As a very young child, Issa Moussa played on his family’s farm and was amazed at the colors that came from the ground.
“The sweet potatoes, the carrots, the radishes – I was fascinated by the colors,” recalled Moussa, executive chef at Skyline Country Club.
Moussa, who is celebrating 35 years at Skyline, is still enthralled by the colors as he drizzles raspberry sauce over pan-seared pork.
To the plate Moussa adds a gorgeous array of peppers, Brussels sprouts, carrots and watermelon beets. On the side are red potatoes carved to look like mushrooms and a whimsical purple “pear” he created from mashed purple sweet potatoes, with a clove on top for the stem.
“I am still fascinated with colors and texture and taste,” said Moussa, 62.
For 35 years, Moussa and his team of 19 have gotten to know the members of Skyline Country Club and their guests.
“It’s like a family. All you have to do is say a member’s name and we know what they like, what their kids like, their grandkids,” he said. “They know you and you know them.”
Moussa has trained countless young chefs in the kitchen at Skyline, 5200 N St. Andrews Drive. His influence doesn’t stop there, though. As a longtime board member of the Chef’s Association of Southern Arizona, Moussa trains students from the Art Institute of Tucson and Pima Community College, where he taught upper-division culinary courses. He also regularly hosts observers from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base kitchens and culinary arts teachers from local high schools.
“I learned from talented people, and I like to pass it on,” he said. “There is no such thing as a secret recipe. It’s important to pass the knowledge on to the younger generation. It’s a passion of mine, and the passion for cooking never gets old.”
Growing up Greek Orthodox in the Mediterranean region, Moussa helped his mother feed the homeless. He helped her cook for the local bishop when he was 11.
“It was a big deal to cook for the bishop,” he recalled.
He created spinach pies, stuffed grape leaves, meat pies and rice pudding. His family owned a restaurant on the Mediterranean Sea, and he was responsible for preparing fish that came straight from the water.
His aunt was the best cook, and he would ask what she did differently.
“She could never put her finger on it,” he said — but the young Moussa was determined to figure it out.
Moussa’s brothers immigrated to the U.S., landing in Tucson. Moussa followed as a young man in 1972.
Here he worked in restaurants, landing at the Doubletree Hotel, which had inspiring chefs. Thirty-five years ago, Skyline brought Doubletree’s executive chef and his staff to the club, and Moussa has never left.
Over the years he took courses at the Culinary Institute of America and was named executive chef at Skyline in 1985.
Refusing to be set in his ways, his dishes change with the times.
“It used to be simple food, international food,” Moussa said. “Our specialty now is a fine dining experience, but we still offer meat and potatoes, homestyle cooking. Meatloaf, lamb shank, biscuits and gravy.”
The kitchen is trained in dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan and vegetarian dishes.
“The trend now is more grains, more vegetables, wild rice, quinoa. We are creative. Anything you can think of, we do.”
Moussa and his team prepare dishes for club members as well as weddings, anniversaries and special events hosted by the public.
Among his specialties are ice sculptures, having made them for more than 35 years. He carves about 100 a year for parties at Skyline – everything from Santa in his sleigh to corporate logos, lovebirds and the Lombardi Trophy.
He spends hours in his 12-degree freezer, with jacket, gloves, a chainsaw and tools, creating the works of art.
After so many years, Moussa has discovered what made his aunt’s cooking the best.
“Food tastes exceptionally good because of a very well-balanced blend of saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness and pungent flavors,” he said.
Moussa, a married father of two — both of whom waited tables at Skyline — has mastered the art of flavor. He shares his tips and expertise with Skyline members in the neighborhood newsletter.
“I love what I do, and I am very committed,” he said. “Every day is a challenge. Every day is an exciting day.”