MEET THE CHEF: Executive Chef Chris Neff of Lincoln Restaurant
The impetus for this website was to put a spotlight on the amazing talent we have here in the Valley of the Sun, and Executive Chef Chris Neff is one of those culinary treasures. I was introduced to his craft when he was Chef de Cuisine at Meritage Steakhouse at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge, and I'm thrilled to experience more of his magic since he has moved to the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn to make his mark as Executive Chef at Lincoln Restaurant. Lincoln Restaurant and Bar 1936 (formerly BLT Steak) debuted in the fall of 2016, and at this beautiful resort venue Chef Neff has introduced his signature take on familiar dishes elevated to new sophistication. "My philosophy is to keep it simple and to use the best ingredients you can. I want the food to be true to itself."
A self-described military brat, Chef Neff was born in San Antonio, Texas, "but we moved around quite a bit. I was in Maryland for a while, and then lived in the country of Turkey. I remember fresh octopus and uni right from the Mediterranean Sea." From Turkey, he moved to Florida and grew up in Tampa. "Although most of the men in my family cooked, including both my grandfathers, I never really thought about it until I was a busboy in college and fell into the industry. I was always watching the cooks and it looked like a lot of fun; I liked the camaraderie and team effort. I became a line cook and was awful for about a year, but then really started to train my techniques and palate and develop my passion." And develop it he did. In a short span of 10 years, Chef Neff has attained an impressive pedigree. At the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, "I really honed my craft; there were a lot of great chefs I worked with." In 2010, he made a move to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa where he ran their fine-dining steakhouse. He then went on to Manhattan when he was invited to open NYY Steak, a four-story, $10 million dollar project. "I loved New York. The hotel was right across the street from Nobu and I'd walk past Per Se and Le Bernadin so it was a really cool experience." When the Four Seasons Resort Orlando came calling with an opportunity to open their steakhouse in 2014, he returned to Florida and spent a year before heading to Arizona. "I really love the pre-planning and opening stage - hiring young cooks, ordering new uniforms, designing the menu, picking out the plateware. It's a lot of fun."
He now brings that passion to Lincoln Restaurant. Before opening its doors, Chef Neff traveled to Pennsylvania to Steelite, an award-winning producer of dinnerware. "I was like a kid in a candy store. I imagined what every dish would look like on the plate, so every plate was specifically chosen for an idea in my head. That was really cool, having the opportunity to do that, because not every chef gets to pick his own plates." He also spent time at The Chef's Garden and Culinary Vegetable Institute, a 300-acre family farm in Huron, Ohio acclaimed for their superlative produce. Renowned chefs Thomas Keller and Michel Richard are among its many fans. "I met Farmer Lee Jones, and visited the Institute a few miles away from his farm. There's a kitchen with every single piece of equipment you could imagine, a dining room that seats about 80 people, a bungalow chefs' quarters, and a library with almanacs dating all the way back to the 1800s and every single cookbook you could think of. A lot of chefs write their books there or develop their recipes. It's a beautiful chefs' oasis."
I experienced this exemplary focus on thoughtfulness and quality as we explored some of Chef Neff's favorite dishes.
At Lincoln Restaurant, the beet salad is a prime example of Chef Neff's food philosophy of transforming a familiar dish into something special. For his Beets + Palm, Chef Neff starts with a creamy bed of local Crow's Dairy goat cheese whipped with heavy cream and lemon zest. It's topped with a vibrant tumble of sweet candy cane and golden beets sourced from The Chef's Garden, cherry bomb radishes, blood orange segments, fresh mustard and radish greens, and crunchy slices of hearts of palm brined in chamomile tea. "I use hearts of palm because it's a unique ingredient that has a lot of flavor when used correctly and adds a nice touch to the salad." He tosses this wonderful starter with an elderflower vinaigrette whose floral notes and mustard zip contribute to the harmonious blend of flavors, before finishing with a sprinkle of smoked sea salt “to give it more earthiness.”
Tuna Tartare deliciously demonstrates Chef Neff's hallmark dishes that appear deceptively simple. Jeweled cubes of yellowfin tuna are dressed with a fragrant sesame oil and soy poke sauce and dotted with silky avocado cream and studded with dramatic labor-intensive black sesame rice crisps. "Basically we cook rice, black sesame seeds, and squid ink, puree them, dehydrate, and then deep fry it so it turns into a chip."
