Podcast Episode 59

How To Create Unforgettable Food Memories – Executive Chef Lee Hillson

Lee Hillson | 45 Minutes | September 13, 2022


In today’s episode, we speak with Lee Hillson, the Executive Chef at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Arizona, a James Beard House featured chef and four-time nominee of Arizona’s Culinary Hall of Fame.

Chef Hillson has cooked for the likes of former president George W. Bush, Barbara Streisand, Princess Diana, Richard Branson, and Billy Joel. Some of his other accomplishments include: competing in Food Network’s Iron Chef America, running top-rated kitchens in some of Arizona’s most prestigious restaurants, including the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, and playing a major role in all seven restaurants at the famous Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale.

Listen as Lee talks about baking in extreme weather, respecting the origin of the food you prepare, and the lessons learned from crossing paths with legendary chefs like the Roux Brothers, Gordon Ramsey, and Marco Pierre White.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Chef Lee Hillson, executive chef at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Arizona. Chef Hillson is a James Beard House-featured chef and a four-time nominee of Arizona’s Culinary Hall of Fame. He’s run top-rated kitchens in some of Arizona’s most prestigious restaurants, including the Sheridan Grand at Wild Horse Pass Kai Restaurant, and all seven restaurants at the famous Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale.

Lee has cooked for the likes of President George W. Bush, Barbara Streisand, Princess Diana, Richard Branson and Billy Joel. He was also a competitor on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”

Join me today as I chat with Chef Lee about returning to the iconic T. Cook’s Restaurant, Arizona’s culinary scene, and the cultural influences that inspire his cuisine.

And there he is. How are you, Chef?

Lee Hillson: I’m good. How are you doing today?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m doing great. I’ve got to ask immediately: I thought you were in Arizona, but it’s looking like you’re somewhere in England. No?

Lee Hillson: No, I am in Arizona. This is actually at Ford Castle. It’s about 20 miles from where I was partially brought up in England. It was a castle that was built by William the Conqueror in 1068.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. 1068. Wow! We’re going to get to that in a minute. I would be remiss if I didn’t kick this off with a couple of personal questions.

Number One: It is August in Scottsdale, Arizona. How are you holding up?

Lee Hillson: Doing well. Staying inside most of the time.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Our good friend, Jon-Paul, used to tell me that sidewalks in Arizona were just garnish for the streets. No one actually ever used them.

Lee Hillson: They’re cooking utensils.

Kirk Bachmann: And the homeless people in Arizona actually ask for sunscreen versus money.

Lee Hillson: Pretty much.

Kirk Bachmann: I have to ask: How long have you known our friend, Jon-Paul Hutchins?

Lee Hillson: I’ve known JP for about 20 years now.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that something?

Lee Hillson: A long time.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you work with him a lot when he was running the culinary school and brought some of his students over?

Lee Hillson: I did. I used to use some of his students. It was kind of funny because if I would go to the school and go in some of the classes, I would see one or two of my kids who were still at school, and they wouldn’t be shaved. I had a very, very, very strict shaving policy. I would literally call them out in the middle of the class.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh no! Oh no! Gosh, I love that.

It’s all about relationships. We talked to Jon-Paul a few weeks ago. I think he was Episode 51 or something like that. He’s doing really, really well. Such an amazingly good person. I thanked him for the connection. I’m really looking forward to our chat today.

The only thing I’ve got in my office that comes close to where you’re proposing here before you is my man Marco Pierre White back there.

Stories of Marco Pierre White

Lee Hillson: That is an amazing picture, and I’ll tell you a little story about it. It was actually taken by Bob Carlos Clarke, who was the photographer for the book, “White [Heat].” And the reason I know that is, one, I have the book. One of my biggest regrets was never getting it signed. But I used to live with Gordon Ramsay, and he had a big picture of Mandy White signed by Bob, which was also taken by Bob. Mandy White was a model who was dating Bill Wyman at the time, I believe.

Kirk Bachmann: Rolling Stones. Yeah.

Lee Hillson: Whenever I see pictures of Marco, nine times out of ten they’re from, obviously, “White Heat,” and Bob took the photos.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I’ll tell you a story of this. Obviously, anyone in the culinary world has heard of or read or has celebrated Marco Pierre White. Several years ago, not quite a decade, seven or eight years ago, I was in Dublin with my wife. It was her birthday weekend. We’re walking down the street for no particular reason. I was literally telling her about Marco Pierre White. I was telling her about “White Heat” and how it influenced, and how young he was when he won his Michelin stars, but he gave them back. He did so many things that were just unheard of. “If you don’t enjoy my meal, kindly leave,” type of attitude.

