Chef Jeff Smedstad specializes in the bold, flavorful cuisine of southern and interior Mexico combined with the unique flavors of the Southwest. As owner of Elote Café in Sedona, Arizona, he translates the beautiful flavors into a cooking style he calls, “Authentically me,” as he stays true and respectfully interprets the influences of a lifetime through cooking for others.
Sedona ARTSource: Was yours a conscious decision to become a chef or did you find you fell into it?
Jeff Smedstad: I started cooking in the Coast Guard, so my rst gig cooking was on a desert island halfway between Japan and Hawaii. And that doesn’t sound like much to most people, but that experience is one of those times that really shaped my life because I started cooking for a group of 30 guys, and they had no options as far as where to eat. It was all food made by me, period. There were no commercial outlets and so I got to see the difference that food can make in somebody’s life, in their day. I think my way of getting into food in that way was different than most people’s.
It was just something that I experienced. And I knew that year, which was 1987, that there would be no turning back. That this was something that I really wanted to do because I could do this and make people happy. And if I did, I figured I’d end up rewarded for it. And it’s worked really well as a two-way-street, if you will.
What would you say was a major turning point for your career as chef?
It was when I spent time in Mexico. For me, I knew I wanted to be a chef, and that’s great, but I was just starting out. Then I spent time down in Oaxaca. I studied primarily with a lady named Susana Trilling, who now operates Seasons of my Heart Cooking School, but then we went around to other ranches and we cooked with a lot of different ladies. The flavors and the way that the food was prepared, that was sort of a lightbulb moment as to what was going to be my style of cooking.
I felt like there was this beautiful, full earthiness and vibrancy. It was just food that seemed more alive than what I was used to seeing as a young man growing up in the desert. I love the entire bounty of the Southwest, but the refinement and where they took things in the markets and houses of Oaxaca really showed me a new level of where these flavors could go. That’s what became the nucleus for what I do now.
So Oaxaca and the ladies you were cooking with would be the biggest influences on your cooking?
Yes, it would be and probably twenty, thirty years of traveling back to Mexico; I’m always going back there to try to have foods in their element. And then I come back and show you my interpretations of them. But in doing that, we weave authenticity into everything because for me it’s really important to do what I do respectfully. I am doing much more than translating recipes, I am honoring a land and traditions of the people and the very food itself with authenticity from my heart and from my experience. I work with a lot of people from Mexico, I have a lot of people that come in here for dinner that are visiting from Mexico, and I do want to make sure that I’m giving the respect due to that food that it deserves.
What do you call your cooking style?
“Authentically me.” I’ve also called it Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, and the reason that I’ve added Southwestern to it now is that we see in uences from the area happening all the time. I’m an Arizona guy, I grew up here, I’m proud of where I’m from. I want to make sure that we don’t lose the actual ideas of what the early cuisine of this area was.
I think that we can get romanced by different ingredients at the farmer’s markets that might not have much in common with what the earlier people’s were in this area. I want to make sure that we are not losing some of those traditions as well.
Whether it’s using a hatch chile, or doing something with the citrus or mesquite in the area, or remembering the Tepary Beans, or the Anasazi beans, foods like these have become very important to me. They aren’t what you’re going to search for in Mexico, but that’s what you’re going to search for in the southwest US and in New Mexico, Arizona and parts of California.
What’s your favorite ingredient?
Corn! Corn all the way! Corn for the win!
Is it fair to say that you are constantly innovating?
Absolutely! The biggest thing that can happen to me, and I don’t always know where it comes from anymore, is I just come across new ingredients, or maybe an old ingredient and somehow I see it differently.
There’s nothing in the world that doesn’t touch your world when you do this for a living. I mean, just being alive, being present, I guess is going to make you a better chef. But there’s a lot out there, and I’m discovering even after thirty years of being in kitchens that you don’t know much and you’re always humbled by what you’re learning. So yes, the innovating will never stop, whether I want it to or not!
Are you finding sustainable, local, organic product available to incorporate into the menu?
Quite a bit of things we use are from Arizona. We do get in a few things from the Verde Valley. I’ve had people show up at my back door with peaches and we get mushrooms and berries from up in the canyon every year. We’ve been known to use beef from a couple of different cattle ranches around here. We had somebody in Wickenburg raise pigs for us a couple years ago and we did a sort of a study as to where to go with pig. We do try to get a variety and we have fun with it.
Tell us about your cookbooks.
