Sitting down with Janos Wilder face to face is much like eating a jalapeno: Sweat appeared on my brow as I wondered whether my damn tape recorder was working. Then my heart began to race from the excitement of getting the chance to talk shop with a James Beard-award-winning chef.
Tucson Weekly: In preparation for this interview, I Googled "Janos Wilder" and came up with 673 mentions.
Janos Wilder: Really?
TW: Yeah, so let's go back to the early '80s, when Tucson was a smaller city, and most of us didn't live here yet.
JW: There was no Loews Ventana and no Sheraton (now Hilton) El Conquistador; there were no resorts on a large scale, but there was the Arizona Inn and the Doubletree Hotel. Even Sunrise Drive didn't exist yet.
Fine dining was limited to the formality of tuxedoed waiters at the Tack Room, the Westward Look's Gold Room and Charles. Around 1983, four restaurants opened at the same time that all had a significant impacts on fine dining without pretension: Katherine's created quite a stir with its modern interior, fabulous desserts and long lines waiting to get in. Jerome's peaked red-hot Cajun. Capriccio's became an Italian favorite. And Janos debuted. As the city grew, so did the demand for independent restaurants; customers benefit when competition breeds quality.
TW: You worked in restaurants to support yourself while attending college. You graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a political science degree, and you created a nightly changing menu foraged from local ingredients while a chef at a historic Colorado restaurant. Then you went to France, where dining and farming intrinsically entwine, and cooked with a two-star restaurant. What brought you to Tucson?
JW: My wife, Rebecca, her family lived in Nogales. We came back and fell in love with the mountains, the incredible scenery, and felt this was a good place to open a restaurant.
TW: How do you define Southwest cooking?
JW: First, let's backtrack. There's no such thing as Southwest cuisine. It's just an adjective or a part of the country--a geographical area. You have Mexican, Tex Mex and Sonoran food, like tacos and enchiladas, but that's not what I wanted to cook.
Before hiring staff, I advertised for gardeners and farmers. I was leaning toward French techniques using local ingredients. The larder of the Southwest is more than beans, squash, chiles, corn and cilantro. Native Seed/ Search preserves seeds that are native to the region, but go back 1,000 years. By researching and gaining new awareness, I started identifying the cultural culinary icons of the region, like chile rellenos and enchiladas, stripping them down to their purest form of fire-roasted chile, batter and sauce, then re-building with a twist of modern ingredients a la Janos.
TW: I have a burning question: Where did the name Janos come from?
JW: In 1975, I was working in a Colorado restaurant, and a Cherokee chef started calling me Janos, and it stuck. My real name is John Wilder.
TW: So you opened up downtown in the Stevens House on the Tucson Museum of Art property. What was it like to open your own restaurant?
JW: I was so naïve but incredibly sincere. I believe in cooking food that tastes good using the best ingredients. I didn't, and still don't, follow a formula. There's honesty about my food, and people like that. Every day, I give my best to customers and to my staff. It's always been a very personal experience for me.
TW: I heard great things about Wild Johnny's Wagon. What did I miss?
JW: (Grins.) Wild Johnny's Wagon was the most fun project that I ever did, and probably the craziest, too. I spent thousands of dollars renovating a catering wagon so we could be open for lunch, selling great, inexpensive food. It had an extremely ambitious menu, and (it) was difficult to execute, because we would serve 150-200 lunches in two hours; the staff worked really hard especially during the warmer months.
TW: In 1996, there was dissension from the former director of TMA, and you moved to the Westin La Paloma. Any regrets?
JW: That's old news. The Westin La Paloma has always been very supportive. We gutted the space and re-built from the ground up. The setting was too large solely for fine dining, so a year later, J-Bar came along, serving more casual food inspired by Sonoran grilling, but then I got carried away doing my own spin.
TW: What are your favorite restaurants?
JW: Let's just mention my favorite South Tucson restaurants: I love Taqueria Pico de Gallo, El Guero Canelo on South 12th Avenue past Irvington (Road), La Cazuelitas and Mariscos Chihuahua. Did you ever try their michilada? I've had it on the J-Bar menu, but hardly anyone will order it--a refreshing blend of Mexican beer, Clamato and lime juices, hot sauce and Worchester sauce over ice.
TW: So far, you're the only Tucson chef to win a James Beard award. How did that happen?
JW: Several years ago, a woman who sat on the board of the James Beard Foundation came for dinner and said I should go cook there. I was nominated for many years before I actually won in 2000 for Best Chef in the Southwest region. It's like the Oscars of the restaurant world to be recognized as one of the best.
TW: When did wine dinners become popular?
JW: About 15 years ago; we were the first restaurant to do them. Wine dinners have since waned in popularity. Here, we have food and wine pairings on our tasting menu every night.
TW: I notice you're involved with numerous charities. Why is it so important to give back to the community?
JW: I've been lucky enough to be in the position to make a difference in people's lives. That's my philosophy, and I'm going to expand my mission statement to reflect it. My favorite is Janos Southside, a taco lunch fund raiser for the Pueblo High School special education class. The event is personally gratifying, and the kids just love doing it.
TW: What advice do you have for culinary students?
JW: Get experience in the field first to know that you have the aptitude and dedication; be sure it's your passion. Learn how to handle a knife and the grill. Culinary school is very expensive. Still interested? Then only go if you plan to graduate first in your class.
TW: What's going to happen in the next 20 years?
JW: Tucson is growing fast. Marana will be huge, as will Vail. I wish for more infill and that Rio Nuevo becomes effective. I wonder if we have enough water to sustain the growth, especially without ruining the desert. I hope we don't lose our identity to become a homogenous city of strip malls and chains on every corner. I'd like to see more independent restaurants thrive.
TW: Do you have any departing comments?
JW: I'm not a trendy guy, and I don't follow popular culture. I have a good sense of what tastes good and what people like. My menu items show up all over town. They're doing yesterday's food, and I've already moved on.