Taste & Tradition
Chef Chrysa Robertson shares 25 years of dining distinction with a special meal that’s great for year-round celebrations.
By Christina Barrueta | Photography by Rick Gayle
Long before “farm-to-table” became a national catchphrase, Chef Chrysa Robertson was carving out her niche and building a restaurant based on this cornerstone philosophy. “Locally grown product and most anything in-season is fresher and tastes better,” she explains. Decades later, the beloved Valley restaurateur still adheres to this firmly entrenched tenet.
Robertson’s approach to food can be sampled at her distinguished Scottsdale restaurant, Rancho Pinot, which this month is celebrating its 25th anniversary, a substantial accomplishment in the dining world.
After spending time under the tutelage of renowned Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton of Campanile and James Beard Award-winning chef Hiro Sone at Napa Valley’s Terra restaurant, Robertson decided that it was time to return home to Arizona and follow her dream. In 1993, Rancho Pinot opened its doors. A true labor of love, it was born out of hard work and perseverance, long days, the help of family, maxing out credit cards and loans from supportive friends. “I had always worked in the food industry, and my ex-husband was in the wine side of it,” Robertson reminisces. “After working in California for a couple years, I was definitely more humbled—and scared. But we pushed through and did it. It remains the hardest thing I have ever done.”
In addition to gaining a devoted following of diners and receiving a multitude glowing reviews, Robertson has racked up numerous accolades, including being inducted as “Chef Extraordinaire” into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. She is also recognized for pioneering the first Phoenix chapter of the Slow Food movement 20 years ago after meeting Slow Food USA founder Patrick Martins while both were visiting Bra, Italy. A global organization, Slow Food strives to promote sustainable, local foods and food production. “Patrick was just then planning to expand the group’s message to the United States and asked if I was interested in starting a chapter—a “convivium” as they call it—in Arizona,” says Robertson. “I was very excited about that prospect.”
Supporting the community and sourcing local has always been important to the talented chef, along with the relationships she has nurtured. “When I started 25 years ago, there were no farmers markets that I recall,” she emphasizes. “I used to meet the owner of Blue Sky Farms in the parking lot of the Gentle Strength Co-op in Tempe to pick up produce. Now, I have many friends in the local farming community, and I love to visit with them at the markets.”
Homegrown meats, produce and herbs grace Robertson’s menu, which is refined yet rustic. And her restaurant was designed to exude the warm and comfortable atmosphere of her own home. “Rancho is a very personal expression of who I am,” she explains. “I want to create an experience that I myself would enjoy—comfortable, unpretentious, civilized.”
It’s in this setting that the chef works her magic, starting with dishes that are chock-full of local ingredients. “I’m a huge fan of salads. You will always find some version of a salad with cheese, fruits or vegetables, and nuts or seeds on my menu. It’s my favorite thing to eat,” she says.
For her squash and arugula salad, wedges of butternut squash first bathe in a marinade of honey and red wine vinegar scented with rosemary and garlic before being grilled over hot coals. Textures and flavors are added with peppery arugula, shavings of aged ricotta cheese, tart pops of pomegranate seeds and a shower of pepitas, a type of shelled pumpkin seed. “I’m a big fan of contrast in my cooking—crunchy, salty, tangy,” Robertson notes.
Her grilled flat iron steak likewise gains depth of flavor from balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and garlic, as well as an accompaniment of bright and herbaceous chimichurri, a versatile ingredient in the kitchen that Robertson suggests is also nice with chicken and fish or slathered on bread. She recommends that this flavorful cut of beef is best imbued with the smoky char of burning hardwood. “I love cooking with charcoal or wood. I have a custom-made grill where we burn mesquite charcoal. To me, nothing beats the taste of live fire,” she exclaims. “It may seem easier to just flip on the gas grill, but the char and flavor are incomparable. It takes practice and patience to master fire, but it’s so worth it in my opinion.”
According to Robertson, both dishes, whether paired together or presented separately, are simple and delicious choices to create when entertaining guests. “The salad is easy to assemble at the last minute and is even better when served at room temperature. The chimichurri can be made ahead of time, and I like that the steaks can be grilled to different temperatures to accommodate varying tastes,” she notes. “They’re great for outdoor dinners when you have family and guests around during the holidays. We are lucky to have grilling weather almost year-round.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Robertson, who is currently working on a cookbook, attributes her continued success—like her food and her restaurant—to her work ethic, loyal customers and authenticity. “For me, nothing is more important than being true to oneself,” she says. “Be unusual. Be unique. It is never easy but, for me, the reward is in doing what I set out to accomplish. I still look out on my dining room and am amazed that it really is mine, that I actually did this. It’s so fulfilling to see all those happy guests.”
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