Jimmy Belden loves this time of year.
And why not? Asparagus is in season.
“Asparagus is one of my favorite things,” says Belden, the executive chef at Tohono Chul Garden Bistro.
“I treat it like candy when I eat it. It has so many good qualities.”
He goes for the thin ones when he wants more flavor, the thicker stalks if he’s looking for crunch.
And one of those qualities he especially likes this time of year: The price drops dramatically.
Price is one of the things Belden keeps an eye on — as executive chef, he has a budget to manage.
But Belden keeps an even more diligent eye on the food that leaves the kitchen at the Garden Bistro and where it comes from.
“I like to keep regional, local,” he says.
“I try to find all my products locally. It pops when you tell people you got your tomatoes or pistachios from local sources. We grow our own herbs here (at Tohono Chul), our own squashes. We grow tomatoes, our own cilantro — so many great things that we have here; it’s very inspiring.”
Belden, 32, likes being inspired. It’s what kept him on the culinary path.
About 12 years ago, he was doing retail work, which didn’t pay particularly well, nor was it what one might call inspiring.
“A friend called me up to see if I wanted a cooking job,” recalls Belden. “He told me the pay was better, so I checked it out.”
His first job was cooking for the boarders at Fenster School.
“Seeing that they really liked the food I served inspired me,” he says.
He worked his way up, and then left to cook at several local restaurants, working his way up at those places, too.
Maybe, he decided, he should go to culinary school. So he headed to Phoenix.
“I moved to Chandler and started working at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill,” he says. “I was so inspired by the chef there; he showed me so much — how to do inventory, train and manage people, how to find the best pricing, wine pairings, butchering. It was really a great opportunity and they ended up offering me a sous chef job.”
Real life was teaching him much more than he could learn in the classroom, he decided.
And what he learns, he gets to pass on.
“In all the places I’ve worked, I realized being a chef is about teaching,” he says.
“A chef is a teacher, showing others what you know. And you can learn so much when you work together; it’s a learning experience for everyone. One of the great things about being a chef is that you never know it all.”
Another great thing: He gets to experiment with asparagus.
Whether it’s a key ingredient in a quiche, a green added to risotto, or just thrown on the grill by its lonesome, Belden has found you almost can’t go wrong.
He even uses it as a garnish.
“Take the outer skin of the asparagus stem, shave it and chill it,” he says. “When it’s chilled, it curls. Then dust it with flour, dip it into buttermilk, and give it one last dusting with a spiced flour and throw it into the fryer until it’s crisp.”
While he deep fries his in canola oil, the concept works just as well in a frying pan with a bit of olive oil.
The treat, he says, “adds a texture to a dish like risotto.”
That’s what we call inspired.