Consistency is the key to satisfaction for chef Tara Cragg.
For nine years, she has worked at Delectables on North Fourth Avenue, in large part because the owner of the popular lunch and dinner spot, Donna DiFiore, maintains a high standard, from the quality of the food to the cleanliness of the restaurant.
“Donna makes sure the restaurant stays a certain way, to her liking,” Cragg said. “Most of the employees have been there for years. Most of us have been there 7 years plus. It’s a sense of family. She has always had good management and she all the time tries to make things better and stay up-to-date with things and keep things consistent. ... We try new things, but it is always consistent.”
Cragg, a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, started as a line cook at Delectables in 2007. Over the years, she worked her way up, from prep cook to kitchen manager to her current position as head chef.
How did you get interested in cooking?
“I grew up in a big family — a big Mexican family — and my grandmother cooked, my dad cooked, my aunts and uncles cooked. Holidays were always a big thing. Family gatherings seemed to be based around the food. I worked in retail for a lot of years and I would watch Food Network.
“I would try things out on my own and one year I said, ‘I’m going to give this a shot. This is what I really think I want to do. This is what I’m passionate about. This is what I’m doing at home as a hobby, so why not give it a try.’
“So I went to school and I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved the atmosphere. I’m not a sitting-down type of person, so being a chef is awesome because ... I am constantly moving, stuff is constantly thrown at you and I love the fast-paced environment and I like the pressure sometimes.
“Everything is time sensitive. I feed off of that. I love the adrenaline. I think it is either for you or not for you. You either hate it or you love it. I like that my job is never boring and I appreciate that, for sure.”
What is the first thing you remember cooking on your own?
“Scrambled eggs. I grew up with just my father and my brother, so I was the only woman in the house and I always liked to eat. I’ve always loved food and my brother is the same. If we wanted dinner, we had to figure it out or my dad would show us how to do something and we would do it ourselves.
“Scrambled eggs was probably the first thing I cooked for myself. To this day I am very passionate about my scrambled eggs.
“I would watch my grandmother make tamales — green chili, red chili — tacos. As a kid, we always had a hand in. You weren’t just there to eat. You were there to help lend a hand. I never remember not knowing how to cook for myself and I try to teach my kids the same thing. You should at least know how to make a grilled cheese or spaghetti. You should always be able to feed yourself. My stepson is currently taking culinary class. He’s a senior (in high school) and it’s his second year. I say soak it up and you can use it later because you can do things other people won’t be able to do for themselves. I teach my husband to cook all the time. I’m a chef. I cook for a living. Sometimes the last thing you want to do when you come home is cook.”
What are your signature dishes or touches as a chef?
“Not really a signature dish. I would say maybe a style more than a signature. I’m very into clean, basic cooking. I was French-trained in school, so for me it was all about the basics. It’s all about mirepoix (pronounced meer-pwah) — celery, carrots and onions. It seems very simple, but it’s a basic fundamental to everything. Most sauces, most soups, most stocks start with a mirepoix, especially in French cooking. For me, it’s all about the basics and building on that with fresh herbs, using the best meat you can find or using a lower cut of meat and knowing how to cook it. ... If you have a nice piece of fish, I want you to taste that nice piece of fish. I don’t want to drown it in stuff. I want it to be the star.”
Do you have a favorite ingredient?
“Bacon. I love bacon. I am a huge fan of pork. Pork fat is good fat for me as far as flavor goes. Cooking in bacon grease, frying meats in it, stuffing with bacon, wrapping things with bacon, there’s so many things you can do with it. It’s fabulous. ... I love working with pork belly, for sure. At our last beer tasting I worked with pork belly and beer and bacon. It was good. Our pastry chef has done things with bacon. She did an Elvis tart that was peanut butter and chocolate with caramel, bacon and bananas. The bacon with the chocolate, it all worked.”
Do you have any suggestions for novice cooks?
“Be adventurous. Don’t be afraid to fail, you know. Try new things. Certain things are good to you when you eat them separately. Try putting them together. You never know what comes of it. Have some creativity when it comes to food. If you like oranges and you like bacon, put them together and try it. Always try new things. Take something you’re familiar with and add a few new ingredients and see what you come up with.”
Kim Matas is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com