We’re walking down the street, and I look across the street and I’m absolutely stunned. There is a restaurant called Marco Pierre White Steakhouse. It had just opened up in Dublin. So we pop over. They, of course, were packed that night. Didn’t have any room. We made reservations for the next night, surprised that we got in. He wasn’t there, but this is the menu. This is the actual menu. It’s his likeness on the outside, so I was sure to grab a few of those. It’s been framed in my office for years. I would say that 50 percent of the chefs that come on to chat with me have to say something about Marco Pierre White. I absolutely love it. I just love it.

Lee Hillson: It’s an amazing picture. It’s so funny because I remember when he used to phone up Gordon. If I answered the phone or something like that, and Gordon was out, he was so eloquent just when he talked. “So where do you work?”

“Oh, I work at Roux Patisserie.”

“Oh, you’re a Roux Boy. I can talk to you then.” You had to be in that clique with him to be able to talk to you back then. It was more of a joke.

The pastry chef at the Phoenician, Roy Pell, who’s actually a good friend of mine, he actually used to work with Marco at his restaurant then.

Gordon Ramsay’s Roommate

Kirk Bachmann: I just love the networking. Did you work with Gordon Ramsay or for Gordon Ramsay?

Lee Hillson: We were roommates.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s even better! That’s even better!

Lee Hillson: I did a stage over in France for three weeks. Me and Gordon were actually on the same stage. He flew out. We flew out together.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. He’s got this persona, but everyone you talk to that has done something with him – hung out with him, worked for him – just reminds us that he’s a sweetheart.

Lee Hillson: He was, believe it or not, one of the nicest people. My mum actually came up to London to visit one weekend. We’re chefs; we had no money. Generally, Steven had this two-bedroom flat. Him and Steven had one room, and then the other room was three sets of bunk beds. I worked at Roux Patisserie, so I would get home about one o’clock, two o’clock in the afternoon. I would go to bed soon after that as the other guys were leaving to work.

One weekend my mum came up, and she had bags of groceries. He was leaving, and he came out, took groceries from her, brought them upstairs. And he goes, “Just so you know, I’m going to sleep in the bunk room. I’ve changed my sheets. You can have the other room so you don’t have to deal with the other people.” He didn’t have to! It was his flat, for crying out loud! But it was just the guy he was. He was just a very nice guy.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love that story. Only you know that. Do you still stay in touch now and again?

Lee Hillson: I haven’t spoken to Gordon in, gosh, probably 30 years, 25 years, something like that. A long, long time.

Kirk Bachmann: This will ping you. You’ll reach out and say hello. “Hey, were your ears ringing today? We talked about you today.” I love it. I just love it.

We’re a fraternity, right, of chefs, of cooks. I absolutely adore stories like that.

Let’s talk about you, though. Born in London. When did you head to Australia?

Challenging Australian Humidity

Lee Hillson: I’ve actually been down there twice. There was a thing called the Ten Pound Pom in the ‘70s ad ‘80s. They wanted to get the economy boosting in Australia, so for ten pounds they would fly you to Australia, put you up, and help find you a job. Obviously, I flew out with my parents, because I was a kid at the time. We actually did that twice. We went to Western Australia. The first time was literally in the middle of the outback. They mined iron ore. The second time, we lived in a place called Dampier, which processed and shipped iron ore. The best way to describe it is it’s a cross between Phoenix and Sedona, but on the beach.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m in.

Lee Hillson: Be careful what you wish for. You talk about heat in Arizona? It’s the same heat, but with 100 percent humidity.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, tough.

Lee Hillson: As a kid, we had to swim in a 25 by 60 foot shark cage. You had blue-ringed octopus, stonefish, etc. But you’d still swim anyway because you were a kid. You didn’t care.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow.

Coming back to the humidity. I want to come back to Arizona. We get a little uptight here in Colorado when it approaches 90. Everybody starts panicking and heading to the mountains. Is there that big of a difference – I’m going to try to connect this to food – 120 degrees outside, no humidity. It’s an oven. It’s just hot. How do you have to pivot in the kitchen? Don’t say more AC. Because I imagine there’s a lot.

Lee Hillson: If you think about it, if you’re doing anything baking-wise or sugar-wise, if there’s humidity? Sugar is hygroscopic. It takes in moisture. If you’re doing sugar work, any kind like sugar blowing, it’s very hard. 100 degrees and humidity. If you’re baking, then obviously the flour, how the texture of the flour is is going to change due to the humidity. So you may set back a little of the liquid out when you’re cooking. There’s all these different things. There’s a lot of key factors.

