interaction. Two years ago, we could not have predicted that being within inches of a server as they prepared food for us would feel like such opulence. That someone making a cocktail for us (instead of us fumbling with jiggers and shakers at home) would feel so luxurious. And yet there my partner and I were at Bourbon Steak a few weeks ago, dazzled by someone carving our steak in arm’s reach, like kids at a carnival. Our hosted dinner with my PR pal John Glynn and his lovely wife, Shelley, got me thinking about the power of special-occasion dining. The trend in recent years has definitely been away from white-gloves fine dining, but what about fine experiences?
I predict a resurgence in interactive dining, which Garrant corroborates. Has she seen guests have renewed interest in – and gratitude for – culinary experiences since things began opening back up? “100% yes,” she says. “As a self-proclaimed introvert, I was surprised on how cooped up people were feeling, and just wanting to get out and get back to ‘normal’ experiences.”
Garrant chats with us about the creativity and logistics of experiential cuisine, from seasonal inspiration to crafting the perfect special moment for guests.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
How much freedom do you have to create new dishes and culinary experiences at Bourbon Steak? How do you balance pleasing the masses with expressing your creativity and offering guests new experiences?
We get a good amount of freedom to come up with features. We try to run at least one or two a week, from an app/entrée/dessert standpoint. If they work and are executable on a larger volume, we can roll them into the menu. The Mina Group culinary team had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish for the rollout of the trolley, but as we use it more in the restaurant, we have the opportunity to execute other items from it, or give some feedback on the next version “2.0,” or use it for special off-menu tasting menus and such, which is pretty cool. We have a few regulars that are always willing to be our “testing ground” for things we are playing with, which is awesome. Aside from the expressing creativity, we just strive to be consistent on a daily basis – on tasting with the cooks and pushing the culture.
Where do you draw inspiration?
I love cooking with the seasons, like what’s fresh and good. I never crave melons in December, but June rolls around and that’s all I want – melon on all things. I was so excited about spring ingredients this year ’cause we kind of missed it last year with the whole closure thing. It felt weird going from winter cooking to summer cooking.
What do you take into consideration during your creative process as far as ingredients, “props,” or serving vessels, showmanship, etc.?
I do like the whole prop/showiness of certain presentations. It’s fun and engaging. But at the end of the day, we don’t want the food to suffer. Like, will the steak still be warm when we serve it? Will the quality of something crunchy still be crunchy? I feel like it does a disservice to the guests if it’s like, “Oh, that was new and fun,” and then not a great quality.
When we came in recently, we experienced so many jaw-dropping dishes, many presented with theatrical flair – the smoked old-fashioneds, the tableside carving of the tomahawk steak. How did these presentations evolve?
The Mina Group was a big proponent of the guest engagement flair department. The directive is to have items that the guest gets to interact with, and then from here we get to put our Arizona Bourbon spin on it and see what works best for our setting/guests.
Do you have a personal favorite?
I never say no to a smoked old-fashioned… My favorite is when the bar team is testing new drink items. I definitely have some opinions.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
What has been most popular with guests?
I think it’s pretty split between the beverage and food tableside. Now we have to step our game up for the winter season!
How can guests experience these culinary productions? Are they all on the menu, or are there any “off-menu” hidden gems they can ask for?
Right now, they are all on the menu – the tableside beverage/food trolleys as well as the tableside pineapple Fosters. We are looking into the fall season to come up with some more things we can do off the cart now that the team has been trained up and has a good feel for the tableside demonstrations.
Should they request when they make their reservation, or can they order in the moment?
It’s nice when we know ahead of time – we might be able to place them in a location in the restaurant that lends itself better to the trolleys. But they are consistently available on the menu and can be done any evening. On that note, if someone has some event or request, as a team, we are always willing to try to make something special happen, and totally willing to work with the guests ahead of time. They just need to reach out to the restaurant and ask for one of the managers or chef team.
What does it mean to you and your team to provide these elevated experiences and diversions for guests after such a tough year?
Personally, it was hard at first. Being back in a social setting was a weird thing, like, “Did I forget how to talk to people?” But after a few times of knocking the rust off, it’s back to being fun. It was a cool thing when we did the cart trainings as well, showing all the front-of-house team how to execute the cart and properly slice the tomahawk.
Any new dishes or experiences coming soon you’d like to tease?
Well, I am actually off to Alaska in a few days to do some sockeye salmon fishing with my family. So, we will be sending down fish on a weekly basis for Andrew Vera, the executive sous, to run some features with. In the fall/winter, we have some fun, engaging menu items we are totally looking forward to doing tableside: s’mores, mozzarella and some different cuts off the food trolley!