SONOITA — The view from the wall of windows in Overland Trout’s dining room is spectacular.
An afternoon breeze crosses over the high desert and splashes against the tall grasslands to the north.
Every once in awhile, chef/owner Greg LaPrad crosses from the open kitchen into the dining room and sneaks out to the patio to talk to diners.
LaPrad is new to this scene. Until June, he was a city boy, plying his considerable culinary skills and much-celebrated farm-to-table philosophies to a decidedly citified crowd at Phoenix’s Quiessence Restaurant & Wine Bar at the Farm. And he was richly rewarded with reviews that proclaimed the 31-year-old chef just shy of being a genius.
When he announced in May that he was leaving Phoenix for tiny Sonoita — population 818 according to a footnote on LaPrad’s menu — Phoenix foodies were aghast.
Foodies in Southern Arizona, however, celebrated the arrival of a young chef with considerable culinary cred who was willing to throw his all into the emerging wine country from the former home of Karen’s Country Cafe.
On the eve of his grand opening on Oct. 26, LaPrad said he would take advantage of the Sonoita area’s bounty of meat and vegetables, from locally grown produce to grassland-fed beef from Sky Island Brand in McNeal. Seafood flown in from Guaymas, Sonora, would be a big part of the menu, including oysters, and bacon would have a starring role in a number of dispatches; overland trout, after all, is an old cowboy slang for bacon.
“We’re working on trying to define an Arizona borderlands cuisine,” he explained, and that definition didn’t include Mexican and Tex-Mex, he was quick to add.
“I’m trying to learn as much as possible of Sonoran food culture, borderland food culture and ranch food culture,” he said.
He also is incorporating wine culture into the mix, serving a handful of Sonoita and Arizona wines including vintages from Pillsbury, Dos Cabezas, Arizona Stronghold and Lawrence Dunham.
“There’s a feeling that we can create a lot of synergy between the restaurant and the wine industry to make it a destination,” LaPrad said, projecting that of the 150 labels he is serving, 30 are from Arizona winemakers. “I fully expect when our wine list launches it will be the largest selection of Arizona wines.”
“We want to work with all the wineries down here and do events. It’s our goal to promote the region and give people a reason to drive down,” he added.
Last weekend LaPrad hosted a wine release party for his neighbor Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, whose mother used to run Karen’s Country Cafe.
Callaghan is no stranger to LaPrad’s culinary daring. The chef hosted Callaghan and his wines at several Quiessence events. Callaghan views LaPrad’s restaurant and presence in wine country as a game-changer for Sonoita’s agritourism industry.
“He’s a draw unto himself. He brings with him quite a reputation,” Callaghan said. “There’s a synergy there that’s just obvious. There’s no question that people will be much more likely to come down to taste wine and have great food.”
Running a restaurant in Sonoita has its challenges, LaPrad said. He’s closer to the source of his food, but farther from vital services — including things as basic as washing uniforms and linens — that he took for granted in his eight years in Phoenix.
“We wash the linens at home,” LaPrad said, adding that he’s also quickly discovered just how much driving is involved in reaching his often far-flung farmers and ranchers.
But “I love the area out here. The local support has been incredible,” he said. “We are definitely in it to be committed to the area.”