Q&A with Executive Chef Michael Dei Maggi
Hailing from Rochester, New York, Chef Michael Dei Maggi has shaped a worldly culinary voice, traveling the globe throughout his 20-year career. Since graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he’s contributed to the culinary scene in New York, California, Texas, and Arizona.
His latest chapter involves being an integral part of the Project 201 transformation of Talking Stick Resort Arena, where Chef Michael is leading the elevation of the arena’s entire food and guest experience as Levy’s Executive Chef. His detailed, yet classic culinary approach will elevate the experience in the new courtside clubs, private suites, and across concourse concessions. Guests can expect to be wowed with rotating menus influenced by fresh seasonal ingredients, and imaginative dining experiences that complement the fast-paced action on the court.
Assisting Chef Michael will be the addition of a brand new two-story commissary and main culinary kitchen that will be completed this summer. Throughout an NBA season, this kitchen will take-in and process 84,000 pounds of locally sourced produce provided by local and specialty purveyors, and 110,000 pounds farm-raised and premium proteins. Special care of these ingredients are provided in multiple temperature controlled rooms and refrigerators large enough to drive a car into. The commissary will also harness a CO2-farm to help push the 3,500 kegs of local craft and premium beer served annually to almost any location in the arena. A popcorn facility will be able to produce the 16,000 pounds of fresh popcorn at 355 degrees so quickly you will find nothing fresher anywhere. Once brought into the facility, battery operated carts move these precious ingredients to where the chef’s need them on the second level’s nearly 7,000 square foot state-of-the-art kitchen.
Needless to say, Chef Michael is excited to elevate the arena’s offerings to new heights.
WHEN DID YOU BEGIN THIS JOURNEY AT TALKING STICK RESORT ARENA?
Chef: "The 17th or 18th of January. I came on board and slowly started getting my feet wet. The OKC Thunder was my first menu that we executed. There are so many moving parts and it's slightly different from some things that I've done in the past, very similar to others. One of the big things is to really try to understand the scope of the full operation before making any significant changes. A lot like the team is rebuilding, we're kind of in that phase as well. So, I'll evaluate and identify the talent that we've got on our roster currently, work with them and cultivate them through the end of the season. Close as strongly as possible without creating too many ripples and that open with a bang next year. I can’t wait until we reopen the arena – this place is going to be spectacular."
WHETHER A GAME, CONCERT OR EVENT, DO YOU SEE THE MENU ADJUSTING TO OCCASION?
Chef: "100 percent. I think there has to be an overarching theme of everything that we're trying to accomplish and then I think you'd kind of silo the different things under that. Whatever it is that we're trying to accomplish, whether it's chef-driven farm to fork and culinarily focused with authenticity, that'll play into a lot of that menu generation. Then we'll just kind of tier that out depending on how the event itself flows. But it'll be custom. We're building catering packages, but one of the things that we prefer to do would be to work with the clients on a one-on-one basis in order to create custom catering packages. That gives us a lot more flexibility to execute throughout the year for sure."
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIALITY WHEN IT COMES TO CUISINE?
Chef: "I've done everything. I'm classically trained in European cookery. I spent several years in France and then came back and worked in New York City and in Napa. I've done east coast, super fine dining and French influence. I've done Michelin Star French. Then in Napa Valley, it was local-centric California cuisine. For the last three years, I headed up the R&D team for PF Chang's. It was focusing only on pan-Asian and in that world my specialty is more in Southeast Asian and Korean. Food excites me in any capacity."
WHAT IS YOUR BASKETBALL BACKGROUND?
Chef: "I'm getting super into it for sure. I went to a boarding school in central Texas. When I was in seventh grade and I played rugby, football and soccer. I did one year of basketball and the coach put his arm around my shoulder and he said, 'I don't think this is your sport.' Which is funny because they're somebody that's supposed to be a guiding hand. My sport is cooking. It's a high-level competitive sport as well. There's a lot of correlations there."
OUTSIDE OF COOKING, WHAT ARE YOUR OTHER HOBBIES?
Chef: "Cooking. I mean, I cook for fun too. My life is food. I collect records. I probably have about 5,000, maybe more. My grandfather left me his record collection when he passed and that was kind of our thing. We always listened to records. So, I got his original pressings going back to when music started. I have a room that's basically all records and then in our living room I have a beautiful antique that houses about 500 very unique, one of a kind records. They’re kind of stashed around the house in any place my wife would let me.