Kirk Bachmann: There’s a learning curve, too, I’m sure, when folks come from different parts of the country. Same thing here with altitude, water boiling at a different temperature and all of that. One of the things that I discovered back in the day when I used to visit JP a lot was all the bars and the outdoor seating had these misters everywhere. It was the most beautiful thing in the world, right.

Lee Hillson: It’s just the best.

Kirk Bachmann: Just sit under the mister.

I think it’s somewhat of a cliché, but I’ve read about the Hillson Hotel. I’m thinking right now that everyone was at your house.

Wanting to be a Chef at Six

Lee Hillson: Pretty much. We were 10 ound Poms. Second time around we lived in this basement in Dampier. There was a lot of expatriates. A lot of them were either single men or single women living in the single men quarters. We were given a house because we were a family. Literally, every weekend, my parents proposed a barbecue or cook, and everyone would come over and taken in turns and get a plate. That’s really how I got into cooking.

There was one guy called Steve. I remember standing there watching him marinate steaks. He’d come over with these jumbo shrimp, and he’d be grilling those. My dad was making marmalade or ice cream. It was just a very communal thing. If you can imagine Thanksgiving with all your family, it was like that every weekend, but with workers.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love that. Give me the age at that time. How are old are you now?

Lee Hillson: I was probably about six or seven years old.

Kirk Bachmann: So very, very young. At this young age, did you think about being a cook, or you just really liked cooking?

Lee Hillson: I wanted to be a chef at that age.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I just love it.

Lee Hillson: I remember the first thing I ever made. I took flour and water, mixed it together and made a dough, put ketchup on it and some cheese. Made a pizza. Obviously, it was the best pizza my parents ever had in their life.

Kirk Bachmann: Of course.

Lee Hillson: That’s how I started. I just loved the whole thing. I was watching Steve and my dad and my mum, everybody cook. I just fell in love with it. It was what I wanted to do.

Working with the Roux Brothers

Kirk Bachmann: That’s such a common thread with chefs and cooks. They watch the grandparents. They cooked with their family. There was hospitality, the culture of hospitality. That’s just such a great story.

I’m not going to let you slip by here by calmly mentioning the Roux Brothers. These are the Roux Brothers! You mentioned Roux Patisserie. Was that part of Le Gavroche?

Lee Hillson: No. The Roux Brothers, they had about seven or eight places in London at one point. They had Le Gavroche, they had Gavvers. Obviously Waterside, Tartan. They had quite a few different places. I started with Gavroche for about a month. I worked at Roux Patisserie for about two years.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow!

Lee Hillson: I was very fortunate; one of the chef de parties was a guy called Erik Lanlard, who is probably one of the top pastry chefs in London, or in England now. He made the Queen Mother’s birthday cake at one time. He has a company called Cake Boy. He does a whole bunch of stuff for Richard Branson. I believe he does the desserts on Britannia. He was a phenomenal pastry chef, so working alongside him was just amazing.

Kirk Bachmann: I can’t wait for the documentary or the book to come out. You’re roommates with Gordon Ramsay. You’re hanging with Albert and Michel Roux. What was that like? Did you have the opportunity to engage with them quite a bit?

Lee Hillson: I remember when I handed him my notice. I went and saw Albert. It was financial; that was the reason I left, because the pay wasn’t great. I was paid in knowledge, and it was very expensive to work and live in London. So I went, back in the day, about 3000 pounds in debt working for them. I walked into Albert’s office and said, “Chef, I have to leave.” He was actually called Papa Roux. Everyone called him Papa. “I have to leave.”

“Why?”

“I can’t afford to work with you.” The first thing he does is put his hand in his pocket and pulls out a wad of money. “How much do you need? You can pay me back.”

“That doesn’t help me, because I still have to pay you back.” I ended up leaving. A super humble, nice guy.

Many, many years later I’m working here at T. Cook’s and Paul Xanthopoulos, who was our maître d’. Phenomenal guy. He comes running in the kitchen. He couldn’t pronounce his name. He says, “We have a chef. His name is Michael Rucks. He’s in the restaurant. We have to cook something nice.”

“Are you talking about Michel Roux?”

“Yes, Michael Rucks.”

