To adapt a well-known saying, "Cook for a man, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to cook, and he can feed himself for a lifetime." Or, to parse it to modern Tucson terms, "Primavera Cooks!"
That's right, it's time for the Primavera Foundation's 12th annual summer dining event, which plays out at various top-notch Tucson restaurants over the next few months. As Primavera Cooks! chief cat-herder David Elliott puts it, "Make a donation to other groups and you get a tax deduction. Make one to us, and we also give you a fabulous five-course meal with free drinks!" You eat like a king, so that others may simply eat.
These days, I'm willing and able to throw down for a righteous feast, but once upon a time, I spent half a year squatting in a dilapidated farm shack with a variety of small, wild mammals. I ate giant remnant turnips and edible weeds from abandoned fields for lack of money to buy food or shelter. In the end, thanks to the kindness of family and friends, I grew out of it.
For many, such kindness is not forthcoming—but Primavera is. For 30 years, Primavera has been providing "pathways out of poverty" for people who need them the most. From emergency shelter and meals to job training, affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization, Primavera has empowered thousands of people to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.
I love the Primavera Cooks! concept, so when I needed a special gift for my partner, Louise, an apprentice chef spot in the kickoff dinner at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails was a perfect fit. We love Janos Wilder's food, and he loves Primavera—David told me that Janos has been doing Primavera Cooks! from the beginning.
Louise said that listening to Janos celebrate the flavors, colors and aromas of the food was priceless, beyond all the mini-lessons in supreming, chiffonading and culinary alchemy. As he described the menu to the crowd before dinner, it was clear that Janos has an infinite passion for food and its place and meaning in our lives.
And what a menu! The moment I walked in the front door, I was enticed by an alluring platter of hors d'oeuvres. Later, I learned that this was largely Louise's work—she had assembled the jerked pork arancini and chopped the radishes adorning the crostini into perfect little matchsticks with white stems and red tips. These savory little pillows of joy were accompanied by a pineapple-passion fruit martini with mint espuma, a bright green cloud of tingly foam floating on top.
This impressive start was followed by a pounded green papaya and mango salad and a concoction called "Spring Desert," a dish that was quintessential Janos—who is a huge proponent of local foods—with nopalitos and cholla buds scattered among the eclectic mix of ingredients. Louise told me that Janos, in discussing this dish in the kitchen the day before with all the quiet wisdom and reverence of a food Yoda, had mused, "You can close your eyes and tell exactly where this food comes from."
I intended to photograph every course, but some of them were down the hatch before I remembered to pull the trigger. Instead, I got lots of shots of Louise bustling about the kitchen with Janos peering over his glasses at his handful of apprentices or bending over a plate as they fine-tuned the precise arrangement of each colorful morsel.
By the time we got to the main course—flank steak in a piloncillo, red chile and coffee marinade served with mole verde, sautéed spaghetti squash, chilaquiles and a mezcal/mushroom sauce—the diners at my table were experiencing a full-blown foodgasm. With one bite of the steak, a friend exclaimed "Boy, am I glad I'm not a vegetarian anymore!"
Dessert was equally spectacular: Ibarra dark chocolate cake, served with an ancho chile caramel mousse and blood orange sauce, paired with a smoked horchata—the traditional Mexican rice drink infused with smoky mezcal. I half expected a beam of light to burst through the ceiling and levitate us all into culinary heaven.
If you want a piece of this action, you're too late for apprentice chef spots (which sold out almost immediately) and dinner spots for the Lodge on the Desert, but that will be followed by Feast, Acacia, Pastiche, Tavolino, and Le Rendez-vous. Check out the schedule at primaveracooks.org or call David Elliott at 308-3104. It will cost you $125, but if I can afford it, you probably can, too. You'll be doing a fine turn for our community, and I guarantee it will taste a lot better than turnips and weeds.