Can Payton Curry make Caffe Boa 'the place to go'?

Caffe Boa

Payton Curry sits on the shady front patio at Caffe Boa and scans the scribble-riddled rough draft of his new Italian menu (see menu pdf) the Tempe restaurant will launch today.

The curly-haired chef (pictured above on left) is looking for a dish to emphasize his philosophy of what he calls “reinventing the classics.” He finally points to fettucine alfredo.

It’s not your typical fettucine alfredo. Curry’s version is made with pecorino fonduta, free-range chicken and broccoli rabe from the Valley’s Seacat Gardens.

“Is it fettucine alfredo? Hell yeah, it is,” he says. “Is it different than anyone else’s fettucine alfredo? Hell yeah, it is.”

Across the table, owner Jay Wisniewski smiles. It’s just the combination of creativity, enthusiasm and confidence he’s been looking for to take his well-regarded restaurant to the next level.

It’s something he’d thought about often as he and his wife dined at some of the top restaurants in the United States and Europe.

“I’d think, ‘This is what I want. This is why I’m in the business,” says Wisniewski (pictured above on right). “So you know what it should look like, and you think, ‘Do I have the tools to get there?’”

When he heard Curry had given his notice earlier this month at Digestif in Old Town Scottsdale, Wisniewski found the missing tool he was looking for.

Just 30 years old, Curry already has been tagged by some with the expectation of winning a future James Beard Best Chef award, the culinary world’s highest honor.

That’s probably to be expected of someone whose whirlwind culinary career took him from the rugby fields of Winona (Minn.) State University to the position of sous chef at famed Quince restaurant in San Francisco in less than a decade.

It was at Quince in 2007 that Scottsdale restaurateur Peter Kasperski (Cowboy Ciao, Sea Saw, Kazimierz) offered him the job of executive chef at Digestif, a hip California-Italian eatery he was planning in Old Town.

Making a splash in Scottsdale

Digestif opened in February 2008, and Curry quickly lived up to his reputation with handmade pastas, hand-pulled mozzarella and use of farm-fresh ingredients, many of which he purchased at the Old Town Farmers Market, where he’d become a fixture.

By July of this year, however, the economic recession was hammering Scottsdale’s fine-dining scene, and Digestif was forced to move across the street into the much-smaller space of Sea Saw, which had closed.

“We sat with Peter one day with all the staff,” Curry remembers. “He said, ‘Digestif will be closed, effective this Saturday.’ And I lost it. I moved here to open this restaurant. I got to order all the equipment. I got to design the kitchen.”

Caffe BoaDigestif’s stripped-down new digs accommodated only 35 diners. Still, that was too many for the greatly reduced staff of Curry, his sous chef Matt Smith and manager/hostess/server Shantal Abdo, Curry’s longtime girlfriend.

“Digestif just wasn’t the job I wanted to do,” says Abdo (pictured at left), whose own impressive resume includes a stint at San Francisco’s acclaimed Boulevard. “I was just doing way too many things and the service was seriously lacking.

“Yeah, it’s fun to have a schizophrenic menu where we change it every day and everything is crazy. But when the entire operation is schizophrenic, every single day we were in the weeds.”

In September, Abdo announced she would leave Digestif the week after the couple’s Oct. 11 wedding. In early October, Curry decided her last day also would be his last. (Kasperski subsequently decided to close Digestif and reopen in December with a new concept.)

‘Feels good to be ‘home’ now’

It didn’t take long for offers to begin pouring in for both Curry and Abdo, including one for what he characterized as “a lot of money” to open a restaurant and retail space in downtown Phoenix.

Many of his Valley followers were afraid the rising chef and his bride-to-be were headed back to the Bay Area, where Quince was planning a major expansion and contacted him.

But Curry, determined and defiant, had other thoughts.

“I’ve never one who’s given up on myself or my passion for this business,” he says. “Why would I give up now? Why would I just give up on Arizona and move back to San Francisco where it’s easy, where everyone knows bone marrow and charcuterie?”

So when Wisniewski offered him the challenge of taking Caffe Boa to a higher level, Curry saw it as a perfect fit for him.

“It feels good to be ‘home’ now,” he says. “I’m gonna run this place like I always wanted to run Digestif for Peter — doing 400 covers on a Friday but tasting every one of those dishes before it goes up.”

Change is nothing new for Caffe Boa, which Wisniewski opened in 1994 in a tiny space on the east side of Mill Avenue, serving inexpensive sandwiches and pasta dishes to ASU students and downtown workers.

In 2005, the closing of Mill Landing restaurant a couple blocks north on the other side of Mill allowed Caffe Boa to move and expand into the building it occupies today.

Ever striving to improve the restaurant, Wisniewski made a bold decision just over two years ago to change the menu to emphasize locally grown, organic and all-natural ingredients that were pricier.

Caffe Boa“We lost a lot of our clients,” he admits. “We alienated all of the students who looked at portion size. We were dead that whole year. Sales were down and I was like, ‘Wow, was this the right move?’

“But I said, ‘Yeah, it is. This tastes better than ever.’ Finally, after six month, eight months, we started gaining a whole new crowd that were serious regulars. But I knew it wasn’t all the way there.”

So Wisnieski, recognized as one of the Valley’s foremost wine experts, decided to hand over Caffe Boa’s kitchen to Curry. He then convinced the chef’s new bride to manage the restaurant.

“She’s got the tools more than we’ve ever had in the front of the house,” Wisniewski says. “And he’s got the tools more than I could ever get in the back of the house.”