I went out and saw Michel. “I don’t know if you remember, but I used to work for you and your brother at Roux Patisserie. I was with Eric Lanlard.” The executive chef, we used to call him Bulldog because he got like a bulldog if you did something wrong. All hell broke loose. “If you can, get in line, Bulldog’s here.”

So I said, “I worked with Bulldog.”

“Yeah. I remember the teams. I remember names, not faces.” I was blown away when he came in for dinner and he had no idea I was here. He just happened to be in town.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that something surreal?

Lee Hillson: It’s a small world.

Why Pastry?

Kirk Bachmann: So you worked at a pastry chef for over a decade. First and foremost, pastry. I’m really curious. The students and graduates and alumni that listen would be really interested in hearing this. Two part question. We’ll start with how did that experience – and I think you know my father is a master pastry chef, fourth generation. I certainly know how his background impacted my love for cooking and my goal to stay out of his way in the kitchen. How did that impact or inform your role later in life as an executive chef?

Lee Hillson: The main reason I wanted to be a pastry chef first was – and I did pastry for twelve years – is so that I had a good firm background knowledge rather than just going to school and having the essential knowledge. I got to know a little bit more and little bit deeper. Pastry chefs are very hard to source after, and they also like to keep their knowledge. They don’t want to share. They are just very skilled.

I could go in to a pastry chef and say, “Can we do this and do this?” To put it bluntly, I couldn’t be bull-shitted because I actually knew what could be done and what couldn’t be done. They knew I was able to stand my ground, and I knew what I was talking about.

That said, I’m no Roy Pell a the Phoenician anymore because I haven’t been in the pastry as long as him and things have changed. But I still have a very, very good understanding and background knowledge on different things, whether it is baking, doing entremets and things like that. Sugar. I still have a very good understanding.

The thing that was very important to me was wanting to know that I had a good foundation for pastry, and then go into a kitchen. It was easier back then to go through pastry than it is to go through kitchen to pastry.

Turning a Potato Behind my Back

Kirk Bachmann: That makes sense. So the second part of that question: how would you define your style of cooking today?

Lee Hillson: That’s a good question. I’m a lot calmer than I used to be if that makes any difference.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s interesting, and I appreciate that. When you take a look at someone’s resume and you look at where they’re cooking, you think about, “That must be Spanish-influenced, or that must be Mediterranean-influenced.” But I’m just really curious, with that depth and breadth of experience with the Roux Brothers, and even following Gordon Ramsay’s career, and as a pastry chef for as long. I’m really curious what you consider yourself.

Lee Hillson: I’d probably say I’m a little cross between classical French and more Mediterranean. We do cross the whole gamut because we do things here that may be a bit north African, Moroccan, Spanish, Italian. We’re kind of all over the Mediterranean board. Right now we’re adding a few more world influences. We’re actually a few more Japanese touches and things like that, playing around and experimenting, getting a little bit more global, if that makes sense.

Kirk Bachmann: Here’s why that’s such a great response, particularly for students. I promise the audience that I did not practice and pay you to say classical French. We try to emphasize with our students that if you know classical, the foundation of techniques is rooted in French cuisine. Really, I love it when chefs reference their classical French training, because all techniques come from that. Then you apply different ingredients – global ingredients – to your style of cooking.

Lee Hillson: Absolutely. I’m a firm believer that knife cuts. People will joke about fluting a mushroom or turning a potato, but they are so instrumental in getting the skills down. You may not use them, but when you can perfect them, then you’re respecting the ingredient. You’re respecting the food, and you’re honing your skills, which takes you to another level. If you can’t master those, then I don’t think you’re going to master the rest of it. You have to be able to take that classical stuff.

It was funny. I would have some of Paul’s students. They would come in and they would turn a potato and things like that. They’d be like, “I bet you can’t do one as good as that.” “Okay, if you want to bet.” So then I would do them behind my back and still blow theirs out of the water. “All you’ve got to do is practice.”

Kirk Bachmann: Practice, practice, practice.

Lee Hillson: There was a standing joke that I was the chef who could turn a potato behind my back.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

Lee Hillson: When I was at the Gavroche, we would literally take a case of potatoes home, sit it on the tube, and on the way home we’d be turning potatoes or fluting mushrooms ready for the next day’s service. We’d take stuff home and do it.

Hard Lesson: Salt First

Kirk Bachmann: Muscle memory. Just becomes. That’s a good lesson.

Let’s talk a little bit about you being in Australia. When did your culinary education come onto the scene? Was that back in London?