WITH YOUR RECORD COLLECTION, WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TYPE OF MUSIC?
Chef: "It varies. I grew up in Texas for the most part. I like old outlaw country music. I like hip hop quite a lot. Punk rock and heavy metal. My, my collection spans everything from Dwight Yoakam to Bad Religion to Wu Tang to super obscure jazz, soul and R&B music. I am just a fan. I devour everything I can get. So, just like with food, same with music, it helps us to understand people.”
IS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME LIVING IN THE VALLEY?
Chef: "No. I actually met my wife here. I came out here years ago. I was the chef at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and I came out here to open a sustainable seafood restaurant. I ended up chefing at a couple of places around the Valley, just kind of trying to figure out what we're going to do. Then went back to the Bay area. Then, I came back here for PF Chang's. We're headquartered here. My parents are in Prescott and my wife's family, her mother and sister, are here from New York. So, it made a lot of sense. Staying in The Valley was really important to us. We were looking at what the next move for us was and to be able to do something like this that is so community oriented, it was really exciting.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE CUISINE SPOTS LOCALLY?
Chef: “I generally tend to gravitate towards hole in the walls. So, 14th and Roosevelt, there's a place called Rito's Mexican Food that doesn't have a sign, but they do have a James Beard Award. It is a no seats, you can only seat outside. They basically only do red chili burritos and green chili burritos. But it's more than that. They're unbelievable. It's one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. So, usually when I have like super high-end chefs or anybody that's coming into town, that's usually the first stop that I take them. We all tend to eat that way. We do go to fine dining, but for me, Rito's Mexican Food, Tacos Chiwas on McDowell and the 51, and a little place called Pho Winglee on Dobson and Main are three of the best.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LEAD THE ELEVATION OF THE CULINARY EXPERIENCE AS PART OF THIS TRANSFORMATION?
Chef: “I think that this is the coolest job for a chef in the state, if not in the region. We have to start from the top down with a complete holistic change of how we do things. First off, everybody that comes into that kitchen needs to not only know how important the job we are doing is, but they need to know how important their role in that mission. What I'm trying to do now is shift the culture a little bit. I don't really think a culture document is something that's a poster on the wall. A culture document is what's the real living and breathing culture in your organization. Fostering that loving environment where they feel supported, where they understand their role, they understand how important what we do is and how fun it is. Don't forget to look at the smiles on those faces. Don't forget to interact with our guests. Please understand that your job is to make experiences, not just to make food. The food is secondary. The food is the easy part. I'm a lead from the trenches kind of guy. We want to set excellence as our goal. That's excellence in everything we do. That's excellence in our uniforms. That's excellence in our interactions with our coworkers and with other people in the building.”
WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE GOAL HERE AT TSRA?
Chef: "For me it is a community piece. We live in Ahwatukee, which is a small, very tight knit community. We're very involved in our local community. So, building that circle out, where we're all just members of this community. The goal is that we can start breaking down some of those silos that people have. Regardless of your political affiliation or the color of your skin or your sexual proclivities or any of that stuff, we can all just come together and have a blast. Watch the Suns and Mercury win some basketball games and have some good food.”
JOIN THE TRANSFORMATION: Suns.com/Project201
Since it first rose from the desert floor in 1992, few structures have meant more to a city than the arena at 201 E. Jefferson Street in Phoenix. Today's Talking Stick Resort Arena has been the hub for world class sports and entertainment for 27 years. The once state-of-the-art venue helped drive the growth of downtown Phoenix to become the thriving metropolitan destination that it is today, but it's time for a reimagination.
A $230 million transformation is underway at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the first Phoenix venue to go through a significant redesign in more than 10 years, that will reinforce its place as Arizona's premier sports and entertainment destination. Updates to the building's infrastructure (mechanical, electrical, plumbing and structural) are a significant aspect of the redesign, but the majority of the work will exponentially improve the overall fan experience – from the local food offerings, to expanded concourses that will increase flow and communal areas for shared experiences, significant improvements in lighting, audio and video resolution, and technology that makes the fan journey smooth and seamless.