Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain
5700 E. McDonald Dr. • sanctuaryoncamelback.com
Since this column started two years ago, one name seemed to pop up when chefs were asked whom they loved working with: Beau MacMillan. After meeting him, it’s easy to see why, as MacMillan’s passion and creativity shine through not only in his food but the relationships he’s gained through more than 20 years in the industry.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Portland, Maine but raised in a commonwealth in Massachusetts. I’m a New Englander at heart, and I have strong ties to Canada, as well. I moved to Phoenix in 1998.
After graduation, I knew I had to get out there and work under some chefs. Someone once told me, “If you want to be somebody, work for somebody.” So I moved to Boca Raton, Florida and started my career there with Jacky Pluton – a hardcore French guy. He taught me a lot, scared me, screamed at me – but it was all excellent lessons in toughness, discipline.
I worked in upstate New York for a year and L.A. for three years. I was offered an interview for this position [at elements] in October 1998, and I’ve been here for 23 years.
Which culinary school did you attend?
I went to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. I didn’t have the academic prowess that most people have. I was more of a class clown, but I was passionate about cooking. I took a vocational class my last year of high school, and I guess some chefs saw potential in me. They told me to get it together, and I was able to get in front of the right person at the school and was accepted on probation. I knocked it out of the park with a 4.0 average my first year there.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
I think I knew pretty early. My first aspirations were more sports-orientated. I remember standing in center field, looking at the pitcher and anticipating the fastball. Around the age of 14, I started seeing how much there was in food and how powerful cooking was, the ability to be hospitable and what that did for people.
Giving, preparation, timing – I was fascinated by it. At 16, I worked as a short-order cook in Massachusetts; there was something about getting an order, preparing it, giving it back and watching someone enjoy it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
How did you first learn to cook?
My grandmother was one of my first inspirations, especially in the realm of hospitality. Beyond cooking and being a chef, there’s authentic hospitality and the act of kindness, and it’s created organically. I learned how it made me feel when my grandmother was constantly trying to please, cooking for others, nourishing and feeding; I loved it.
Growing up, one of my best friend’s moms was a stay-at-home mom fresh off the boat from Italy. She cooked with a wooden spoon, and every time I was at Mark’s house, I hoped to get invited for dinner. She was an inspiration as far as cooking. But honestly, it was never about ingredients or the dishes themselves. For me, it was bringing people together and that sense of family.
At 17, I started working for someone I consider one of the greatest chefs I’ve worked for in my life, François De Mélogue, and that’s when I really learned hospitality – it made me rethink everything regarding the power of food.
Tell us about your work in other industries.
If you look at my whole 35-year career, I’ve only done two other jobs outside of a kitchen. In college, I took a seasonal job at Ocean Spray harvesting cranberries. You got paid big, big money, and as an 18-year-old, I was all about it.
For the second job, I was a background extra in the movie industry in L.A. My sister was out there chasing her dream of being an actress, and I stayed with her for three months. I was in a film called Thelma and Louise, with Brad Pitt and Susan Sarandon – I don’t know if those names ring a bell? I played a cop. It was a fun summer!
As far as kitchens go, I started as a dishwasher and busboy, but I wanted to learn how to make the clam chowder. The kitchen was calling me.
Since starting In the Kitchen, almost all of the chefs we’ve interviewed have mentioned you in some capacity. How does it feel knowing you’ve made such an impact on others?
First of all, that’s huge. Wow. That means a lot to me because I’ve tried to live my life by the authentic principles of what people have taught me – as a kid, someone said, “if you got into this business to be rich and famous, you’re in the wrong business.” I got into this because I love food, cooking, and bringing people together.
If you love the Red Sox and I love the Yankees – which I will never love the Yankees, I’m a Red Sox fan, and I want that for the record – it’s divided. But with food, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Wine, cocktails, ambiance, art, those are the things that I think people have desensitized from and want to get back into. The one thing I always wanted was to remain ego-less in this space. I’ve been lucky to have success in this industry; I’m so grateful and feel I have an obligation to help whoever wants to be part of this.
Do you have a favorite chef that you’ve worked with?
