Chef Danny Perez has been making quite a name for himself around Tucson for his skills in the kitchen.
As executive chef at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, Perez oversees the operations of multiple restaurants, including Primo, Signature Grill, Catalina Barbeque Co., Salud and Plunge Poolside Dining. With that much work to do, it would be crazy to say Chef Perez doesn’t have enough on his plate.
Well, it seems as though the responsibility of supervising the food service for an entire spa just isn’t enough for him. Perez recently added to his accolades with a win in the Tucson Iron Chef competition, further proving he has the chops to be a world-class cook.
Originally hailing from Mexico City, Perez recalls spending his early years with his family in his grandparents’ kitchen. At once, he remembered his grandfather’s busy work in the kitchen.
“The things that woke me up in the morning made me want to be with him, he would make fresh carrot juice every morning,” Perez said. “You would walk down in the kitchen every morning and there was cut strawberry, papaya and a glass of fresh carrot juice. That’s how we started our mornings.”
At 10 years old, he moved to Tucson with his family, and the love of cooking traveled with him. Perez graduated from Tucson High School in 1996, during which he spent his time working in various professional kitchens.
“Where I started working was at Café Melange a long, long time ago,” he said.
After washing dishes for a year, he eventually found himself working in the kitchen. By the time he graduated high school, he was in charge of the restaurant’s morning staff.
Perez moved on to the culinary program at Pima Community College before attending Scottsdale Culinary Institute, eventually graduating in 2001. While at the culinary institute, he was able to piece together his practical kitchen knowledge with the skills it would take to run a restaurant.
“It wasn’t anything that I wasn’t already doing, it was putting together why I was doing it,” Perez said. “The science and the history behind all of it helped put it together.”
After graduating, he plied his skills at multiple jobs before finally moving to the JW Marriott Starr Pass when the resort first opened its doors in 2005. Now in charge of the long, sprawling kitchens that wind around the resort, Perez has proven he has what it takes.
Iron Chef Tucson was the venue through which Perez could showcase his skills at the next level. The JW Marriott Starr Pass team, including Perez, Carlos Guerrero and Rod Ledesma, took on last year’s winner and reigning Iron Chef, John Hohn and his own crew from Gringo’s Grill and Cantina. The reigning champion was bested in a competition based on creating a variety of dishes with an emphasis on one mystery ingredient — bacon.
Though bacon can be utilized in a variety of ways, Perez was hoping for a different ingredient.
“I was hoping it would be something out of the box, something that would push us,” he said.
Other potential ingredients included chilies, eggplant, crab, white fish and chocolate. Despite being given a more common ingredient, the JW Marriot team was able to put together an impressive meal.
The winning spread included a bacon gelato float over Stella Artois Cider beer topped with shaved bacon fat caramel, a Southwestern style bacon carbonara, a kale salad with bacon dressing and a ginger marinated shrimp with apple bacon compote.
Perez and his team are looking forward to next year’s competition, when he will be able to prove himself a true champion and defend his title as Iron Chef Tucson.
Until then, there will be lot going on around the resort. The Signature Grill will be undergoing a complete remodel this summer.
“We’re looking for enhancements; we’re not going to change the cuisine,” Perez said. “We will still be incorporating the trio of cultures: the cowboy, Native American and Mexican infusion. It will be a nice, fresh, modern look.”
Chef Perez doesn’t solely focus on his own kitchen, though he works in the community to spread his knowledge and passion for food. As a member of the Pima Community College Culinary Board, Perez works with the college to develop their culinary program.
Perez also works with organizations like the Ronald McDonald House, community food banks and farmer’s markets to help supply food to those in need.
Even with all that work, Perez is all about promoting and improving Tucson’s culinary culture.
“To me it’s about what’s going on out there,” Perez said. “I can tell people who are visiting my resort that there isn’t just great food in the resort, there’s great food in the city. To me, that’s giving back.”