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Jeff Smedstad: Elote Cafe
Jeff Smedstad realized he enjoyed cooking while on a desert island – literally. In 1987, while he served in the United States Coast Guard, he was stationed for one year on an island between Japan and Hawaii. He was in charge of cooking for 30 people, but he arrived completely prepared without even knowing it.
“Before I went to the island, I worked as a deckhand on an ice breaker,” says Jeff. “When I was leaving, the crew gave me a cookbook – it wasn’t romantic, it was a very smartass gesture. I took the book with me and started cooking from it. Everyone loved it, so I thought I was on to something. Later I realized the funny-looking bald guy on the cover was actually James Beard.”
The island received provisions by air once a week, and Jeff used papayas to entice the pilots to bring him the ingredients he needed to create Beard’s award-winning recipes. When he finished his stint with the Coast Guard, he returned to Phoenix where he had grown up and enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Jeff’s dad opened a Mexican restaurant, Los Sombreros, in Scottsdale in 1994, and Jeff purchased it from his father in 1997. He sold the restaurant 13 years later and spent some time cooking in Atlanta before opening Elote Cafe above the Kings Ransom Sedona Hotel in 2007. Elote’s menu was inspired by Jeff’s travels through Mexico; he studied cooking in Oaxaca and continues to return to Mexico City every year. Jeff says that though people might not realize it, the menu at Elote changes frequently – nearly 20 times in 2013.
But Elote, which takes its name from the restaurant’s signature corn appetizer, is known for more than just outstanding Mexican cuisine. It’s not unusual for patrons to line up outside the 85-seat restaurant 30-plus minutes before it opens its doors, and weekend wait times can exceed 60 minutes. (Reservations are currently not accepted.) What does Jeff have to say about that aspect of his restaurant’s reputation?
“I know it’s hard to get in – we have a really small kitchen,” he says (and he proves it by taking us on a tour). “I try not to overthink it.”
Jeff released his first cookbook, Elote Cafe Cookbook, in 2009, and he’s working on a follow-up. He’s not opposed to expanding the restaurant to accommodate demand, either, but says he won’t expand until he has the trained staff to support it. That might not be too far away. Though he’s still in the kitchen cooking 99 percent of the time, Jeff now has a sous chef, Elmer Guerra. “If I cut off my finger tonight, the kitchen would keep going,” he says with a wry smile.
Elote Cafe, 771 SR 179 at the Kings Ransom Sedona Hotel (928-203-0105)
Click here to download Chef Smedstad’s recipe for Lamb Adobo
Rochelle Daniel: L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek
It’s no secret that the culinary world is dominated by men, but that doesn’t perturb 29-year-old Rochelle Daniel. In fact, the challenge of breaking into the industry excited her, and when she was 15, she talked herself into her first job cooking at the Arrowhead Country Club in Glendale. After high school, she enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and while attending classes she worked at the country club as well as the Painted Horse Café. She catered events and acted as a personal chef to families with nutritional needs in her spare time. Rochelle is no stranger to long days.
After she graduated, Rochelle went to work for the chef who would soon become her mentor: Arizona’s native son, Matt Carter. For six years, she cooked at Matt’s Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale, and helped him open The Mission, also in Scottsdale. But in spring 2012, the red rocks of Sedona came calling, and Rochelle migrated north to become the executive chef at the award-winning L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek at L’Auberge de Sedona.