Chef Aaron Chamberlin is the mastermind behind two majorly instagrammed hotspot eateries, St. Francis, on Central and Camelback roads, and Phoenix Public Market in the heart of downtown Phoenix. If you follow any AZ influencers *cough cough What Lola Likes and New Darlings,* chances are you’ve seen these restaurants’ beautifully designed interiors and exteriors and of course, mouth watering dishes. After working at the best restaurants across the country, in cities like San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and Mexico City, he’s finally come back to call Arizona, home.
So what makes Phoenix the best place in the country to call home?
Being able to thrive and help the young city grow, he says. Places like New York and San Francisco are already fully developed. In Phoenix, Chamberlin can create the type of town he wants – where awesome places like St. Francis and Phoenix Public Market are just a light rail ride away. Oh, and by the way, Chamberlin says he and the other owners (his brother, wife and sister-in-law) are looking to expand. We don’t know what exactly they’ve got up their sleeves, but we’ll keep you updated.
Until then, we’re sharing our fabulous little chat with Chamberlin on cooking, culture and all things Phoenix.
How’d you become a chef?
What got me into cooking was that my grandfather was a chef. As a little boy, I grew up with my mother having photographs of my grandfather being a chef in her house, and there was one particular photograph that was in our kitchen that was of my grandfather all in their white jackets and tall hats, and I used to always think how proud they were. So that was one big influence. I also was a Boy Scout, and in Boy Scouts, you do a lot of outdoor cooking; that was very intriguing for me as well. With those two influences … I just knew I wanted to get a job at a restaurant, and to be honest, I’ve never done anything else.
Did you know your grandfather?
I didn’t. He actually passed when I was a very little boy. At St. Francis there’s a photograph right in the entryway of my grandfather and my grandmother because they were both in the restaurant business, and they were my biggest inspirations. I did know my grandmother. In fact, she was able to come to St. Francis when she was 94 years old, and then she passed. It was a really good accomplishment to have her come and see what I was doing and carrying on their legacy because my family has been in the restaurant business in one way or another since the 1930s. So it’s just kind of in my blood. As a little boy and still to this day, I love to cook.
Are you from Arizona?
No, we came here from the bay area in San Francisco in the late ‘80s. I moved here when I was in elementary school. I moved away after high school for 16 years, and I came back.
What brought you back?
Opportunity! I’ve lived in New York City. I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in Mexico City; I’ve lived in Boston, and I’ve lived in San Francisco. I traveled all over the place working in the best restaurants I possibly could work in, and I came back here one year, and I just realized there was this massive opportunity for the restaurant business, and so I decided to pack it up and come home.
What’s your process for coming up with the menu?
Well, 90 percent of the time, it starts with the ingredients. It starts with generally what’s in season and what I can find at the farmer’s market and what’s coming down the pipeline. Then, I go into what dishes are needed on my menu, what dishes I think that the consumer is going to want and enjoy, and I start working in that kind of direction, but we (have) ingredient-driven restaurants. We use what’s in season. We don’t want to use tomatoes in the winter when they’re bad.
Is everything local?
No … In fact, that would be impossible. We live in the desert. Where Arizona shines is in our vegetables. Farmers grow a lot of great vegetables. So that’s our focus – on the vegetables. I would say if you really, really get deep into the calculations, we probably have about 30 percent local, and we’re extremely high compared to a lot of people. We go to the farmer’s market; we work with 11 different farmers. We really, really strive to have the highest quality ingredients, but everything local, definitely not.
How would you describe the different tastes at St. Francis and Phoenix Public Market?
St. Francis is a higher end, full-service restaurant, and (it’s) very heavily designed. It’s a great place for dates; it’s a great place for celebrating. Our check average is higher… We have a great wine selection with the reserve list. Phoenix Public Market is much more casual. The café is much more about coming in and getting a quick bite to eat on your way home, or coming in for lunch or having a coffee meeting. That’s really kind of the difference. Phoenix Public Market is a much more casual environment, and the check average is a lot lower.
What’s your favorite menu item at each restaurant?
I love everything, and so it makes it really hard. At St. Francis, we have our Roasted Salmon Super Food dish, and I love it. It’s made with quinoa and sweet and spicy vinaigrette and radishes and it just really is a great dish. That’s one of my favorites over there. At the Phoenix Public Market, I love the Pork Chile Verde Pot Pie. We have a traditional pot pie but instead of serving it with turkey or beef, we serve it with a green chili stew, and I think it’s really unique, and really tasty.
What’s the crowd like at each restaurant? Are they different from each other?
Interestingly enough, we share a lot of customers. I think that at St. Francis, the one thing that’s different is that, fortunately and unfortunately, people do view it as a high-end restaurant. It’s really not. Our check average is actually lower than Flower Child across the street. But, the vibe is high end, and we have high quality ingredients and beverages. So, I think people use it for different reasons. I think (at) the cafe people are cruising through to grab a quick bite to eat. It’s common food done uncommonly well. The goal is to make food you can almost make at home but not. So, I think the biggest difference is the way people use it. People might come to St. Francis and celebrate and have a big bottle of wine, and they might go to the café (for a) much more casual environment.
What was St. Francis’ design inspired by?
St. Francis is an independent restaurant; it’s an independent building. It’s old red brick, and when I got the place, it made me feel like I was in a big city. It has two levels, which is very rare in Arizona. It made me feel like I was in between two high-rises in San Francisco. It was an urban vibe. We didn’t open our restaurant in the strip mall; we didn’t take the easy way out. It wasn’t a brand new building. We used an old office building, and it has a cool, old, urban, rustic and modern feel to it. Also, it was built in 1951, so it has a very mid-century modern feel and look.
Is there an unspoken dress code at St. Francis?
Actually no. Arizona’s a very casual place. I don’t even care if you wear shoes! It’s hot; people want to come in cruising with sandals. We never frown upon what people are wearing or what their dress code is. We welcome anyone.
When did you open each restaurant?
St. Francis – Seven years ago in 2009.
Phoenix Public Market – three years ago in 2013.
Where else do you eat around town?
I eat at very select places. I love to eat at Ocotillo; I love to eat at all of Chris Bianco’s restaurants. (Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco and the newest addition: Tratto) I love to go to Otro Cafe for Mexican food. Those are kind of my staples here in Phoenix.
What do you love about Phoenix?
When I came here, to be honest, I was very hesitant because I went to high school here and (when) I left, I said I was never coming back. But I also lived in all these (other) places, and what made me come back and what I love about it is the opportunity. It’s a very young city in a lot of ways. Downtown Phoenix has not even emerged yet, and I love that because I can be part of that, whereas in New York City or San Francisco, it’s already there. I love that I’m part of something and I’m creating jobs and I’m giving people opportunities or a place to nourish themselves and be part of the community. That’s what I love about it so much. I also live in between both restaurants. I can ride my bike to work, and my office is in my neighborhood. So I created this little village for myself. I decided I was going to create my own kind of city and that I would kind of do my own… There are a lot of things I love. I love Arizona, and I love Phoenix, and I’m really glad I’m here. I love that there’s just a lot of opportunity. We’ve seen a massive surge of all kinds of new things going on, and I just had to be a part of it.
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