Q&A with Eliot Wexler, Owner of Noca in Phoenix

IMG_0406 - 2008-12-05 at 21-22-30

1. When did you first realize that you wanted to open a restaurant and what was it that made you want to?

I have always been very passionate or obsessed (or just
hungry) about food. Growing up in Chicago allowed me to have exposure
to a bunch of different types of  restaurants from little hole in the
wall ethnic spots to fine dining restaurants. I also went to grade
school and high school with a bunch of the Levy kids and their family
owned a lot of great restaurants around town so going to the restaurant
openings and tastings was always fun.  Around ten years ago, one of my
childhood friends told me that he thought I should open a restaurant
and I told him that he was crazy but he thought I liked food and wine
so much that I should do it. The spark of wanting to open a restaurant
began at Binkley's Restaurant in Cave Creek, Arizona in 2005. I had
read that Chef Kevin Binkley had worked at the Inn at Little Washington
and the French Laundry so I knew that he had to have some serious chops
so I ventured to Cave Creek to check it out. After the second course of
a perfectly seared piece of foie gras, I asked if I could talk to the
chef about giving me a cooking lesson so I could see how he seared the
foie gras like that. So after the meal, Kevin came out and I asked him
if I could pay him for a lesson and he said that I did not have to pay
him and he told me to show up Friday at noon. I showed up at noon and
he handed me a blue apron and 5 lbs. of shrimp and told me to de-vein
them…I ended up staying for all of prep and thru service and I guess
it hooked me so I started coming to help in the kitchen everyday.

2.What was your original concept and how did it change over time, if it changed at all?

In the beginning of the journey, I wanted to open a fine
dining restaurant with Kevin in Phoenix or Scottsdale but we could not
find the right opportunity in town. A meal that I shared with you at
Chez Panisse after a succession of great meals in San Francisco and
Napa also sat in the back of mind. The simplicity of the preparations
and clarity of the flavors at Chez Panisse was in such a stark contrast
to the other meals that we enjoyed during that trip and that meal was
outstanding. I started to feel that something along those lines may
have a greater and longer lasting impression with the diners in Phoenix
than a fine dining tasting menu style restaurant.

3. How long has it been in the making?….probably since my first bite of food but I did not know it then

4. How did you go about finding investors (for the record, I am not one)? Have they changed over time? Have they evolved as the restaurant's concept evolved?

My friends knew how passionate I was about this project so when I
pitched it to them and conducted some tastings everything fell in order.

5. Can you describe some of the difficulties you had in opening the restaurant?

There are so many moving parts in opening a restaurant from
designers, contractors, permitting,…the important thing to do is stay
flexible because getting everyone on the same page at the same time is
a bit of an elusive contract. The reality is I had a great and honest
contractor, Greg Rowles, and without him I would have been sunk. We had
so many "a la minute" changes that he built it the restaurant without

6.What is your vision of what Noca will ultimately be like and how do you expect to get there?

My Chef Chris Curtiss and I share the same vision of
hospitality and cuisine which is the most important component of trying
to achieve success. We want to use great ingredients and present them
when we can in a whimsical manner that will hopefully be fun and most
importantly tasty to our diners and keep them coming back.

   7. How did you find your chef, Chris Curtiss?

I first met Chris while in Binkley's kitchen, he came in and "staged"
for a day when he first moved to Arizona. Fast forward two years while
I was putting my kitchen team together, I received a phone call from
Kevin telling me to go try the food of this chef in a small restaurant
in downtown Phoenix. The next day Geoff Reed, the Sous-Chef of Sea Saw,
handed me the resume of a chef and it was the same chef that Kevin told
me about. I looked at the resume and saw Fifth Floor, Charles Nob Hill
and Masa's and I wondered what he was doing at a small restaurant in
downtown Phoenix. At that point, I did not realize that he was the same
chef that I had met in Binkley's kitchen a few years before. I called
Chris up at 2:00 in the afternoon and told him that I was putting a
restaurant together and wanted him to prepare me a tasting menu that
night at 6:00, it was one of my best meals of 2007.