Lee Hillson: It was back in England. We moved back to England when I was about 12. I went to high school. Our education system was a little bit different and more advanced at that point. I graduated high school at 15 and a half. Started culinary school just before I turned 16. Then I graduated culinary school at 17 and a half or 18. It was a two-year course.

Went to London. Worked at the Four Seasons as part of my externship. Then once I had done that, I left and went to a place called in the south of England, which was a Michelin star restaurant. I worked there for about a year and half, then I went and worked for the Roux Brothers. Did a Stage over in France, with Gordon, which was connected to the Rouxs. Then I went to Roux Patisserie, where I got this nice little scar on my eye there from where I forgot to put salt in the croissant. I learned this. It was one of the best things I ever learned.

When we used to make croissants, we did like seven batches of 25-pound bags of flour every single day. One day, I was putting everything in there, mixing it up, got the dough. We turn it all into croissants. We had this batch of croissants that we made for Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, everything all the top shops. This one set that I made was very opaque. I forgot to put the salt in it. They were disgusting.

Bulldog went absolutely ballistic, picked up a pot, threw it at me. I ducked, hit my head on the counter, and caught my eye. It started bleeding. I just wiped it up and said, “Sorry, Chef. Let me clean up and I’ll get another batch. What can I do next?” I’d screwed up so bad and I knew it.

The thing I learned from that: he took me to one side after beating me. “Okay. What’s the first thing you put in?”

“I’ve been putting in flour.”

“No. Salt. Salt in the bottom of the bowl so you can see it. You know it’s in there.” It even looks a little bit different from the sugar, so you know you’ve always got salt. It’s always the first ingredient.

That’s the thing I learned. Salt is always the first thing when baking.

Kirk Bachmann: That sounds like a chapter in the book, for sure. Can’t throw pots and pans in the kitchen anymore, but what a memory.

Lee Hillson: We’re not even allowed to raise our voice.

An Impressive Resume

Kirk Bachmann: No.

One of your first positions as a chef was at the Royal Palms. Then you became the executive chef. What was that like? 18 years old, coming out of culinary school. Did you realize that your resume was as impressive – as that pot was flying – did you realize what you were in the midst of experiencing and that would all be put to work?

Lee Hillson: Yes and no. It was always a goal to work for people like the Roux brothers, and things like that. Then, when you’re in it, you’re what’s called a Roux Boy. A lot of the guys would actually get a tattoo of Le Gavroche either on their arm or on their leg.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, really.

Lee Hillson: It was one of those things that people would get. I never actually did it. I didn’t get a tattoo until I was in my mid-20s. People would do that. Then the first time I came to the States when I was 18, I guess I didn’t realize how global it was. People were like, “Oh, wow! You were a pastry chef with the Roux Brothers?”

“Yeah. How do you know them?” I didn’t realize even though Michel was an MOF Meilleur Ouvrier de France. It didn’t click. I guess, to this day, people say, “Oh, wow! Your resume is off the chart!” I don’t see it that way. I just see it as I worked. I haven’t really seen it as this impressive resume. I’ve never seen it that way and I still don’t.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s because you’re incredibly humble. It’s such a great story. I have Michel’s book here somewhere. It’s brilliance. How many Michelin stars between the two of them?

Lee Hillson: I don’t know how many they have. It was a lot.

Kirk Bachmann: This is a fascinating piece. I want to make sure I get this right. You’re at T. Cook’s for over a decade. Then you leave for an even better opportunity at Kai. Five-star restaurant. Then you come back. What is that journey like? Was it time for you to step aside? When you stepped aside, took on this other challenge, did you always think, “I’ll be back?”

Lee Hillson: Yes, no. When I left originally, I went to the Phoenician, where I was there for a few years.

Kirk Bachmann: In between Kai. Okay.

Lee Hillson: Which was absolutely phenomenal. Working in a hotel that scale. Rick Boyer, who was the executive chef – because I went as the exec sous – Rick Boyer who was the executive chef, was outstanding. I learned a lot on the way, especially how to oversee a property that size.

Up until then, I’d still never really done a lot of banquets. Wild Horse Pass, Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, they had an exec sous position open, so I transferred over. I oversaw mostly banquets, but also the resort. I get to oversee that along with that. Chef Thomas Riordon, who’s again, amazing.

At the time, the chef up in Kai was Ryan Swanson, who was this young guy. I honestly, I sit back and think to myself, “If I had half the talent as his age when I was that young, I would have been so floored.” The guy was just such an amazing talent. Phenomenal. I’d get to go up in Kai, but you’ve got this young kid running it while I’m just standing there. “This guy’s amazing.” It was phenomenal seeing that. I just kept learning, obviously.

