3433 N. 56th St., Phoenix • vecinaphx.com
It’s been a tough few years, but not even a pandemic can slow down the popularity of Vecina, a small-but-mighty eatery located on 56th St. and Indian School Road. With a spectacular view of Camelback and a fun mixture of Mexican-American fusion cuisine, Chef James Fox faced hardships head-on and shows no signs of stopping. Arcadia News caught up with our neighbor to learn where and how he got started.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
When I graduated high school, I was either going to go to college and play football or go to culinary school – I chose culinary school. Owning a restaurant wasn’t really in my mind at that point. After culinary school, I worked at the Hyatt in downtown Phoenix and then worked for Matt Carter at Zinc Bistro.
In my mid-20s, I had a step-by-step plan of progression. I wanted to be a sous chef by this age, an executive chef at this age, work at a restaurant as an executive chef and have my own menu, you know? In 2012, I helped open a restaurant called Milagro Grill on 44th St. and Indian School with the Macayo family, and that was the first place I’d opened as an exec with my own dishes.
Honestly, I just love food. During football season, I would eat a lot and didn’t want to spend a ton of money on food, so I would make big meals for friends, players and girlfriends later on. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I took every cooking class I could at my high school.
Are any of your family members into cooking?
Both of my grandmothers cooked. They were both in Kansas, and I know my great-grandmother cooked a ton of pies and was really into baking. My granny would make fried chicken and pork cutlets a lot. Oh, and this chocolate sheet cake that I still to this day make and love very much.
In terms of becoming a chef, I just think it was me wanting to try different things. In high school, my friend took me to this place called Ramiro’s [in North Phoenix by Paradise Valley High] and had me try a carne asada burrito, and it was so good – I was like, “why haven’t I ever tried this?”
My dad would cook pork green chili sometimes and normal, easy things. I guess I was just looking for something different.
What was your experience at culinary school like?
I went to Scottsdale Culinary Institute. I was very young and just having fun and learning. Honestly, everything about it was fun. I loved all the cooking – I wasn’t too into the purchasing or stuff like that – I wanted to learn the basics and learn about all the different foods of the world. Catering was fun, and “International” was a really cool class, too. I graduated in 2004.
Was your first job in the restaurant industry?
My very first job was at Peter Piper Pizza. I walked in at 15 and asked if they needed help, and the guy said, “Yep, you can start tonight.” So I started that night as a pizza cutter, literally cutting pizzas for like, $5.50 an hour.
Have you worked with many different cuisines?
I cooked French with Matt Carter at Zinc; I’ve cooked barbecue; Mexican and Thai food have been a huge influence in my cooking. I love the flavors of Mexico and Thailand; southeast Asian flavors are some of my favorites for sure.
What’s the toughest part about owning a business?
I would say staffing – especially right now. And consistency, and I think that’s the same with being a chef. It goes hand in hand. It is something every chef/business owner strives for because if you’re not consistent, what’s the point? You can come up with all these great dishes, but if you’re not consistent with them, what are you doing?
…the best part?
Well – it’s been a hard few years. Being a business owner is essentially being able to do what we want, what we think is right. We have our own vision and are able to execute that. Cooking and creativity, too. I love to cook, and as you progress in your culinary career, you don’t do it as much, but when you are able to, it’s really fun. When you’re set up, you’re able to execute things – on the line and at home – it’s what I love to do. It’s my passion.
We went to upstate New York for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and I cooked for the family a few times, and they’re like, “you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to,” and I kept telling them, “no, I want to, I love to!” I enjoy it so much, and making people happy is what hospitality is all about.
What does a day in the life of Chef Fox look like?
I’m all over the board. I’m here five days a week. We have a 14-month-old, so my wife and I get up with her and make breakfast – as fast as possible [laughs]. Feeding her can be a challenge. She loves good food, but it’s on her time and when she chooses to love it! We get here between 10 and 12 p.m. and prep with the guys, make sure everything’s set up for service. I get home anywhere between 9 and 11 o’clock.
Explain the cuisine at Vecina.
Our tagline is “Modern American, Latin-Inspired.” Essentially what we wanted to do was keep the menu broad. We didn’t want to pigeon-hole it with people thinking, “these tacos should be coming with rice and beans” or “why don’t you have a fried-fish taco on the menu?”
With the limited space we have in the kitchen and the volume that we do, and wanting to execute the menu consistently, some of those things wouldn’t work, and we don’t necessarily want that style at Vecina. I wanted something different. Each dish is unique. We use flavors from Thailand, like, we have Thai basil. We use mint and cilantro as a salad on our salmon taco with green peppercorn. It’s whatever we want to do, but we make sure to execute each item at the best that ingredient can be.
The most popular item on the menu is the Salmon tacos, by far.
What about drinks?
We are in the process of coming up with seasonal drink menus. There are really only three seasons in Arizona, right? Summer, fall-winter and spring, so that’s the plan as far as cocktails go. It’s a work in progress!
What’s the most unique ingredient you’ve cooked with?
I feel like nothing’s weird nowadays – everything is out in the world! Squid ink, maybe? I thought, “it’s not going to taste like anything. It’s just a black liquid,” but it is a super salty, intense flavor.
What’s your favorite thing to cook?
It really depends on the day. I have one meal that I cook for my wife and me that’s like my go-to. It’s one we just really love: dry-aged beef, or the highest quality beef I can find, on a charcoal grill with grilled broccoli or gai lan broccoli tossed with a fish-sauce vinaigrette and cauliflower with tahini sauce.
What’s the process for creating new dishes?
If I want to put something on the menu – like, let’s say it’s octopus – my team and I try to think about how we can execute it at the highest level possible, with consistency. We try to stay in our lane as far as flavors and our type of cuisine at Vecina.
When you’re not working, what do you do to relax?
Hang out with my wife and daughter. Go to other restaurants – we’re trying to make Sunday nights our date nights. We try to experience a new restaurant, go out, have fun, you know?
What’s next for Chef Fox?
I worked with a group out of Oklahoma City finishing a menu for them for a restaurant there called Culprits. I’m assisting them with another restaurant that’ll open in October. Around here, we are also currently looking – we’ve got a couple of spaces in mind – to keep the ball rolling. I think there are things in our wheelhouse that we can execute really well that Phoenix may be lacking, so we’ll see!