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The road to St. Francis…

February 8, 2012

I have written before of my foodie crush on St. Francis.  I love their wonderfully unabashed comfort foods that melt in your mouth without feeling like they are traveling straight to your hips.  I have obsessed about their roasted chicken, their flatbreads, most recently their butternut squash puree with currants, cauliflower and pine nuts.  I adore the cool kids table vibe in their dining room with open kitchen and wood-fired oven, and their indoor/outdoor bar with fireplace and the upstairs loft.  Their menu is filled with fresh, seasonal, yummy dishes, and yet their price points don’t come with sticker shock.  They just seem to have the whole package.

So I decided to ask how that came to be.

You don’t get to be that effortlessly spot on, without some serious work going on behind the scenes.  If you have ever sat at their kitchen bar, you know that there is some real hustle going on in that kitchen.

Lucky for me, I got to sit with Chef Aaron Chamberlin and pick his brain for a bit.  He is exactly what you would think the owner/executive chef/manager behind St. Francis would be like… energetic, forward-thinking, friendly, cool.

Very cool.

Aaron has one of those coveted, hard-earned chef resumes that had him bouncing from the top kitchens in New York to those in San Francisco.  Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges… he worked for them.  He did the crazy hours all night, butchering meat, mastering sauces, perfecting the impossible, learning the ins-and-outs of fine dining.  It became engrained in him, “How do I do this better?  How do I make this perfect?”

But he knew that there was something more that he needed to learn.  So he came home to Arizona and spent six years at Le Grande Orange learning the business part of the restaurant business.  He wanted to learn what it takes to have a neighborhood restaurant, a place that became part of the landscape that locals considered a second home, while learning the balance of serving good food that is also affordable.  And once he felt like he was there, he wanted a neighborhood to match his vision.

Enter St. Francis.

When Aaron decided to make the leap to create his own neighborhood spot, he again did his homework.  He liked that Central and Camelback has a dense creative and intellectual population with architects, designers, professors, artists and writers all living, working and communing in that area.  He wanted a place where they would feel welcome and comfortable, where they could stop for a business lunch, or come in later with their kids before a school recital for an early dinner, or visit on the weekends when out entertaining friends.  He saw St. Francis as a place for them to gather, to feel comfortable, to find the familiar.

In the months of construction before he opened the doors to St. Francis, Aaron studied his new community.  He visited every eatery in all directions of St. Francis to see what was already available and what was missing.  He studied menus, prices, and ambiance.  He also went through the surrounding residential areas and introduced himself and talked about St. Francis.  But more importantly, he listened.  He wanted to know what his neighbors wanted in a restaurant, what would they like to see on the menu.  He wanted the food to be for them.

It is because of this feedback that St. Francis has a hamburger on the menu.  This wasn’t something that was originally going to be part of their offering, but Aaron heard time and again that his new neighbors wanted a good, solid hamburger.  So he gave it to them.  But not first without bringing his own creativity to it.  He played with the idea of a French Onion Soup version.  Because didn’t everyone’s Mom serve that French Onion dip at some point or another in their childhood?  Mine did.  Those years of toiling in the finest kitchens pushed him to make it better.  He played with adding shallots and creme fraiche.   He played with it until it became his, and then it became the neighborhood’s.  It is an item, he says, that will always be on the St. Francis menu.  The neighborhood asked for it in the beginning, and now they order it daily.

This neighborhood research also led to a pork chop landing a spot on their menu.  One gentleman Aaron talked to said that he couldn’t find a good pork chop when he ate out.  Didn’t everyone’s Mom make one of those too?  Mine did.  So did Aaron’s.  He says that the pork chop also is a hit with his customers.  He doesn’t like the title of a “signature dish”, but if he were to call one that, the pork chop might be it.  There are a few items on the menu like that.  Mainstays that the neighbors like and he wants them to feel like they can walk in and find a dish they love.  But he is also changing out some dishes as the seasons shift, because he wants his neighbors to enjoy what is fresh and in season too.  There may be something new to love coming out of the ground.

St. Francis is about being local in all regards.  Aaron says that good dining has always been about using as much local, seasonal produce and products as possible.  It is only recently that local and seasonal have become trendy, but he doesn’t see this as a trend for St. Francis, he sees this as a course of business.  He wants to create food that is nourishing and familiar, while feeling healthy and light.  He wants his customers to leave feeling happy, not heavy.  This push to make things better within Aaron also applies to his wanting his customers to leave feeling better.

Aaron seems to approach managing his kitchen staff in the same regard.  He wants this chefs and cooks to feel empowered and to bring their own ideas and recipes into the kitchen.  In his philosophy, if he gives them the best produce and products to play with, then they will be inspired to do their best with them.  Just like his customers, he wants his staff to feel like they are at their best when they are St. Francis.  He is also opening them up to the realities of owning a restaurant.  He wants them to see that everyone who walks through their doors is a customer, and whether they are ordering the evening special or off the kid’s menu, that they all deserve the same effort.  He wants his kitchen to be flexible to new ideas, specific customer diets, the changing seasons.

Aaron is clear, this isn’t about him, St. Francis is about the community.  His vision is for St. Francis to be a part of the neighborhood for a long time, and supporting the community of customers, farmers and food providers isn’t for show, it is for the long haul.

Told you he was cool.

St. Francis
111 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85021

P.S.  If you are in need of a new brunch spot, St. Francis has an amazing brunch on Sundays.  Just look…

I would have included a photo of the amazing iron skillet dark chocolate olive oil pancake that Aidan ordered, but he ate it before I could get a picture.  (But not before I could also steal a bite.)

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