Kirk Bachmann: Again, the humility. I love how you’re able to step back and constantly learn. Do you feel like you’re still learning?

A Family in the Kitchen

Lee Hillson: Always. I came back to the Royal Palms. The Royal Palms is an amazing place. It’s like a family. I always say, It’s the biggest, smallest place you’ll ever work. It’s very much like a family. A lot of people come back here. My executive sous chef is Mireya Ryan. She was actually one of my cooks many, many years ago when I first started here. She left, went to California, came back. I brought her on as a PM sous chef when she came back just before the pandemic. The pandemic hit. She came back, then she became my exec sous.

I watch her cook and her flavor profiles, and it’s just amazing, seeing how she’s grown. She pretty much runs the menus now. She oversees them all. “Hey, Chef. Can I do this? Can I do this?” She’ll do it up, taste it. “Yeah, go with it.” There may be the odd thing where I say, “Maybe if we did this.” But generally I don’t have to do anything because she’s got such a good grasp of what she’s doing. She was from Scottsdale Culinary.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow!

Lee Hillson: Again, great at pieces. She’s just amazing at what she does. She’s fantastic with the team. It’s so funny, because if something happens in the kitchen, she’s like, “Gee, Chef. You would have lost your shit years ago.” Nowadays, I’m like, “Okay. Okay. Let’s take it as a learning opportunity.

Kirk Bachmann: You mentioned that people come back. What was the draw to bring you back?

Lee Hillson: I think it is probably one of the most beautiful properties. It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a small, 119 acre, Mediterranean-Spanish inspired property. It was a historic house, which then grew. T. Cook’s itself is a phenomenal restaurant. Most hotels have a restaurant and it’s an amenity. T. Cook’s is more like a restaurant with a hotel as an amenity. It’s the opposite side of the triangle.

I happened to meet my wife here. A lot of people have met their partners here. Mireya, her husband she met here. It’s just one of those places that’s dear to people’s hearts.

Kirk Bachmann: And part of your family. Yeah. Like the Hillson Hotel.

Lee Hillson: Yeah, like the Hillson Hotel.

From Star Chef to a Mentor Mind

Kirk Bachmann: I’m curious. Coming back, connected to that: How do you approach a new role or even a recurring role now in your career versus when you were much, much younger? You knew you needed to leave the Roux Brothers, 1) to grow, and 2) you were going broke because it’s expensive to live there and work there. How have you changed as you take on a new role?

Lee Hillson: Probably, I’ve become more humble. Back in the day when you thought of T. Cook’s – and I don’t mean this in any big-headed way – when you thought of T. Cook’s and Royal Palm, my name was synonymous to it. It’s like if you think of Lon’s, Jeremy Pacheco. That’s who you think of. Everywhere has these places. You think of Sanctuary, it’s Beau MacMillan.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s Beau. Yeah.

Lee Hillson: Everyone has these names and are drawn to it. It was our first roles as executive chefs in these types of big places. We wanted to put our stamp on it, our names. Even though we had a team around us that we wouldn’t be able to do it without them. You always recognize that, but you always stood back and thought, “Okay, the place is about me, T. Cook’s and the team.”

Now, I sit back and think, “It’s about Mireya, the team, and then I’m in the back.”

Kirk Bachmann: And then you.

Lee Hillson: Coaching. Being anywhere I can to help them move their career forward because at the end of the day, I’m 53. I’m on the downside of my life. I’m going to die. God knows when! But I’m going to die! These people…I don’t want to be known as Lee Hillson, the guy that could cook. I want to be known as the guy who, “You know what? He was a good mentor.” That’s how I want to be remembered. Not as this guy who was a cook.

The Special Chefs of Scottsdale

Kirk Bachmann: You said Gordon Ramsay was eloquent, but that was very eloquent. Storyteller you are.

I want to come back to you mentioned Beau. Through the years, I spent a lot of time with Jon-Paul, obviously, and he was always talking about the food scene and the people in Arizona: Scottsdale, Phoenix, so on and so forth. You hear a lot about New York, Chicago, San Francisco, the Carolinas. Talk a little bit about that camaraderie and what you and this network of your friends/chefs – because you’re right, it’s synonymous. You think of you. You think of your background. You think of Beau, you think of Sanctuary, so on and so forth. What makes it so special?

