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.”
Digestif’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.
“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.