Mountain Shadows Resort • 5445 E. Lincoln Dr. • mountainshadows.com
For over 40 years, Chuck Wiley has made a name for himself not only as an award-winning chef but as a teacher, mentor and culinary mastermind. He’s worked with many other well-known chefs in the Valley and has continued to leave his mark wherever he goes.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in the Bronx, and when I was nine, my dad moved my family to Jersey because he thought that was the right thing to do. Jersey was worse than the Bronx. When I turned 18, I moved to Laguna Beach and got my first restaurant job as a busser at a restaurant in Dana Point. The first day I worked, I fell in love with the business. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life – and I haven’t! I’ve been in Arizona for 31 years. I moved here from San Francisco back in 1989 to take the executive chef position at Boulders in Carefree.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
No. When I worked in Dana Point, I was a busser, and a couple of bartenders drove around in Porsches. They worked at night and surfed all day, and I thought that sounded pretty good. So I wanted to be a bartender, and it wasn’t until I moved to Alaska [for a stint in their culinary program] that I decided I wanted to be a chef.
Where did your cooking skills come from?
I have to say I’m pretty much self-taught. My first cooking job was at a Hungarian restaurant in Lake Tahoe, and the owner taught me the menu there. It was an old house converted to a restaurant – the building is still there, but it’s not the same anymore – but she taught me the basics. I worked at the Sahara Tahoe for a couple of years and learned from the Swiss and German chefs. Other than that, it was all me.
Do you have a favorite chef that you’ve worked with?
As far as pure joy from cooking – the four years I worked with Beau MacMillan were some of the most fun and rewarding. Beau and I opened Elements restaurant in March 2001 and committed to change the menu once a month. April 1, we changed 30 percent of the menu, but Beau wanted to change 80 percent. I had to reel him in, but he was so excited and so creative. He’s one of the most prolific chefs I’ve ever met.
A close second would be Tom Freimuth, the executive chef at Talking Stick. He and I worked together at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. I lured him out [to Arizona] to be my executive sous chef in 1989. We’ve had a blast. We had a great career working together. It’s a toss-up between those two.
Chefs that you’ve worked with have gone on to have incredible careers. Out of your teachings, what do you think stuck with them the most?
I’ve seen a few quotes that people have thrown around that I say – and I say a lot – but organization is number one. You can’t operate without being organized. Another thing I say is, “How does it eat?” You could take different ingredients and taste them separately, but when you put them together, put them on a plate, drag it through the sauce; how does it eat? That’s a big one.
I think I’ve always focused on freshness, making things from scratch and never taking the path of least resistance.
What awards and accolades have you garnered thus far?
The biggest one was Best New Chef by Food and Wine Magazine in 1994. The James Beard Foundation nominated me a few times – I haven’t won, but I was awarded as one of the best hotel chefs in America. It was rewarding to receive the Culinary Award from the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The Best New Chef one, I think, really kicked off my career.
How do you come up with dishes?
New dishes are always rooted in the past. I take that and run with it. I look to different cuisines and what are the three components of a dish that go together.
At the Boulders, with the southwest food in the 80s and 90s, I would stay true to the indigenous ingredients and seasonings. I told Beau, ‘let’s take our American notions and pepper them up with soy, sesame, ginger, miso…’ and we did, and I think he’s still doing that. At Zuzu [at Hotel Valley Ho], it was very much American comfort food. I imagined it like a 50s Los Angeles diner that maybe Quentin Tarantino would find or where Marilyn Monroe was discovered. We made everything from scratch; everything was as good as it could be.
When we opened Hearth, it was so quiet and zen-like. I mean, this property was boarded up when we discovered it ten years ago. I imagined it as a resort in a neighborhood, so we looked at what defines a sense of place. We focused on Hearth being a neighborhood eatery that people could walk or ride their bikes to and looked at what cuisine people embraced. We are ingredient-driven.
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
I can tell you the most rewarding part is seeing young people excited and passionate and wanting to go and make their mark on the world. I’m thrilled to be part of that. Maybe they’ll look back and say, ‘that Chuck Wiley guy I worked with keeps whispering in my ear to keep it clean, fold my towels, have a sense of urgency, make sure things are nice.’
So, in that sense, the most frustrating thing is working with people who don’t have that passion or drive. What turns me on is making people feel good and making their night memorable by serving them beautiful food in a gracious environment. So working with people or serving people that don’t get it – some people don’t belong in the hospitality business.
What about a challenging dish that you’ve had to cook?
Well, that’s the opposite of a simple dish: one you can cook in one pan or prepare ahead of time and put together quickly. During quarantine, we had an arugula salad on the menu. First, you had to section the grapefruit and oranges, get the arugula nice and crisp.
There was avocado, tangerine oil, salt and pepper, toasted and chopped cashews and a honey vinaigrette. That is a challenging dish. Our chef de cuisine Alfred Muro developed it, but I had to execute it, and I was proud every time I put one together. Everything was separate but composing it was challenging, the time it takes to put each part together.
Do you have a signature dish?
At Deer Valley Ski Resort back in the 80s, I developed a salmon dish with a soy/sesame/ginger garlic sauce and a ginger butter sauce. I remember we were out of jasmine rice one day, so I used some Japanese somen noodles and shitake mushrooms, peppers, baby bok choy. I sautéed the veggies, added sesame oil, put the salmon on top with the sauces, and I have to say – if [celebrity chef] Tom Colicchio asked me to make my signature dish, that’s what I would make.
What are some
Helping my mother make stuffing on Thanksgiving. I could hardly chop parsley without thinking of her. She might get arrested nowadays, but back in the 50s, she gave me a stool to stand on and a sharp knife to chop parsley. Not a very good idea, mom! But it created a memory that I’ll never forget.
Also, getting my award for Best New Chef from Food and Wine – I was presented the award in Aspen by Julia Child. I cooked for her that night and that is an amazing memory. I also cooked dinner for Elvis in 1974 at the Sahara Tahoe. I was fielding room service orders, and Elvis ordered dinner.
I was working in San Francisco at a dinner for over 100 people. I had hired a new banquet chef, and in the first week, I asked him to cook the chicken. I didn’t check it – I don’t know why. But we started to dish it out, and probably 15 orders in, they began to come back. The chicken was still raw. So that one, I almost had a nervous breakdown.
What is one item you can’t live without in your kitchen?
Well, I hate to be cliché, but salt and freshly ground black pepper. It’s the most underrated spice there is! I carry a pepper grinder in my toolbox, and every time I can, I use it. A balsamic vinegar, or apple cider vinegar – the Bragg’s one you get from the store is so good. I love staple items.
What’s in store for the future?
We’re in the process of building a new restaurant on the corner of 56th St. and Lincoln, called Lincoln Tavern.
I want to make this resort the very best it can be. It’s not coming up with new dishes. It’s taking my experience and inspiring my staff to carry this on so when I fade off into the sunset, it’ll be as good as it can be and keep getting better.