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Foraging Desert Flavors: Behind the Scenes of “New Arizonan” Cuisine

By Jill K. Robinson

11.29.19

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The tasting menu at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine changes so frequently that it’s useless to post it on the restaurant’s website—what’s there today is likely gone tomorrow.

Photo by Austin Irvan Lane

The tasting menu at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine changes so frequently that it’s useless to post it on the restaurant’s website—what’s there today is likely gone tomorrow.

How a small group of chefs are using the ingredients of the Southwest to transform local fare

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In the predawn darkness of the Sonoran Desert, a packed SUV heads north of Cave Creek, near Scottsdale, for an important food mission. Inside with me are a border collie and four chefs: Brett Vibber (executive chef of Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine in Cave Creek), Jaren Bates (Vibber’s sous chef), Tamara Stanger (executive chef of Cotton & Copper in Tempe), and Nolan Barth (Stanger’s sous chef). Cacti and desert scrub change slowly to granite mountains and stands of ponderosa pine. By the time the pale pink sunrise lights the sky 90 minutes later, we’re approaching Prescott, and Vibber turns off the freeway on a trail that disappears into the forest.

The trails we trace today in the Prescott National Forest are primarily old stagecoach trails, and the back of our modern stagecoach (a Toyota 4Runner) is piled high with buckets and bags, scissors and tongs. There are 16 different Arizona routes these chefs take during foraging season, which runs roughly from the end of February to the beginning of November. Every few minutes Vibber stops, and we pile out, grabbing tools to gather ingredients from the wilderness to add to the restaurants’ menus. At times, we stay longer in a location, hiking through the forest on our search.

“I don’t require that all my staff members forage, but if they don’t, they’re prepping our haul when we bring it back,” says Vibber as we reach into tangled wild grapevines to grab handfuls of grapes.

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Vibber and Stanger are leaders of a new cuisine: New Arizonan. Focused on hyperlocal ingredients that change frequently with Arizona’s natural seasons and microclimates, it’s drawn comparisons to New Nordic cuisine from critics. “We have the ability to make a new definition by gathering bits of the past and determining where we want to go in the future to make food that honors not just the natives or the pioneers, but everyone together as a whole,” says Vibber.

Vibber’s early interest in foraging started with encouragement from his parents and intensified through involvement in Boy Scouts. A connection with Tohono O’odham friends as well as bioregional herbalist and forager John Slattery during his university days in Tucson enabled Vibber to immerse himself in the natural ingredients of Arizona’s deserts and mountains—those known to the ancestors of Navajo, Pima, Hohokam, and Tohono O’odham peoples. And he’s established the enjoyment of the flavors of the land as the cornerstone of his restaurant’s concept.

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“While every single dish at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine has something that’s been foraged, the fruits of our foraging labor really shine on our multicourse tasting menu,” says Vibber. The tasting menu changes so frequently that it’s useless to post it on the restaurant’s website. What’s there today is likely gone tomorrow. Items can vary between the regular and tasting menus, depending on season and availability. Palo verde and creosote buds are fermented and pickled, used in place of capers. Palo verde peas taste just like edamame. Barrel cactus fruit is sliced thin and candied for bison tartare. The oil of Arizona black walnuts is used in salad dressing.

To amass the ingredients for this standard, Vibber and his team spend nonrestaurant hours camping in different locations to forage when they’re not taking early morning trips as a group; they are so dedicated that they have spent personal time foraging on days off. “[By] November, everyone needs new shoes and the vehicles need new tires and oil changes,” says Vibber. 

Today we find an abundance of bright red chokecherries and pick mint for salsa verde growing a mile away from the source of the Hassayampa River. Bates, a tall Navajo who has worked with Vibber for years, disappears into the forest in his quest for acorns.

Stanger has an eye for rose hips, eventually collecting a plastic baggie full of them. Since her restaurant is in Tempe, a more urban environment than Cave Creek, she often forages in local neighborhoods. “Arizona provides an environment where citrus grows much of the year,” she says. “I usually get permission to forage in my neighborhood and collect everything from grapefruit to many varieties of lime.” She also collects cactus fruit, carob, black walnuts, and leaves from mesquite, ironwood, and young palo verde.

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When Stanger’s beautiful pies—made with prickly pear, barrel cactus fruit, palo verde flowers, saguaro cactus fruit, black walnuts, and mesquite beans—were featured in the September 2019 issue of Hemispheres, she received phone calls from across the country and had to explain the ingredients’ limited availability. Responsible foragers don’t take everything they find. At least 30 percent is left in each location for animals and other foragers.

The forage today fuels parts of a special menu the chefs are preparing for the next day’s Fall Picnic, a seasonal event at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine. Back in her Tempe kitchen, Stanger turns the rose hips into a vinaigrette. In Cave Creek, Vibber creates a syrup from the wild grapes and chokecherries and drizzles it on salmon. At Cartwright’s the next night, I watch as chefs tend to the pile of acorns, which will eventually become a butter paired with wild onions that tops the trout dish on the fall menu.

“See you Friday morning?” Vibber asks Stanger, who nods yes. “We’ll start early, as usual.”

 >>Next: The Tiny Scandinavian Islands With the Big Michelin Star

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