Likewise, he calls his Fried Cauliflower "super-simple," but embellishes this humble cruciferous vegetable with smoked yogurt, peppery Japanese mizuna leaves, and a rotating selection of tangy housemmade pickles, currently Persian cucumbers, red onion, and Fresno chiles.
Another favorite of his (and mine) is the must-order Brussels Sprouts "Ramen." Straying from the oft-seen brussels sprouts and bacon combination that appears on many menus, "my dish is pretty unique. I wanted to do a brussels sprouts dish that no one really does. I imagined ramen or something Asian." Chef Neff accomplishes this spectactularly, starting with a ramen-inspired 24-hour broth made with smoked ham hocks, "it's super-rich, smoky, and porky - it’s great.” Raw brussels sprouts leaves are briefly poached in this flavorful liquid until they've softened, and then topped with a 63-degree Celcius poached egg and garnished with chives and crispy onion batons. "For me, I think that 63 degrees is the perfect temperature to poach an egg because you get a really nice texture on the egg white and a perfect consistency on the egg yolk." I wholeheartedly agree.
A table favorite on my visits, and fast-becoming a signature dish, is Country Fried Chicken and Dumplings. This innovative presentation features chicken oysters, the coveted oyster-shaped pieces of meat that lie on either side of a chicken's backbone. Chef Neff uses Pitman Family Farms Mary's Chicken, poultry prized for being free range, non-GMO, organic, and pasture-raised. “Luckily I’m able to source just their chicken oysters. It’s very expensive, but it’s a really unique product that we’re able to offer.” At Lincoln Restaurant, Chef Neff takes this homey comfort dish to new heights. "I thought, what can I do to make it different? Okay, I’m going to do fried chicken oysters and potato gnocchi as the dumplings, and that’s where the idea came from." Complementing the tender nuggets of buttermilk batter-fried chicken are carrots and leeks and a savory chicken jus reduced for a full day to velvety richness. "It worked beautifully and I’m really glad it all came together. It's a best-seller."
I also had a chance to sit down with this talented young chef to ask a few questions.
Can you tell me about some of the changes made to the restaurant and bar? In Bar 1936, we replaced the lounge chairs with new high tops and we have these really cool toasting rails. The name comes from the hotel opening its doors in 1936. In the dining room, all the light fixtures are new, we replaced the chairs, have sliding barn doors for the PDRs [private dining rooms], and expanded the patios. Our back patio can fit about 100 people and we had that many last night for a private event. Our PDRs seat 20 with dividers or it can be opened to seat 50 to 60 people. We also have two gardens and I'm working with the gardener to get scheduled plantings.
Any items that have surprised you with how popular they are? Yes, the sweet corn, which is my version of creamed corn with a Mexican street corn play into it that we finish with a little miso churned butter. It will be off the menu in a couple of weeks, though, with the changing seasonality. I’ll be replacing it with Ramona Farms grits with Crow’s Dairy goat cheese, finish it with the miso butter, and then I made a syrup with huitlacoche that will go on top of the grits.
How often do you change the menu? Four times a year. We’ll make a small change and then we’ll do another change two weeks later, so half the appetizers and the entrées at first, and then the other half. It's easier to do it in two parts than an entire menu transition at one time. I have my staff involved in it too. It’s my turn to give them an opportunity. I have two great sous chefs and a lot of great, talented cooks that are hungry and want to learn. For the last two weeks, I've had meetings where we'll come in an hour early and sit down with The Flavor Bible. I'll tell them my ideas that I want to run with and then I'll say 'now the ball's in your court. I’ve talked to you about my vision, now tell me your ideas,whether it's a dish, five dishes, a vegetable you've found or a cool product.' Even if it doesn't make it on the menu, I'll have them develop a recipe card and run it as a special. There was always somebody there to help me and teach me, and I try to do the same for my staff.
Any future plans? I’m working on trying to get an outdoor kitchen built on the back patio. I would do cooking classes, cooking demos, and private events out there. Another cool thing we're talking about is on a Saturday taking a group of hotel guests to the local farmers market. We’ll go shopping and come back to the hotel to cook lunch. I’m looking forward to doing something like that. It will be awesome.
Lincoln Restaurant and Bar 1936 are located in the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort and Spa at 5402 East Lincoln Drive in Scottsdale, Arizona 85253. Reservations can be made by calling 480-905-7979.