I have two cookbooks out: The Elote Café Cookbook and The Elote Café Notebook. The first book, the Cookbook was about getting down to basics of where we were in the restaurant and sharing that with the public. The second book has a few new ‘stars’ in it, if you will; things that have become very popular since the publication of the first book that I’ve shared with people many, many times.
And then there’s a lot of things in there that I just like to cook at home offering a little more fun on a couple of new ideas: things like brisket and tri tips, different sauces that have become more popular over the years, and potato tacos that I make at home on the weekends. It’s fun to share it. Both books are pretty laid back experiences, but both are unique in their own way.
What big changes have you noticed over the last 25 years?
Food has evolved in the last 25 years a thousand fold. Everybody’s got an opinion about something now, a lot of people are very food savvy, and people have traveled a lot more than they did 25 years ago. The internet’s made the world a lot smaller too. A lot of times in the early parts
of my career, it was sort of trailblazing; you were showing people something that they’d never seen before. And now, usually the best you can hope for is to be the best version of that. But that’s the new way of being pushed forward.
I feel like 25 years ago, for me the push was to innovate and now the push is to refine; to absolutely make that one plate of food as close to wonderful, every single time, which could be twenty-thousand times in a year. And make it absolutely wonderful, so that if people come back a year later you’re still impressing them.
What is your favorite recipe from the book – or the one you are most proud of?
I love a potato taco, but I don’t really serve them here. I’ve always loved my Lamb Adobo – that’s’ never gotten old! And I think that I love the flavor of it, but there’s also an emotional attachment to it. I consider it to be one of the dishes that made my career. It’s sort of like having a hit song and I find that it always makes me happy, that’s not gone away. The thrill of making that dish, smelling that dish and eating that dish has never gone away.
How does people’s relationship with food differ between Mexico and here?
I think that the relationship with food in Mexico is just kind of matter-of-fact. It’s just part of the fabric of your day, of your life. It’s what you do; you’ve been eating tacos, the pollo, tacos al pastor or whatever your whole life. And that’s just something you’ve done.
Here in the US, we’re seekers. In Mexico people are eating it, they are getting their nutrition from it, they are not gorging, and it is just part of their day. It seems there’s more of a balanced approach to eating in Mexico than there is here. People here often eat for an experience. There, they mostly eat for sustenance.
Please tell us a bit more about your time with the Coast Guard.
That was at the Loran Station, pre-dating GPS, so there’s no boat involved there. That was a great experience to get me really excited about cooking. I was a deckhand on an ice-breaker before that, and when I left, they gave me a cookbook out of the ship’s library. They said,“Good luck, kid,” and they tossed a book at me. I put it in my bag and off I went. When I unpacked everything when I finally arrived in Japan, I noticed that it was an old paperback book with some fat, bald guy on the cover, who I assumed was Chef Boyardee. (It was James Beard, but that meant nothing to me.)
I noticed that the crew didn’t seem excited about the food there. At the age of seventeen or eighteen I didn’t know what I was going to do to improve on that because there are government recipes that you’re given. So I started cooking things I’d never heard of out of the James Beard cookbook. I’m just a country boy from what was Chandler, which was cotton fields when I left it – at the time it was pretty humble.
What were some of the first recipes you tried?
I started cooking things like Crème Brulee, and to me it was pudding that had a burnt top – I’d never had it. They loved it. And then I would work on this recipe or that recipe; they loved it. I had limited ingredients, but we had a papaya grove in the middle of the island, and I knew the pilots that would y our supplies out once a week. The plane would drop off stuff and leave you. I started trading papayas to them and then the next week they’d show up with a contraband bottle of wine that complimented roasts really good that they gave to my commanding officer. Or I’d get in real prime beef or a prime rib roast that you’re just not going to get on a military budget. And I’m not going to tell you I knew what I was doing, I just kept trying.
Is that when you decided you wanted to be a chef?
My mother sent me a book on patisserie, which is French and I started making croissants. I’d never had a croissant in my life, so I spent seventy-six hours on the recipe! I noticed that these things would really keep the morale way up high and I was like, “Okay, I want to be a chef, I want to learn more about this.”
And one thing led to another?
Yes, my next experience after I left there was I lived in Morro Bay, California, and here we were next to San Luis Obispo, which at the time had something new and novel that I’d never seen growing up in Arizona … it’s called a Farmer’s Market. They didn’t exist here! There were pick-up trucks full of turnips and beets, and there were real farmers like hanging out on their trucks, and some guy with a barbecue thing making barbecue! And Mojo Nixon would be playing in the bar up the street … it was a different time. I don’t know if it was better, but it definitely got me into the idea of how much was going on in cuisine.
