He grabbed Tucson by the horns with his oxtail sugo. Now everybody’s talking about Ryan Clark, the three-time winner of Iron Chef Tucson and rising culinary star.
As the executive chef at Agustín Kitchen inside the Mercado San Agustin, Clark, 29, brings the flavors of Southwestern cuisine onto the world stage. His recent book, “Modern Southwest Cooking,” meshes French and international technique with local ingredients to create innovative hybrids such as Bacon + Truffle + Mole Popcorn and hush puppies made with rattlesnake meat.
We sat down for a chat with the Tucson native, whose restaurant is at 100 S. Avenida del Convento.
Q: What do you find most exciting about Sonoran cuisine and where we live?
A: The vegetables that we have here. When you think about Southwestern cuisine, you think about chiles, dried corn, things like that, mesquite. You don’t think about the fact that we grow great lettuces here, we grow great herbs, amazing tomatoes, squash, everything that’s in season … to be able to see purple spinach come out of the ground. Different types of asparagus, heirloom squash. I think that’s pretty exciting.
Q: What’s one go-to spice that you always have in your cabinet?
A: I love annatto. It gives great color to sausages and spice blends. If you think of Spanish-style chorizo, it gives that crazy bright red oil color to the pan … you can get it at Native Seeds/SEARCH, or there’s a couple spice stores in town that have it. It’s slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg in it. I think that’s a really cool spice.
Q: Do you think Southwestern cuisine can be a little bit more spicy than other cuisines in the gourmet food world?
A: The thing is, you have to think about the region that people live in. In India, the food’s very spicy; in Jamaica, the food’s very spicy; in the Southwest and Louisiana and the Southeast, the food’s very spicy. It was created that way to cool people off. When your body becomes really hot when you eat spicy foods, you sweat and it cools your body down. But it’s really about balancing the flavors too. You want to balance that spicy with the sweet, a little bit of salty in there. Be able to round it out, that’s what makes it taste good.
Q: I’m on a hunt to try the chiltepín pepper …
A: “I have a chiltepín bush in my house. It’s probably my favorite bush to have around the house because when they come into season and they’re ripe and you dry ‘em out, you can use them in anything, just a little bit. It adds this amazing heat and has great flavor. You just crush them up and put them right in.”
Q: In your book, there are some advanced techniques, like sous vide and using a handheld smoker.
A: The tools that we use help create perfection. You can still make really great food without it but (with the right technique) you’re trapping all that flavor and you’re making a really moist, tender piece of meat or vegetable. It’s a cool way to cook. I use tea (in the smoker) to create a black tea or green tea smoke. You just put it in dry, you light (the smoker) and it has a little fan that pulls air through it, and it pulls the smoke right through it.
Q: Did you learn that technique from culinary school?
A: I learned that a little bit later … as a chef I come into work every day wanting to become better. When I go home every night, I’m reading books, I’m watching videos online, watching television shows, just to keep learning and progress. That’s kind of how I got into modern cooking: watching that stuff and becoming better each and every day.