Lee Hillson: I honestly think it’s a city with very few egotistical chefs. At the end of the day, we’re cooking for guests. We’re not cooking for our own egos. There are very few chefs in this state that are egotistical. Everyone is about supporting everyone.

I remember when I first moved to this time. I was a chef de partie here at T. Cook’s. I went to Barmouche, which was one of Mark Tarbell’s places. I remember walking in for reverse happy hour as he’s walking out. I’d been in town two weeks, and I remember seeing a picture of him in the paper. As he walked, I said, “Oh, are you Mark Tarbell?”

He said, “Yeah.” He’s leaving to go home.

I said, “Oh, I’m Lee. I just moved to the valley. I’m over at T. Cook’s.”

He said, “Oh, come with me.” He came and sat at the bar with me for half an hour and had a glass of wine. To me, that was just one of the most welcoming things. It made me think, “Chefs in this town are nice.”

You think about how we’ve got a fantastic food scene. We have Vincent. We have Christopher. We have Mark. We have Beau. We have all these amazing people. For me, personally, I think a lot of the exposure for Phoenix or even Arizona has come because of Beau. He did Food Network, first off. Instead of being what could have been a very selfish thing – Okay, I’m Beau, this is about me – he didn’t. He brought it around. “I did this on Food Network. I’m going to spread the love with this city.” I got to go on Food Network because he introduced me to the right people.

Also Mark did, and then he does things like, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and he’s talking about Matt Carstens and Bistro. He’s brought the love. Now he’s obviously very good friends with Guy Fieri, and he brings him into Diners, Drive-Ins[,and the best places I’ve eaten, and things like that. He’s very much about exposing the city and the state for what it is, and not about himself. To me, that’s very inspiring, which is why he is always going to be one of my best friends and an inspiration to me and a lot of chefs out there and a lot of people growing up.

I think people need to look at people like Beau or Mark and realize that it is about the food, the guest, the humility, not about “Hey, look at me! I’m a big puffy chest chef. I know everything. I’m the best.”

Doing the Paella Right

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. And you’re all mentors to the next generation. Jon-Paul used to say that no one in Arizona is from Arizona, sort of tongue-in-cheek. People come for the weather and obviously the good food as well.

I’m real curious. You’ve been there for quite a while, but your travels are pretty extensive. How has your travel and your past history influenced the cuisine that you’ve brought to Arizona? Is it something you believe is a signature? This is what I’ve brought to this fraternity of incredible cooks. Or is it still constantly changing?

Lee Hillson: I think it’s still constantly changing. Food is evolving around the world all the time. There are always so many different techniques. Me, personally, I tend to go back to the oldest style of techniques, more of the roots of cooking. I’m not into what I call “sucking flavors through a helium balloon” and all that sort of stuff. Though that food is so amazing to me. It’s awe-inspiring and the flavors are outstanding, I’m personally very much about the simplistic look. It doesn’t have to have dots all over the place. I want it to taste good. I want it to remind you of when you were somewhere.

The first time I went to Spain, I had the paella. As soon as I ate it, I thought, “God, our paella at T-cook’s sucks!” I came back, and I changed the whole way we did the paella. Back then, we were using the wrong rice. We weren’t doing it right because we were doing it for speed and pushing it out. We managed to adapt it to still be able to do it for speed by partially cooking the Calasparra rice and that. Then, we finished it at the fireplace, so we’ve got a beautiful crust on top. There was just much more love in it. This is where I realized we weren’t doing it right. We have to do things properly and right. It’s more about showing respect for that dish, for its origins. Not only about pumping out money.

Kirk Bachmann: Speaking of paella, I remember I was in Stockholm, of all places, years ago. It was just a small community. They had this tradition, not sure where it started, but they would come together in this community park. The largest paella pan I’ve ever seen in my life. Chef, 20 feet by 20 feet. It was crazy! They started working on the coals the night before and got them just perfect. Then the whole community came down. There was nothing sophisticated about it except for the person with the paddle who was controlling the sofrito, and all of that. Every family came with what they wanted to prepare, and just took their little part of the paella pan. The rice was consistent for everyone. To you point, you realized how it was really just about beautiful, perfect, appropriate food, as simple as it can possibly be. It wasn’t about presentation. It was about flavor, taking care of your family. I love that story. I’ve heard more paella stories like that than any other food. It’s very personal. In Stockholm, of all places, where they probably have a window of 15 days where they can have weather to sneak in a paella.

