Sacha Levine has been part of the culinary world for more than a decade, working under various well-known chefs in the Valley before settling in at the newest Barter and Shake concept, Century Grand. Arcadia News checked in to see how this chef is growing in her latest position.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Chicago, and I lived in Michigan for a while, but I mostly grew up in a part of Arizona called Bullhead City. I went to grade school and high school there and moved to Phoenix right after I graduated.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
When I was in high school, I was into all kinds of extracurricular activities. I was into drama. But we also had an excellent culinary arts program that I started when I was a sophomore. I started competing in different competitions offered through Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), and I just did well. So as a teenager, I was at a crossroads – do I go to college for fine arts and do whatever with my life – but I ended up getting into culinary school and I said, “I guess this is what I’m doing now!”
Where did you go to culinary school?
I went to the Arizona Culinary Institute in 2002. I was in the second graduating class. The apprenticeship part is pretty short, like six or nine months, and then I did my internship at Atlas Bistro. I ended up staying there for almost three years, and by the time I left, I was the chef de cuisine. It was a cool experience, but I needed to grow because you can’t be a chef when you don’t know anything.
Who first taught you how to cook?
Well, you learn how to cook at home. My dad was a great cook and my mom cooked. We didn’t eat out a lot. In high school, I learned from the culinary arts program through C-CAP.
Where else have you worked?
I’ve worked at Atlas and Café del Sol. I also worked for a long time with Aaron May and Walter Sterling, who owned
Sol y Sombra in DC Ranch. I helped open Over Easy; I worked for Claudio Urciuoli at Montelucia; I was with Charleen Badman at FnB off and on; I worked at Rancho Pinot and I worked at Singh Farms. All of these experiences have shaped the way I cook. It makes you so much more well-rounded and versatile when you have an opportunity to see so many different styles and techniques.
Who was your favorite chef to work with?
Charleen Badman. When FnB first opened, it was very challenging. I would cry in my car after work; it was hard. But we built a friendship, and I’ve worked with her off and on, so I’d say Char.
What is the inspiration behind the dishes at Century Grand?
When we first opened, I did a lot of research on 1920s cuisine and that’s when America’s melting pot expanded to include more immigrants from Mexico and China. I was going in that direction with tea sandwiches and aspic (gelatin-based dishes) and a lot of funky aiolis and mayo. I’ve always been very locally and seasonally driven, so that’s a huge inspiration. Now we have our tiny window of spring, so we have artichokes, radishes and peas. I garden, too, and I mostly plant stuff that we can use as garnishes and herbs.
What is one thing that sets Century Grand apart from the competition?
There’s nothing else like it here. The cocktail program is insane. We do only natural wines; our wine program – there’s absolutely nothing like it in the world. I believe we have the largest selection of private-barrel [whiskey] picks in the nation.
What is your signature dish?
That’s hard because I’m always trying to be better and things are ever-evolving. I would say some of the fan favorites here are the avocado toast – tomato water as a gel, pretty garnishes, avocado, and we make a tomato air (like a foam) – that’s a showstopper. We also do a braised beef cheek Wellington. For me, just using local, seasonal produce – that’s my jam.
What is your go-to comfort food?
Tacos. There’s this place by the 51, by a liquor store. They have awesome salsa. Four out of seven nights at home, I’m eating tacos.
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
It’s not the cooking; it’s not the ordering or making the food. It’s managing personalities and managing people. Especially in the kitchen, it’s a motley crew.
What is the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook?
At Montelucia, Claudio is an old-school chef. He’s like, “These people are here from Italy, and they want you to make a perfect al dente pasta,” while he’s staring at me from across the line. Also, making risotto to order. Or making paella and running around, not knowing that was the special of the evening, and there were only two of us on the line. There were a lot of hard nights at Montelucia.
What inspires you?
It’s hard not to be inspired because of social media. There’s this constant influx of amazing dishes, amazing ingredients and amazing chefs. I’m constantly inspired by the things I read and hear. I’m also inspired by other local chefs and what they’re doing. I’m inspired when I get awesome seasonal produce. There’s inspiration everywhere.
What is one item you can’t live without in your kitchen?
I use a lot of fennel pollen and fennel seed. I’m all about any anise-flavor or shaved fennel. I’m like, “What does this need? Fennel?”
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m at work, mostly. I’m here from 10 to 10, six days a week. I run errands; I hang out. I garden, I read cookbooks.
What advice has stayed with you throughout the years?
I don’t remember who said it, but he said something to me like, “You’re carrying around a backpack of knowledge, and you keep adding to it with your experiences in kitchens,” and I think the most beneficial part of my career was working with so many different people and always continuing to learn, to grow and to have humility in that process.