Some changes now, more to come

In just two weeks, the Currys have revamped the menu — the chef says he’s changed 85 percent of it — streamlined procedures and retrained the staff, which now includes Curry’s Digestif sous Smith.

Despite the upgrade, Curry says Caffe Boa’s prices will remain in the same range — maybe even drop a little — thanks to a number of changes that have increased food quality and at the same time reduced costs.

“We’re now roasting whole birds,” he says, as an example. “We’re using the bones to make the stock that we’re using to pick up the pasta. We’re using the skin, getting it crispy, and sprinkling that over for garnish.”

More big changes are coming. A dining room wall will be opened and an eight-seat chef’s counter will be installed to give diners a front-row seat to the action in a new stainless-steel-sheathed kitchen.

And, in December, Wisniewski is opening a second Caffe Boa at Power and McDowell roads in east Mesa that will have an entirely different menu developed by Curry. (An earlier spinoff in Ahwatukee no longer is associated with the Tempe restaurant.)

Wizniewski and Curry also are talking about getting involved in downtown Tempe’s new farmers market, developing a tasting menu for the restaurant and offering classes, as well as other ideas.

The first task, though, is going to be introducing regular customers to the new chef and his philosophies.

“The biggest challenge for me is going to be getting people to trust me,” Curry says. “Being in a new area, getting them to accept a menu change — but also getting them to embrace why we’re making these changes.”

The reason is evident to Wisniewski.

“I go to New York all the time, and San Francisco,” he says. “I’m in Europe every summer. I know Arizona can get to that level. We’re not quite there, but I think we’re close.

“I think we can make this the place to go to when you visit Arizona.”

Caffe Boa, 398 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, is open for lunch and dinner daily and brunch Saturday and Sunday. (480) 968-9112 or cafeboa.com.

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6 Responses to Can Payton Curry make Caffe Boa 'the place to go'?

  1. We felt it necessary to comment as you mentioned in this article the Caffe Boa in Ahwatukee as a ‘spinoff’ which is inaccurate of course. The Ahwatukee Caffe Boa restaurant has been in business since 1995, in the same location since its inception, offering the locals in Ahwatukee a high end dining experience with a casual elegant feel. To truly experience the original Caffe Boa experience with all of your favorite dishes, come and check us out in Ahwatukee! http://www.caffeboa.com .

  2. David SB says:

    Great article, Jess. This really covers all my thoughts about Boa. I’ve been a loyal fan of the restaurant for 15 years — since its humble beginnings down the street. Other have been alienated by its more upscale digs the past few years, but I’ve continued to enjoy the restaurant. I’ve always wondered, though, if the transition to a more refined version of Boa was timed to coincide with luxury condos on Mill — the ones that are still unfinished. Fortunately, Curry’s got enough pull to draw people from all over town, even if Mill itself is still adrift.

    The new menu will definitely require some getting used to. I’ve been eating Boa’s rigatoni puttanesca for a decade and a half. It will be interesting to find a new favorite if it’s gone. I sampled Curry’s cooking only once — during opening night at Digestif’s small space. The meal was definitely chaotic and I thoroughly sympathize with Abdo’s position. The food itself was mostly excellent, although I still don’t get Curry’s celebrated mozzarella. I like mine firmer than what he served us that night. His crab-and-watermelon salad was sheer genius, though. In any case, I’m glad to see both the restaurant and the chef moving forward and hope to explore the new menu soon.

  3. Kittie says:

    I personally happen to feel that the NEW Caffe Boa is set up for failure. I am not arguing against the quality of the product, the atmosphere, the passion of the owner (Jay) and/or the creativity of the Executive Chef (Payton). I think all of these are on the highest levels in Arizona.

    Here is the sticking point… THE CLINCHER, IF YOU WILL!!!! Jay Wisniewski thinks he is a big fish in a small pond, when in all actuality… he is a small fish in a big pond.

    Let me elaborate. As he said in the article, he is set to open the new Mesa location very soon. He also travels a lot to NYC and SF, as he and his family spend their summers in Europe.

    Yet…. over the past many MANY years, he finds that paying his employees a secondary priority to his lavish lifestyle. ASK ANYONE WHO WORKS THERE! And now, Payton’s wife is assuming the responsibilities that the recently departed GM (who had worked their 13 years) had. These include lying, cheating, and stealing from his own staff.

    ASK ANYONE!!!!

    This willl end up a nightmare!!!! The menu can change as much as you like… but people do not!!!!

    Beyond that… Caffe Boa is still in Tempe. This menu is in the wrong place at the wrong time! Have you been to Tempe lately?!?!?!?!

  4. rxenergie says:

    I really miss the old, small Caffe Boa and it’s small romantic patio out back. So many good memories there!

  5. Jamie says:

    Caffe Boa has always been, and still is one of my favorite restaurants in Tempe. I am very excited to stop in and check out the newest fare! This is the first I have heard anyone complain about Jay and his wife, my run ins with them have always been pleasant, and everyone I know who has or does work there has never complained either…Disgruntled ex employee maybe? Anyway, I think Payton is going to be a great change, and am also interested to see how the new Mesa location works out.

  6. Adfoodextrem says:

    I agree with Kittie above, this new Cafe Boa is just not a very good idea, not workable in Tempe right now. Any place can get a Wine spectator award, they even gave a fake restaurant one once before, check it out. The owner of this place bounces checks to his staff(my friend can vouch for this, she never got paid 3 paychecks from him), and on and on.., He bounced Restaurant Depot a check last week, so they dont buy local produce and goods, etc. thats all B*&S*#. The new chef Curry will realize his error and move on, its only a matter of time. This place really is sad, its all a scam.

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