Then, I got a gift of a Wolfgang Puck cookbook. Who again, I’d never seen, had no idea who the guy was. And I’d never made Szechuan Beef – I’d probably never eaten Szechuan Beef. But I knew guys talked about it, and there was a recipe in the Wolfgang Puck cookbook, which is the furthest thing from real Chinese food, but I was doing a Frenchified version of Chinese food and I literally fanned out New York Strip and it went over so big and the rumors got out to all the police departments, the fire departments and the harbor patrol guys.
They would buy tickets; you could actually sell a limited amount tickets for lunches. You could make money; you just couldn’t keep the money. So, if
I made money on these lunches, then I could use that money to buy better food. Suddenly I’d expanded my budget and found a way within the system to beat the system so that we could eat crab and lobster. That’s what the guys wanted and I’d tell them, ‘We’re going to eat hot dogs for three days straight, but we’re going to save that money and then that’s going to go into the Friday feast.’ Not that I knew how to cook everything, but I was going to try.
How did that experience shape your ideas of your future and your relationship with the people who enjoyed your food?
That was a great thing; as I had that opportunity in the Coast Guard, I had the faith of my crew. Which, number one, if you don’t get that faith, you’re dead in the water. It’s similar to having the faith of your customers, and I’ve been dealing with that ever since then. As soon as you get that faith, you get kind of carte blanche for where you can go and do what you want.
So, I expanded beyond what normal people would do in the military and cooked whatever I wanted. Then I got out and went to Scottsdale Culinary Institute with a G.I. Bill and then I worked in some hotels and things like that where I felt very detached. I knew that someday I had to get back to a restaurant, I just didn’t know how, what and where it was going to happen.
I tried to work in Mexican restaurants, because I really liked the food after the first time that I was down there when I discovered both the food, and at the time, a girl which worked out really well for a while. But I had to get back to the idea of having a relationship with the people I was cooking for; otherwise, I can’t do it.
SAS: Having one, very successful restaurant in this beautiful Sedona setting has lled that need?
JS: People have often asked me about why I don’t have several of these. Because once you get so busy, people expect you to plant, do another one, and do another one. But in that plan, I would never have that relationship with people. When I was working in hotels, where you were detached and pushed into the back, it just didn’t ever feel like it had the meaning. And so now, when I pass through the dining room, it’s to check on the customers, but it’s also to give my day meaning, probably more so than even checking on the customers. It’s about me. Because without that, I don’t feel inspired to get up the next day and do this again. I don’t do this for the money anymore – I’m humbled and lucky. I do it because I want to.
It gives meaning to your life, to cook for people.
It does, and to have those connections. Some people think that I get off by having a big line here. But I don’t – I want everybody to get in and be happy, but I’m humbled that so many people try to get in the doors. It’s blowing my mind. I never expected it. I’ve been very lucky here, but that’s what keeps me from trying to build something bigger. My life’s been damn charming.
Please share little more about your experience on the backroads of Mexico.
I think the backroads of Mexico are one of the most misunderstood things to most people that are north of the border. Generally when you are out in the country, people are very welcoming and of course, the food can be wonderful. You can definitely still take a step back in time in some places. You’ll find a lot of people that live a simpler life. In a way, when you’re out in the backroads of Mexico you become inspired about what maybe is more important in the world, that can give you that one moment of quiet, you know? I find that there’s a much more ‘in tune’ sort of circle of life consciousness when you’re out in the country like that. People seem to have a whole lot less they’re hung up about. If anything, I’m jealous of that. They are not concerned with being a vegan, a vegetarian, or whatever dietary restriction might be popular this week. They just live in tune with nature, with sustenance, with what they’ve got. They seem happy.
I’ve driven on back roads from Mexico City all the way to Oaxaca and then all the way over to Veracruz from there. If anything, I nd the cities more overwhelming than the country.
And I think that you can still see real happiness out there. Happiness without the deep “needs” that we all have decided we need. Yeah, I think that in the US we have that too, you can find it, but I think it’s a little harder. There’s just something real beautiful about the connection of life and earth when you’re way out there.
Thank you, Jeff.
For more about Chef Jeff Smedstad’s award-winning cuisine, visit www.EloteCafe.com
Chef Jeff Smedstad Takes Southwest & Mexican Flavors to Artistic New Levels at Elote Cafe in Sedona | Sedona ArtSource Volume 3
Interviewed by Lynn Alison Trombetta