Whether you are hosting a meaningful gathering at your home or want to create an extra-special anniversary dinner with your own customized menu, private chef and founder of iCook uEat Joey Sienicki is stellar at making blissful culinary memories with his tasty meals. The 25-year-old Tempe resident calls Phoenix Iron Chef winner Mark Tarbell of Tarbell’s a mentor, and Sienicki has studied in Italy and France and can cook any type of cuisine.
He also loves sharing his knowledge, with a blog that’s a wealth full of mouth-watering recipes. Indeed, his lemon ricotta cheesecake with caramel drizzle will have you craving it for weeks. Read on for what inspires his menu, as well as why he’s proud to be a part of the Arizona culinary scene.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’ve lived here my whole life. I was born in Phoenix. I went to Arizona School for the Arts for high school — I play piano and trumpet — and got my degree in architecture at ASU, then went to The Arizona Culinary Institute.
Why did you get a degree in architecture?
I always wanted to be an architect when I was growing up. I really enjoyed architecture school, but the profession was different. As I was going through school, a bigger passion for cooking developed. I started a construction Master’s program, but then I switched because it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
When did you start cooking?
I’ve been cooking since high school for fun, mostly for my family. In high school, we went to France, and that was the experience that really turned me on to cooking. I fell in love with the bakeries and farmers markets there. When I came home, I wanted that experience again and started to learn more. My mom is a great cook, and she’d make the meals, and I’d make the desserts.
What was your goal when you started culinary school?
One day, I want to open my own restaurant. After I graduated, I did an externship in Italy in a town called Colle di Val d’Elsa. I worked at a restaurant there. While I was in Europe, I went to Paris and studied at Ecole Lenotre and took pastry classes. I came back and worked for Mark Tarbell at Tarbell’s, and I worked a little bit at the Italian Restaurant by Chris Bianco (now Pizzeria Bianco) at Town & Country. About a year and a half ago, I started my own private chef business.
What made you want to start your own private chef business?
It was summertime, and the Italian Restaurant wasn’t that busy, so I had to work limited hours and restart in the fall. As the summer was going, I started this and ended up liking it and not going back.
How did you cultivate your client base?
It started out with friends and family, and people from college. Anyone you know can be a referral, and the word spreads.
Do you regret leaving the kitchen, since your goal is to open your own restaurant?
I think you can learn a lot of different ways. I learned how to cook in the kitchen, but now I’m learning how to run my own business and keep those relationships and do marketing. In the kitchen, you’re making someone else’s dishes, which is a great way to learn, but also this way, I have a little bit more creativity in creating my own menus.
What’s your typical week like?
That’s what I like about my job, that it varies every week. Sunday and Monday nights are the slow nights, sort of like a restaurant schedule. I’m busiest on Friday and Saturday nights. During the week, I’ll do meals for families and single parents. I do a lot of dinner parties with appetizer, entree and desserts. I do a lot of Italian dishes.
How do you conceive your menus?
It’s all based on the client. Sometimes, they’ll tell me their preferences, something like lasagna. Sometimes, they’ll tell me they want to do an interactive cooking night, where we cook together. In that case, I have more freedom, and I’ll do something seasonal. I’ll go to the farmers market and try to get ideas that way.
Where do you get your ingredients?
It depends on the event. I try to keep it as local as possible — farmers markets and Whole Foods and AJ’s.
Has anyone told you they didn’t like your food?
No, thankfully. Most people are just happy they don’t have to cook.
What was it like working for Mark Tarbell?
Before I went to culinary school, I met with Mark Tarbell who was really great and honest with me about the profession and answered all my questions. I talked to him about the whole process, and when I started this, he mentored me about the importance of making goals.
Everyone in his kitchen is like a family, and I learned more there than I did in culinary school. In culinary school, you get a broad overview of stuff, but when you work in a restaurant, you’re learning how to perfect a dish cooking every day.
Should culinary school be a requirement to work in a kitchen?
I think it depends on who you are. I’m really glad I went. You learn a range of things, from how to do catering, to how to decorate a wedding cake. Originally, I wanted to be a baker, so it made me realize I actually like cooking, too.
It’s also good for building relationships with other people because it’s a lot of teamwork. By the time I graduated, my class had four people, so we really got to know each other and had one-on-one attention from the chef. You work with eight different chefs, so you got to know their intricacies, and you got to know your preferences for who you want to work for. It prepared you for finding the best niche for you.
What are your long-term goals?
My long-term goal is to transform my business into a restaurant. It’s about making good relationships with people and improving my cooking abilities. I want to travel more. I want to go to Japan and cook there.
Does anything stand out about the Arizona dining scene to you?
I think it needs more respect. We’re not L.A. or New York, but I hope we are some day. You have more people coming in and doing great things, and I think that will happen. We’re headed in that direction.
What part of your culinary skills do you want to improve?
I want to learn about different cultures and how they approach food, specifically in terms of seasonality or sustainability.
What is your favorite ingredient and favorite meal to cook?
I like fresh basil because there’s no substitute to it, and it smells so good. My favorite thing to cook is tarts with seasonal fruits.
What’s your least favorite food?
Back in Italy, we served tripe, which is intestines, so I had to prepare that. There were all these different textures, and then you had the mental issue of realizing what you were doing.
Does your architecture background come into play at all as a chef?
Yeah, it’s all a creative process. You have to design your plate, you have to choose your ingredients, and then it’s artistic, too.
What makes a good chef, and what makes you a good chef?
I think comparing a chef to a home cook is a good way to approach it. To be a chef, you have to be organized, you have to multitask, you have to be a good manager of your time and other people, and you have to be good at interacting with people and building relationships with customers.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a chef?
I’m still a believer in school, because it’s a safe environment to learn. You don’t have to worry about losing your job because you messed up a sauce. But, you can also get a kitchen job, and work hard, and work your way up.
Do you have any advice for home cooks about organizing their refrigerators?
Use clear containers to store food, and add the dates onto the containers. Put meat and eggs on the bottom of the fridge, and put leftovers on the top shelf of the fridge.
Is there any local Arizona ingredient you like to incorporate?
Rosemary, basil and thyme grow well here. It brings a lot to the dish to use fresh herbs. Rosemary is great for grilling, on roasting potatoes, too. Basil is more of a finishing herb. You don’t want to cook it for a long time because it will lose the flavor. It is good in pasta dishes and drinks, too.
What’s a common cooking mistake people make?
When people cook meat or fish, they often overcook it. Get a meat thermometer, and touch the meat with your fingers to associate the temperature with the meat. Get a sense of how food looks or feels.
Another thing is, when you saute something, you want to heat the pan first, then heat the oil, so you get a nice sear and don’t dry anything out.