A good executive chef is part creative genius, part stern task master, part school counselor and part savvy business person. While most executive chefs are not the Gordon Ramsay type, the job does require a certain attitude as well.
With his boyish looks and clean-cut appeal, Ryan Clark hardly fits that image. Yet Clark has been at the helm of the kitchen at the historic Lodge on the Desert for three years, overseeing a staff of about 25 people and serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. He also plays a role in the front of the house and at the bar, and creates daily menus using local ingredients.
What's most remarkable: Clark is only 27 years old.
Clark got his first taste of culinary life in the kitchens of Alan Zeman. Many people remember Zeman from his popular restaurant, Fuego, although he was executive chef at such places as the Tucson Country Club and the White Dove at the El Conquistador before that. Clark worked for Zeman while a student at Sabino High School, and into college. In Zeman's kitchen, he did a little bit of everything as he worked his way up the kitchen ladder.
Zeman describes what he sees in a prospective young chef. "They're into it. They take their time, and research it. They come in with a plan."
Of Clark, he says, "You always try to get people who have a passion for it, that you can develop. He was really good. He has a great talent."
Zeman notes with a laugh: "As a kid, he was kind of cocky." In a good way, he adds.
Clark was attending Pima Community College, where he played soccer, when he realized that what he really wanted to do was be a chef. For that, he needed more than the typical kitchen experience. It was Zeman who encouraged Clark to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Clark headed out to New York and graduated with honors, earning an associate's degree in the culinary arts. Unlike many of his classmates, who decided to work under big-name chefs in nearby New York City, Clark returned to Arizona, spending 18 weeks in a program headed by Beau MacMillan at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale.
He then returned home to Tucson, working at Canyon Ranch, and then as the sous chef at The Dish. He even ran his own private company.
It was then that Zeman again helped move Clark's career forward.
The Coastal Hotel Group, the company that manages the Lodge on the Desert, was looking for an executive chef. Yogi Hutsen, the company's president and CEO, had worked with Alan Zeman back at the El Conquistador, and he asked Zeman for some suggestions. Zeman knew Clark would be the perfect fit.
"I think he has a real talent for cooking," Zeman says about Clark. "He learns well. As a chef, he takes great pride in what he does."
The rest, as they say, is history.
In his short time at the Lodge, Clark has made a name for himself in numerous ways—including by becoming the local food-competition king. He won the 2009 and 2010 Tucson Meet Yourself Festival Professional Iron Chef contests, the 2011 Copper Chef competition, and both the 2011 and 2012 Tucson Iron Chef contests. At the first Tucson Taco Festival, he and his team won Best Beef Taco honors, as well as third place for seafood taco; finally, they were the reserve grand champions. Clark also won the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance's Salsa Challenge with his chilled-and-grilled salsa. His most recent win was at the Tucson Culinary Festival World Margarita Championship, where he took home the Judges' Choice with his pomegranate-infused margarita served in a jelly jar.
Clark starts his days around 10 a.m. "I come in, check with the chefs and see what they need. We like to make sure that everyone is comfortable when they get here. After that, we go into lunch service."
After a little bit of down time, the pace picks up again with meetings, shopping and paperwork. "We'll see what fish items we ordered for that day. We start to conceptualize an idea. I'll put together specials and daily soups—things we do daily—and that's when the rest of my kitchen crew comes in for the night. And then we'll go through dinner service."
Throw in the occasional wedding, banquet or meeting, and Clark manages to stay pretty busy. But the devil is in the details—and this is where Clark shines.
"The cool thing about my career, the way I look at it, is that I've been self-taught, for the most part. I haven't worked under any really big chefs. A lot of the culinary students who I was in school with worked under Alfred Portale or Mario Batali, and (the celebrity chefs) kind of formed (the students') style of cuisine. I kind of formed my own, in a sense, using the local ingredients here. Vibing off of different ingredients that are available has helped me create what we do here. I find inspiration in the local ingredients, for the most part."
Clark's dishes include a generous use of peppers. Clark works with local purveyors and farmers, so local proteins like pork, ostrich and game are often found on the menu. "Double Check Ranch, they come down weekly, straight from the ranch (in Winkelman). It's a great process. We use their ground beef for our hamburgers."
Clark is a big proponent of community supported agriculture programs (CSA), which support local farmers in a more direct and immediate way.
Fish, which is always on the menu, does travel a little farther to get to Lodge on the Desert, but arrives practically straight off the boat. With the salmon, for instance, the order goes into Skuna Bay Salmon, which then contacts the fish monger, who pulls the fish from the water; boxes it; signs his or her name; and ships it to Tucson. Two days later, it's on a plate. All fish is approved by Cleanfish.com and the Seafood Watch Program, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sustainable-fish effort.
If all that isn't enough, Clark plays a major role with Lodge on the Desert's bar, too. "I create drinks. But we have Steve Berger; he's a lifesaver—you can quote me on that. He came over from Janos. I have support in the front of the house. It's really nice to have somebody who knows what he's doing."
When Clark eats out, tacos are often what he craves. His casual faves include Boca Tacos and Tequila, and Chaco's Cafe, on the southeast side. For upscale dining, you can find him at The Abbey or Pasco Kitchen and Lounge. Interestingly enough, most of those places are also known for their use of local ingredients and creative takes on dining.
Clark adds, "I think one of the coolest things about our food at the Lodge is that we're very small, so we don't have mass production; we don't pump out 200 to 300 covers a night. So every single item that goes on your plate is made from scratch. It's very 'à la minute,' as they say. Made to the minute, or made to order."
Keep your eye on Ryan Clark, folks. He's going to help put Tucson on America's culinary map.