We were so excited to get the chance to sit down with executive chef and owner, Jeff Smedstad of Elote Café in Sedona, Arizona. We asked Chef Jeff everything from what inspired him to become a chef to what his last meal on earth would be…Trust us, we were not expecting it.
Niman Ranch Q&A with Chef Jeff Smedstad of Elote Café
Q: What inspired you to become a chef?
Thirty years ago, I was in the Coast Guard and lived on a desert island halfway between Japan and Hawaii. I was in charge of cooking for 30 men and instead of making government recipes, someone gave me the James Beard cookbook. I had no idea who he (James Beard) was but I pretty much made every single recipe that was in the book. I actually ended up getting commendations and medal and things like that but not for my bravery and service but for the deliciousness of the food.
I also traded local produce that grew on the island with Air Force pilots for better quality food. We would trade things like papayas to get in rib roast or something like that for the holidays. It’s all about being resourceful.
I was only on the island for a year, but I got to see the difference of what a good meal could do for someone’s day. Ever since then, I’ve always been touched by what good food could do to people and I always felt like part of cooking was connecting with others.
Q: How did you hear about Niman Ranch?
I came across Niman Ranch many years ago and I’ve used it ever since. For me, it’s not really a marketing thing as much as it’s just an honest and transparent thing. If I’m not eating it, I’m not serving it.
I’ve always been a strong supporter of local or sustainable foods that are natural. So Niman Ranch came across as something that I could find and it was approachable. It was also raised the way that I wanted. I sell food at Elote Café that I’m proud of—food that I would eat and put in my own belly every day.
Q: Why do you use Niman Ranch?
I choose Niman Ranch at Elote Café because of their philosophy. Their philosophy in the way that they care for the farmers, the environment, and for the animals. I think that if you’re doing all three of those things well, you’re creating something good.
Being a cook could be inconsequential. Meaning it could just be a matter of showing up and putting on an apron and grilling some meat and serving it to make a profit but that’s not enough for me.
At the end of the day, I want to feel like I’m making an impact through what I do. It’s one of the nicer things about cooking nowadays because you feel like you can have a social, economic, and philosophical impact on everything.
Q: What is your most memorable experience with a Niman Ranch product? Probably one of the most memorable experiences was with Niman Ranch pork. I cooked up some carnitas for the kitchen staff at Elote Café and as we were discussing the product some of the comments were that this finally tasted like real pork again. Our staff had been raised on ranches and farms, so I knew we were onto something.
Another memorable experience was about a year ago when I had a lady, who was in her mid 90’s, come in for a birthday celebration. During the celebration, she told me that her father had a butcher shop in the 1930s and the meat she had on her plate tasted the same way that it did when she grew up and that she hadn’t eaten meat that tasted that good for that long.
Q: Do your customers care about where you source your ingredients? Why do you think this is the case?
Yes – I’ve had the opportunity to watch the general consumers’ mindset change over the last 30 or 40 years. During that time, things have changed immensely because people want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know how it was raised. They want to know that you’re doing the right thing because they want to feel nurtured, even in a restaurant.
I think more people are eating out, so in a way, restaurants are becoming an extension of their home. Because of that, there’s a responsibility to put wholesome things and things that you believe in on the menu and have a fully transparent restaurant.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10?
I see myself being involved in food for the rest of my life but I don’t know to what extent. I don’t look beyond this year. I don’t look beyond tonight’s dinner at Elote Café. I have the belief that every day you are given, you have the chance to rebuild and be the best you can be.
I don’t really have a plan though. I’ve written two books, I’ve got a successful restaurant, and I’ve had a great career. I just want that to continue.
My biggest kick right now is the amount of success that I get to create for people around me. I’ve been blessed, so if somebody is silly enough to follow me for a bunch of years and give me hours of their time, I want to make sure I take care of them and their families.
Q: What would you choose for your last meal on earth?
*Laughter* I don’t know…You won’t like this. No one at Niman will like this but my last meal on earth will probably be a tomato sandwich with mayonnaise and some really good bread. That’s it. Simple.
Q: What person would you most like to cook for?
You stumped me. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a person or a concept. It would be nice to cook for a group of ten-year-old kids because they’re honest. If you can make them happy, you’ve done something special.
Another person would be my wife. Every Sunday I cook for my wife and that’s something that I never get tired of. My Sunday dinners with her and cooking for her and at home is a joy of mine.
Q: What did you have for dinner last night?
Last night I didn’t eat much. I had fish. I had some lingcod tacos…But I had Niman Ranch bacon for breakfast this morning.
Q: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
It would probably be chiles. It’s broad but I love them for so many different reasons. I love their flavor profile and all the different dimensions that they can add. Different chiles for different things.
I actually can’t see myself getting through a day without chilis. Well actually, chiles, corn, beans, and hopefully a shotgun because I like to hunt.
Q: What is your favorite kitchen equipment or gadget?
Blender. I use it to mix so many of my sauces. My sauces are used to enhance so many of my dishes at Elote Café. I don’t use a lot of thickeners; my food is usually bound together by vegetables and chiles.
Q: Are there any foods you don’t like?
I’m not a huge fan of goat cheese but I understand the love of it. I also don’t eat a lot of hot wings because of the vinegar. The vinegar goes up my nose and affects me so I can’t taste anything for a while.
Q: What do you love most about your job as a chef?
I think the greatest thing about what I do is making people happy. People come to where I work at Elote Café to have a great experience.
Q: If you were to open a new restaurant, what style of food would you pick?
I thought about doing a Mexican seafood restaurant and really focusing heavily on the coastal cuisine of Mexico. I also had a thought of maybe an American restaurant.
I don’t try to think beyond doing one restaurant at a time because doing one restaurant and doing it well is harder and more rewarding than having a group of restaurants. I’ve never wanted to be the guy to have an Italian concept, a Mexican concept, an American concept, a burger concept. I like doing one thing at a time and sharing it with people.
Q: If you weren’t a chef, what would you do for a living?
I was in the Coast Guard so maybe a merchant marine or something like that. Never really thought about it because I started working in kitchens when I was 15 and I left home and joined the Coast Guard and started working in the kitchen there. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I’m happy being in kitchens and I don’t want to change it. Don’t ask me to change it.
Q: Most embarrassing cooking moment?
That’s easy. Making cinnamon rolls at 4 am at the diner I worked at when I was young. They had a big bucket of salt and a big bucket of sugar and you can guess what bucket I used. I probably made 120 cinnamon rolls. At that moment I thought, this is the end, I’ll never make it…Now look at me after all these years.