I’ve got to have some fun with you, too. I don’t know if it’s true. I was reading an article or an interview that you had done. You were talking about how you are kind of a movie buff. You like to relax and watch some movies. Totally going to put you on the spot, because I am, too. I’m going to come back to Jon-Paul again, who has this incredible love of rock ‘n’ roll, New York City bad boy, black leather jackets. He still plays the guitar. One of my favorite movies, and I think JP’s as well, is “High Fidelity,” John Cusack, Jack Black. 22 years old. Crazy. There’s a scene in there that’s just perfect. I do it all the time to try to break the ice sometimes when you’re having a dinner party or something like that. It’s really simple. “Top five bands of all time. Go.” So, Chef, top five bands of all time, go. Or just one.

Top Five: Backstreet Boys?

Lee Hillson: For me it’s Bon Jovi. I’m a die hard Bon Jovi fan.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.

Lee Hillson: I love Bon Jovi. KISS. Huge KISS fan, I like them back in the day. Really, really like the Rolling Stones. Seen them a few times. Phenomenal band to see. Who else is probably up there? Strange story: probably I have to stay the Backstreet Boys because I did an event with them, with two of the guys. They were just the most humble people I’ve ever met.

Kirk Bachmann: And super successful.

Lee Hillson: I didn’t realize they were the biggest boy band in history, and now I do.

Kirk Bachmann: Kind of started that whole phenomena of boy bands.

Lee Hillson: I did this event in Florida a couple years ago. They were like, “Oh, Howie and Kevin here, you’ve got to go around and say Hi.” So I go and I say, “Hi.” And the first thing they say is, “Oh, God, you’re the chef! Wow! Thanks for coming to dinner!” I was like, “You’re the Backstreet Boys, and you’re talking to me like…” It was so nice and humble. We even stay in touch now. It was really cool.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that. That’s a good podium. You can take that back to the kitchen today, blow everybody’s mine. “All right, guys and gals, gather around. Here we go. Top five bands. Go.”

It’s really funny, because I’ve moved into country music. I love country music. But when I list my top five bands, country music to me is more about individual performers. You’ll laugh, because most of mine are from abroad. Number one, hands-down, no discussion, U2 followed by the Stones, Beatles, Zeppelin, and Queen. Just rattle it off. My kids have no idea who I’m talking about.

Lee Hillson: Have you ever seen Stiff Little Fingers then?

Kirk Bachmann: I haven’t.

Lee Hillson: Jon-Paul’s probably seen them, but I’ve seen them in concert a few times. They’re phenomenal live.

Kirk Bachmann: Have you seen them in Arizona?

Lee Hillson: I have actually seen them once in Arizona. They played here in Phoenix, many, many years ago when Bruce Foxton was playing the guitar.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. Before I let you go, what a great chat today! I don’t know if we got to everything. We’re probably going to have to do a Part Duex. I need to get the whole Scottsdale group on a podcast. That would be so fun to talk to all of you at the same time. Maybe Jon-Paul could help me host it. That would be…

Lee Hillson: That would be amazing.

Chef Lee Hillson’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: That would be fantastic. But before I let you go, you know the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. You’ve been around the world a couple of times. Chef, in your mind – and it can be anything – what is the ultimate dish?
Lee Hillson: Very, very simple, it’s got to be a pizza from Naples, when I was in Naples.

Kirk Bachmann: Love it.

Lee Hillson: It was so simple, but just perfection.

Kirk Bachmann: Have you replicated it?

Lee Hillson: I can’t. I’ve tried, and many people try. Maybe it’s partly because you’re there and your in Naples and you’re having pizza. You realize that they don’t cut the pizza into wedges over there. It’s a knife and a fork thing. It’s not smothered with cheese, like here. It’s very delicate. There’s something about it.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I haven’t had anybody say that in all these episodes. It does bring back memories. It reminds me of in Nice in south of France. There’s no place else in the world where you can have a red pepper stuffed with vegetables or pork or something. It seems so simple, but it’s absolutely delicious and beautiful.

Lee Hillson: And the thing is, you know that on the head there is what we do as chefs is we evoke memories. Whether you make something, “Oh, gosh, I remember when my grandmother used to do this, or I remember when I was in Nice.” That’s what food is about. That’s what we do. We just make people’s memories.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I’m going on over to see Michel Escoffier in Nice in September. Now I’m even more pumped up. Bring on the peppers.

Chef, thank you so much for joining us today. Really, really appreciate it. Best of luck. Continue mentoring. We’ll see if we can make this happen with the Scottsdale team.

Lee Hillson: That’d be brilliant. Thank you for having me. This was so much fun. It was a pleasure.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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