It’s a good thing Branden Levine finished second place on the Food Network‘s Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell back in September. Instead of moving to Napa, California, the 41-year-old Phoenix resident is whipping up unique, mouthwatering contemporary American specialities at the absolutely gorgeous Cafe Monarch in Old Town Scottsdale. With a three-course prix fixe menu that changes weekly, Levine is able to incorporate organic, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients into every dish, keeping customers coming back for more since he never repeats a menu.
The Fort Lauderdale, Florida native is gearing up for a Mother’s Day brunch, Sunday, May 11, including seared lobster cake on toasted brioche. The brunch is unique not only because of the holiday, but also because Cafe Monarch is usually only open for dinner. Get more details on the brunch here.
Learn more about what drives Levine’s culinary creativity, and scroll down to watch him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
My wife and I moved out here about a year and a half ago from Virginia. I worked in Washington, D.C., but the restaurant I was working at closed down after about 10 years of being open.
My wife’s brother and his wife are partners with a home healthcare company here, and they offered her a position in marketing. That’s what led us out here.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in cooking?
Cooking has always been a big part of our family, and not just for special occasions. I think my first memory was helping my mother prepare spaghetti from scratch, when I was about 8 years old. She does everything from scratch and is a phenomenal cook. I think a lot of my appreciation from cooking grew from there.
How has your culinary career evolved?
After graduating culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Norfolk, Virginia, I went to Kenya. A friend who’s from there and I opened up a catering business there, and I was there for about a year. I came back to the States and worked in Las Vegas for three years, working for Charlie Palmer at Aureole and Jacques Van Staden at Neiman Marcus.
After leaving there, I opened up my own restaurant in Heathsville, Virginia, a small little hick town in the middle of nowhere. It was right on the Potomac River, so it was beautiful. We had that restaurant for about five years, and it was called The Tavern Restaurant. We did really well until up about 2008 when the market crashed, so we sold the restaurant.
I ended up moving to Tanzania and taking a corporate executive chef position for a high-end safari lodging company called Elewana. That was a very tough job, anywhere from 90-100 hours a week, but it was a very rewarding job. I got to see all of East Africa, which was quite an adventure.
Coming back to the States, I took an executive chef position in Richmond, Virginia for a restaurant called Julep’s, and was there for about two years before taking an executive sous chef position at Zola, up in D.C. When I came to Arizona, I worked as an executive chef at Rio Verde Country Club.
What made you want to pursue a career as a chef?
I have pretty much been in the restaurant business since I was 15 years old. My mother has been a professional waitress since she was 17, and I worked with her at several restaurants bussing. I was always back in the kitchen watching chefs, mesmerized about how they prepared, handled and tasted food. It was a love affair.
I experimented a lot at home, too. During culinary school, I also worked at some really high-end restaurants.
How did you get involved with Chef Wanted?
The show contacted me after finding me on LinkedIn.com. They were looking for someone who had really good experience in contemporary Southern cuisine. I got lucky.
As far as (host) Anne (Burrell) goes, she’s pretty cool. She actually pull me aside and told me out of all the shows she has done, my food was some the best she’s ever had. That was really nice of her.
What made you want to work at Cafe Monarch?
Working here is a phenomenal opportunity for me, because I’m able to change the menu every week. It’s a pre fixe menu, so you get an amuse-bouche, a salad, a choice of two entrees, and a dessert. I’m really able to get myself involved with the seasons and what’s available during the year, and really just play as much as a want.
What inspires your menus?
I try to keep them different. Because we’re limited to two entree items, I try to keep a meat item and a seafood item on there. I have run things like lamb loin or pork, and we do keep a third item in the back of the house in case someone doesn’t want either of what’s offered.
My strategy is to balance flavors – salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. I look at what’s in season and how to complement the main protein without covering it up. I really want that main element to shine through. Whatever accompanies that dish should complement it.
As far as my inspiration goes, it just comes to me – I don’t really know how to explain it. I know flavors; I know what’s going to complement each other. Even if it’s an ingredient I have only tasted once, I understand the flavor profile and how they’re going to mesh. We try to use as much organic and local produce as we can – that probably comprises about 40 percent of the menu.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Probably seafood. It’s very versatile and a very delicate item to work with. It’s very easy to overcook and add too many ingredients to cover up the dish, so it can be very tricky. I’ve eaten seafood at many restaurants that hasn’t been prepared properly, or there are too many ingredients. I look at it as a challenge, and I love to challenge myself.
What’s the most overrated ingredient?
I’m not really big on filet mignon. I know a lot of people love filet because of its tenderness, but for me, I think filets are a little bit overrated. They just don’t have any fat to them or a lot of flavor.
What’s one of the standout dishes you’ve created here?
One great seafood dish we’re doing right now is brown butter hazelnut halibut. It’s a Pacific halibut with a sauté of roasted sweet corn and wild ramps, which are only in season for about six weeks out of the year. It’s combined with red quinoa, forbidden rice and Moroccan couscous, sautéed with a cockle clam vinaigrette. It’s a really delicious dish, and everything complements each other really well.
What’s the key to cooking fish well?
It depends on the fish, but halibut can be overcooked really easily. The way I cook halibut is to cook it medium and then let it rest. That way, the fish is very nice and juicy and never dried out. Then, I finish it with a little bit of butter, garlic and thyme.
How would you describe yourself as a leader in the kitchen?
I lead by example in the kitchen. I’ve worked with a few chefs who had a pretty bad temper and liked to throw things. That’s pretty much a dying breed – no one wants to work with a chef like that. I like to teach my staff, because I know people want to learn their profession. I enjoy doing that, and that’s how I work, always by example.
What makes a great chef, and what makes you a great chef?
Passion and dedication. If you love what you do, it never feels like a day of work – not for me, at least. If you’re really passionate and dedicated, it really shines through in the food.
I love going out and talking to my guests, making sure they’re happy and having a good time. Getting feedback from my guests is important to me.
How would you describe the dining experience here?
I’d say the dining experience is very romantic, very laid-back. It’s definitely a place you want to bring a date. There have been probably four wedding proposals since I’ve been here. At nighttime, in the courtyard, when all the candles are lit up, it’s very romantic and charming. It’s a hidden gem.
How would you describe the Valley’s culinary scene?
Since I’ve been here, my wife and I have been to a few really nice restaurants – Kai is probably my favorite. I think the food scene here is great. When I first moved here, I did a stage at Binkley’s, and that was great, too. They’ve got a great concept, a great chef and great food.
As far as what could be better, it’s hard to get good ingredients in the Valley. A lot of things have to be specialty-ordered, which makes it more expensive. Other than that, there’s a lot of diverse culture here, which really shines through in the culinary scene.
What are your goals?
I’d love to open my own restaurant again, a restaurant just like this. Keeping it small makes it more hands-on. Owning a large restaurant makes you tend to lose the quality some time. The way this menu and restaurant is set up, you’re able to put out some really great food.
What advice would you have for someone who aspires to be a chef?
Believe in yourself. It’s a lot of hard work but really rewarding. As long as your passion is there, you’ll be fine. Venture out, and work with some great chefs. Don’t stay at one place for too long. Get as much experience as you can. There are many types of cuisines, so it’s important to open your eyes to what’s out there and hone your skills.