Chef Chat: Ken Arneson of Rico’s American Grill

Chef Ken Arneson
Get to know Chef Ken Arneson of Rico’s American Grill of Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak in Phoenix.
AFM: Have you always been passionate about the culinary world?
KA: Yes, I’ve always been passionate about food due to my Hawaiian heritage. Food has always been a way of life for my family – we live to eat and watch football then eat some more. My passion for the culinary arts really started taking off during culinary school when I saw that cooking was more than flavors, but a combination of art, composition and flavors. When that world became real to me, I was smitten. I knew I would never do anything else.
AFM: Tell us about your first culinary job.
KA: My first cooking job was at KFC, and believe it or not I loved it. I still use some of the techniques I learned back then today. But my first culinary job was a high-volume catering company in Seattle. My chef there was the first person to teach me that there is no short cuts to making great-tasting and great-looking food. If it doesn’t come from inside you, then you better just get out of the kitchen and hope you kept your receipts for your knives because you just wasted your money. I still believe in that mentality today.
AFM: What winter ingredient can at-home chefs incorporate into their dishes and how?
KA: Butternut squash. It is so versatile; you can make anything from ravioli to desserts with it. Use butternut squash just like you would use pumpkin, and it makes a great pie or crème brulee. If you still need more ideas, butternut squash makes a great soup finished with the seeds light toasted with light chili and lime juice. Throw it in the blender when they are dry and you have a great powdery topping that you can garnish the soup with.
AFM: What can diners expect at Rico’s this season?
KA: Some great new seasonal items at Rico’s this season are our locally grown beet salad with crisp kale and our pan-seared salmon with pea foam and sweet potato coulis. We also have a great new array of mini indulgences, like pumpkin spice mousse, peppermint chocolate mousse and, of course, ginger snap cookies and cream.
AFM: Top three gardening tips for those without a green thumb?
KA: Good soil is key and proper watering is a skill. Too much water is bad; too little water is bad. Find the sweet spot and you rule the gardening world. Your plants will tell you what they need, so listen to them, watch them as they grow, and they will let you know what they need. For example, leaves drying out from the outside means they are not getting enough water, while leaves drying from the inside means the plant is getting too much water. Also if the stalk is drying out, this means you need fertilizer (the root is sick). Last but not least, getting the right amount of sunlight, like water, takes technique. It’s a bit more forgiving if overdone, but too much sunlight can cause stress on the plant. Just like anything else, plants need some down time as well. That’s when the nutrients come out of the stems and back to the roots, completing the feeding cycle.
Pizza topping: Sausage. Nothing beats the full flavored goodness sausage brings to the pizza experience. It can make a bad pizza edible.
Cocktail or bottle of wine: Both worlds lend an endless number of new discoveries. With the world of cocktail chefs/mixologists on the rise and winemakers constantly pushing the boundaries of wine, I like to stay an equal opportunist on this subject. No need to play favorites – I don’t want to take the risk of hurting the other’s feelings.
Holiday food: Pumpkin pie. When I was a kid, I thought it was the best thing I had ever experienced.
Culinary city: Vegas would be first for a whole slew of right and wrong reasons. A close second would be Denver. There are some great chefs in Denver trying to make their mark.

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