Cooking his way up the ladder at Miraval

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z Cooking his way up the ladder at MiravalKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Justin Macy fooled his way into Miraval.

As a teen looking to earn money so he could pay for EMT courses, he called up the head chef of the exclusive resort and spa and asked for a job.

Macy figured he might have an in, since his mother worked there.

"I can do anything she can do," he brazenly said.

True, his mother did work in the Miraval Resort & Spa kitchen as a garde-manger, a cook who handles cold-food prep. And true, he had spent a fair amount of time there as a kid. What he failed to mention was that he preferred to hang out in the office. "I had no interest in cooking," he recalled.

Macy got the job. And he got punked. Regularly.

Once the longtime cooks realized his inexperience, they pulled all kinds of pranks. One doozy: They convinced Macy that the best way to clean mushrooms was running them through the dishwasher.

Not only did Macy stick it out, but the novice who spent several days cleaning and organizing the storeroom because he misunderstood what it meant to work pantry (he was supposed to be prepping the hot appetizer and salad stations) is now executive chef. He took over the post in September - 13 years after he started.

That's not a surprise to the chef who hired him.

"He was very eager to learn. He always asked for more," said Cary Neff, now vice president of culinary for Morrison Management Specialists, which provides food, nutrition and dining services to the health-care and senior-living industries.

During his reign, Neff was known for his motto, "Make it nice or you have to make it twice." Macy had a lot of do-overs.

"I'm hardheaded," said Macy, 30, who spent the first few years in the kitchen with a book of French cooking terms in his back pocket. "I wanted to prove I could do it."

So Macy discovered his culinary calling, but now he doesn't spend as much time in the kitchen as he'd like. He misses the fast pace, which he likens to an emergency room.

"I like the intensity of it," he said. "Sitting at my desk, signing cookbooks, that's not what I like."

As the resort's head chef, he juggles culinary duties, cooking classes and a Friday night chef's table program along with administrative duties.

He devoted a big chunk of time to Miraval's upcoming book releases, "Mindful Living" and "Sweet and Savory."

His is a pressure-cooker job, catering to celebrities and other high-profile guests at the top-rated far-northwest-side resort, an Oprah Winfrey favorite. Macy has had a hard time squeezing in days off since he took the helm. Good thing he can just look across the kitchen to see his wife.

Kim Macy, 28, is Miraval's pastry chef.

"If we didn't work together, we'd never see each other," Justin said.

The duo, who have a 7-year-old daughter, collaborate on menus that focus on Miraval's balanced-living philosophy, which means food that's low in calories, high in flavor. They take beloved, fat-filled classics and turn them into healthier eats.

"There's a lot of trial and error," said Kim, a Le Cordon Bleu grad who cops to a weakness for Hostess Sno Balls. Kim's signature treat: soy caramel swirl ice-cream balls, rolled in a praline topping and served with brandy caramel syrup. It mimics fried ice cream.

"Anybody can cook with butter and flour and cream and make it taste good," said Justin, who loves to prepare lamb. "You have to break that food down. I think that's a challenge. I like the fact that I can take a dish that's really unhealthy and make it healthy."

It's gratifying work since many people who come to Miraval are looking to improve their lifestyles or deal with dietary issues, said Justin, who describes his culinary style as eclectic. "I'll take Italian and Asian and try to push it together," he said.

That's definitely not how he ate as a kid.

Growing up in San Manuel, he spent much of his time with his grandparents, who lived a block away. His grandpa loved red meat, and his grandma specialized in hearty Texas fare. Sun tea was always in the fridge.

"I'm not gonna lie - I love ranch-style beans out of the can," said Justin, whose palate was limited to pizza and burgers when he started at Miraval. "It takes me back to my childhood."

"Anybody can cook with butter and flour and cream and make it taste good. You have to break that food down. I think that's a challenge. I like the fact that I can take a dish that's really unhealthy and make it healthy."

Justin Macy

executive chef,

Miraval Resort & Spa

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194.

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