Chris  is so impeccably trained coming from San Fransisco… he
was Sous-Chef at the Fifth Floor while he was working there. He badly
wanted to work with Chef Ron Siegel so he would "stage" at Charles Nob
Hill with him. Ron called him when the Sous-Chef position opened and
Chris started working with him there and when Ron moved to Masa's,
Chris moved with him there as his Sous-Chef.

8. For whom is Noca designed?

We offer a few different looks so our hope is to get our
diner to come in for different experiences…our standard a la carte
menu can accommodate a full on no holds barred roll me out after a bunch
of courses meal to a quick bowl of hand-made pasta and a glass of wine
or a plate of crudo and some sake that can be had at the chef's counter
with no fuss and you can watch all the cooking right in front of
you…On Wednesday night's we offer a special in addition to the menu..noca Lobster
Roll- Maine Lobster, Celery Root, Fines Herbs tossed with Roasted
Garlic Aioli in a Herb Butter toasted Brioche Bun and served with Duck
Fat Fried French Fries. On Thursday's our special is the noca Kobe
Cheesesteak- American Kobe Ribeye, Caramelized Onion Jam, Roasted
Pepperonata, Creamy White Cheddar Sauce, toasted Brioche Bun served
with cooked to order Spicy Potato Chips. On Sundays, we offer the
Simple Supper which is a 3 course set menu with choice of entree for
$35 that the menu changes every week. With truffle season in full
swing, we have been having fun with white and black truffles and I
attached some dishes that we have been doing….I have been dying to
shave some white truffles into our Roasted Chestnut Soup with Foie Gras
Raviolini but I have not done it yet.(JMS: Perhaps you should have done it last week.)

2008_11_10_1 Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll

2008_11_10 Kobe Cheesesteak 

Kobe Cheesesteak

IMG_6936_1 taglialini with soft poached organic egg, brioche bread crumbs, parmesan reggiano, shaved white truffles

Taglialini with soft poached organic egg, brioche bread crumbs, parmesan reggiano, shaved white truffles

IMG_6939_1 taglialini with soft poached organic egg, brioche bread crumbs, parmesan reggiano, shaved white truffles

IMG_6944_1 Day Boat Scallops with Mushroom Risotto, Shaved White Truffles and Shallot Jus

Day Boat Scallops with Mushroom Risotto, Shaved White Truffles and Shallot Jus.

Food photos courtesy of Noca.

    9. Can you give a picture of your average day at Noca?

I come in at 10 or 11 pick up the bread on the way in
(hopefully I remember to grab it then)…scramble around for things we
need for that night's service and bring in lunch for the kitchen
crew…pay bills (I hate signing my name now)…meet my favorite wine
guys from Quench or Synergy for a tasting depending on what they are
bringing around…get the menus ready for service and change the wine
menu so I can make Frank crazy with adding a new wine…staff meal
4:45…staff meeting at 5:00 and game-time at 5:30…and service ends
when we are done serving and then Chris rips apart the kitchen every
night and cleans it….then orders for the next day…end of the night
meeting with the kitchen crew…shot of mezcal with Chris from Richard
Betts's new stuff made from wild agave, it is awesome-smokey
goodness as soon as McClendon's Blood Oranges come in we are going to
do a Blood Orange Margarita with it and call it the Vision-have enough
of them and you will start having them!

10. What would you change if anything?

Wake up earlier so I could spend more waking hours with my dogs and girlfriend

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3 Responses to Q&A with Eliot Wexler, Owner of Noca in Phoenix

  1. Justin Lee says:

    Great, thorough interview. I enjoyed reading it, and getting to know Eliot even more-so. Noca is a great addition to our local dining scene.
    Noca is very much in the city of Phoenix however. Not Scottsdale, as it says in your entry’s title. While it’s arguable that the city of Scottsdale may be a better known national destination for “haute cuisine” in many circles, being the large urban area that we are, there is still a definite distinction between the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale. I would hate for any non-locals to be confused.

  2. John Sconzo says:

    Thank you for your comments and your correction, Justin. I have changed the title here, but couldn’t bear to lose the alliteration in the original report :-). I’m surprised I wasn’t corrected sooner.

  3. John Sconzo says:

    Congratulations to Eliot Wexler and the staff at Noca, who just made it through into the semifinals for the James Beard Awards for Best New Restaurant 2008 in all of the United States!

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