When I first got to Arizona, I looked up to Eddie Matney, Vincent, Chris Gross, Matt Carter, James Porter, Kevin Binkley, Chuck Wiley, etc. But here at elements, I have a banquet chef who is the complete opposite of me; organized, meticulous, he’s the science and math while I’m the art and emotion of food. I have a massive amount of respect for him and my chef de cuisine Sammy Sanz. You learn more from the people who work for you; the reason I got here was because of the growth of my team.
What is your inspiration behind new menu items?
It’s nice to see chefs like me who were brought up on high-quality protein and fish dishes say, “let’s get some veggies in here,” and how predominant they are on menus today.
How people feel after being nurtured and fed the right amount of something delicious; that too. I like food with a simplicity that can stand up on its own. I don’t want to have a signature dish; I want people to say, “trust in Beau Mac’s food.”
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
One of the biggest challenges is trying to get young people to commit to the long term. How do you truly get someone to feel the way you feel about cooking? I want to work a 13-hour day and have fun. It’s a challenge, and I can do that, but it takes a lot. Being able to continue working as hard as you can and enjoy it is the real success.
There’s a lot that I love about being a chef. I want to lead and inspire, but I love cooking more than I love the administrative part. I created a festival called Nirvana Food and Wine with 80 local chefs and nationally-ranked chefs. It started with a dream and an idea. If I can cook a beautiful meal or create a new menu, those are things I love.
I’m too old to go back and cook hot appetizers. My hot app chefs would be like, “What are you doing back here? Get out,” but I remember being that young guy, so another part I love is the coaching. I take stock of the people here because they are incredibly hardworking. It’s one thing to come in and pay someone, and it’s another to give them coaching and counseling within the kitchen. I want to make sure they believe in themselves.
What’s it like being a television personality?
I’m not going to lie; I have discomfort with the word “celebrity” being tied to a chef. It’s one thing to be recognized for your craft, but I think all chefs are celebrities in their own right, they just haven’t been on television.
I’m grateful for it – being on Iron Chef was one of the toughest days, but it changed my life. I showed up and did my best, and when I won that day, one of my mentors said, “You have no idea what you’ve just done, Beau,” and I remember thinking, “Dude, it was just one battle.” I knew it was going to change my life, but it was never going to change me.
Since that battle, I haven’t watched the show – Bobby Flay helped make my career, but how do you put that into perspective? Suddenly, I had my show on Food Network, which allowed me to share my passion. It’s been a crazy ride, and I’ve enjoyed every step.
What’s one highlight from your time as a chef?
I have so many stories. I worked for François in Massachusetts and we lost touch for a while.
I always wanted to connect again to thank him, and I finally found him and got him back into my life. I invited him to cook at elements, and he was doing the same thing he did with me, with my cooks. They’ve heard me talk about him; I shared my stories about him with my team.
Anyway, one night we were working with a winery from northern California. After work, we were enjoying our night, having some wine, and we saw an almost 88-year-old winemaker dancing on the table, listening to music and having the time of his life. I have other stories, but they’re probably not appropriate [laughs].
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve always been a sports fan. I played hockey out here for ten years, but I’m getting too old and get tired when tying my skates! I love to travel; I’m a big movie buff; I like hanging out with people, but I also have five kids [from 18 to two-year-old twins] so hanging out and supporting them is huge, too. My house is busy and my wife is a superhero, I’ll tell you that much.
Advice for those who want to work in this industry?
Run away as fast as you can – no, I’m just kidding. The biggest thing to understand is that experience comes first, and money comes later. You can’t be an amazing chef until you’re an amazing cook. People want to jump too many steps these days, but you have to grow first. Be patient. Before going to culinary school, work in a kitchen for a year and decide if it’s what you want to do.
What’s next for Chef Beau Mac?
In this phase of my life, I’ve been able to work in development more. I opened a restaurant called Money, Baby in Vegas recently. I just got an opportunity to work with Home Shopping Network and sell my cookware and products and see how they do. I want to get a book out someday; I have 23 years of stories on this hill [laughs]; I’m just doing my thing, continuing to grow, learn, develop, keep my team happy and stay happy!