If the people of Tucson ever saw fit to elect a local cuisine guru, it would almost certainly have to be Chef Janos Wilder.
Wilder has made a name for himself by using fresh, local ingredients to further the Southwest’s regional cuisine.
It’s an idea that he says he got from the French. Each morning during a stay in Bordeaux back in 1982, Wilder visited a French market to buy fresh foods that fishers and farmers had gathered just hours before.
“There, it was institutionalized,” Wilder said. “There was a recognition that the best things you can get are closest to you.”
These days, Wilder makes magic from prickly pear cacti, mesquite flour and seafood from the Sea of Cortez. He keeps close ties with the farmers who grow food for his restaurant — Janos — and he promotes local eating in the cooking classes he teaches and the books he writes.
“My mission is not to use only local food,” he said. “But part of my mission is to use as much as I can.”
Wilder got started on his locavore path in the late-1970s in a small town outside Boulder, Colo. He was working as chef at the historic Gold Hill Inn, which happened to be situated above roads so steep that nobody, he said, would deliver there.
It was Wilder’s job to hit the grocery stores, butcher shop and dairy early each morning to buy the ingredients for the day. It’s not surprising, he said, that he soon started looking around to see what the neighbors were growing.
“I really wanted to sleep in,” he said.
But if his local emphasis began as practicality rather than as a philosophical ideal, France changed that.
During his studies in Bordeaux with world-class chefs, Wilder gained an appreciation for the close relationships that farmers shared with chefs.
Once, he saw a gardener pull out a bag of the first tarragon of the season for a chef after carefully looking both ways. The farmer wanted it served at the chef’s restaurant.
“You could tell these were longstanding relationships,” Wilder said. “There was a sense of mutual pride and respect.”
When Wilder settled in Tucson to be near his wife’s family, he wanted to serve French food. But if the heart of French food is local eating, how do you manage that in a land of beans and chilies?
It didn’t take long for Wilder to discover a treasure trove of ingredients in the Southwest. The local organization Native Seeds SEARCH sparked his imagination, too, with its devotion to preserving native seeds.
Wilder decided to stay close to the soul of French cooking at his restaurant but start working with the flavor profiles from the region.
“We started to explore how these ingredients were traditionally cooked, and then we began to identify the cultural culinary icons of the regions, like chile rellenos, and began to reverse-engineer those dishes. We wanted to find out what their ideal types were.”
A chile relleno, for example, would not be too hot to overwhelm the flavors. The skin would be soft, but the chile would be firm. And a perfect specimen, Wilder thought, would probably have a mouthwatering stuffing.
“Our first relleno was lobster and brie,” Wilder said.
As Wilder worked with traditional foods, he discovered that he had a place in a long tradition of Southwestern culinary tradition.
“You know that as chefs — that you don’t invent anything,” he said. “But I hadn’t thought about that in terms of where I live.”
These days, the chef taps his local food sources to create gourmet dishes such as Churro Lamb Barbacoa Tamalito with Prickly Pear Crema. It’s hard to be local sometimes, such as when monsoon rains flood a dirt farm road or grasshoppers wreak havoc on organic crops.
“You’re much closer to nature, which is good and bad,” Wilder said. “We’ve worked for years to insulate ourselves from nature.”
But local food is extremely important to culture, Wilder said.
“When seed lines die, the cultural traditions with planting and harvesting die,” he said. “That’s a bit of us. There’s a real link from the seed to people.”
Besides, he said, local food just tastes best.