Kai draws its name from the native Pima word for “seed” and its innovative menu incorporates the rich culture and history of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. Located in the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa and surrounded by panoramic Sonoran desert mountain views, Kai has earned the distinction of being Arizona’s only five-star, five-diamond restaurant. It is here that Chef de Cuisine Ryan Swanson deftly weaves creativity and sophistication with indigenous ingredients grown by the Gila River Indian Community.
Chef Swanson has spent 15 years in the industry honing his culinary skills, including an apprenticeship under James Beard award-winner Vincent Guerithault, as Chef de Partie at the resort's Ko’Sin Restaurant, and sous-chef at Kai before attaining his current position of Chef de Cuisine. I recently had a chance to sit down and learn more about this engaging and talented chef.
What drew you to the industry? I just like to cook in the kitchen. Even when I was a kid, I was always in the kitchen annoying my mom, banging on pots and pans. It was my favorite place to go in the house. My grandpa and my dad would be outside doing something, but I'd be in the kitchen with grandma. She would always be cooking something, or my mom would be cooking something, and I’d be in there with the utensils being a drummer.
So your career choice was no surprise to the family. There was never any question of what I was going to do. It was just, I’m going to do this. I don’t know what capacity I’m going to be doing it at, but I’m going to jump off the cliff and see what happens. It felt like time went by so fast too. Fifteen years already. I remember my first day on the job. Vincent was chasing me around the kitchen and now I’m chasing people around. Ha, no, not really.
How long have you been at Kai? I started about eight years ago at Ko’Sin. I was there for about a year and a half and I worked my way up to Kai, and that is when Josh [Joshua Johnson, former Kai Chef de Cuisine] and I met. We worked together as cooks, and then he got promoted and I became the sous-chef, so we started out together six years ago. We’re actually best friends for sure, hands down. It’s been a friendship that has evolved over the years. From being cooks, and then we became chefs, and just where did the time go. I think that speaks a lot about Kai and the academy this place has with cooks.
In what way? It teaches cooks how to grow and how to become chefs. It’s very encouraging. We always inspire creativity and we always ask everybody to invest in this place, invest your time, take ownership in this restaurant because we’re all shareholders in this restaurant. We all have a say in this, we’re only one piece of the puzzle. While you’re here, don’t just collect a paycheck. Come in, learn, and grow, and that’s definitely what I did. I bought into it. It’s a fun place to work, to learn a culture. Back in the kitchen it’s like a cook’s playground.
Do you have a favorite ingredient? When it comes to the kitchen, I like to make pasta. I like to make certain things that have been around for hundreds of years. I like classic techniques but I like learning techniques also. I just try to mix it up every day.
What's your favorite aspect about working at Kai? First and foremost it's the family that we all have here. I think we all just care about each other and I think that’s what makes it so wonderful - we’re a group, we’re a family. I brought in my family last week. I got some pictures with my mom and my dad, and I thought, both my families have met and it’s kind of cool, it’s pretty neat. Just to see that, how everybody cared for them. Hearing "oh, your dad is a great guy" and seeing that my mom was really, really proud.
It's the same with guests. We’re going to take care of you. You’re not just another guest, you’re not a number. We want to know something about you. How can we make this a memorable experience for you? I think that’s what makes this place great.
Also the creativity. I think that what’s going on in the kitchen right now, what’s going on at the bar, what’s going on in the dining room is the creativity. Everybody has a say. I listen to everybody. I’ll have servers come in and say, "Hey Swanny, what do you think about this or what do you think about that?" I'll say, "That’s a great idea. I’m glad you’re thinking like that."
Tell me about some of your dishes, like the rabbit and goose duo. I think it just represents the community in general. It has the seeds from the community, it has the Pima wheat berries that are just down the road from Ramona Farms. We mix them with wolf berries, which are harvested in Arizona. It’s just a very local dish. I love rabbit and I think goose is under-utilized as well.
This was actually the first dish I put on the menu as mine. That was when Josh left. People will ask me why didn’t I change the whole menu. Even though Josh was the Chef at the time, we collaborated. The whole menu is all of us combined. This restaurant isn’t about one person, we’re a team. With this dish, I said, I’m going to put this on the menu, and I prepped it, made it, and executed it, and everybody kind of bought into it. I'm really proud of this dish because it's a dish where I was really inspired.
What was your inspiration for the trout? That had a story to do personally with me. My dad has a ranch by the border of Canada and Alaska and goes fishing every year. It was the first fishing trip that I was allowed to go on. This is when I was going to be a man...but I didn't feel like a man afterwards. I caught my first steelhead. It was about 25 pounds and and I fought this thing. It almost pulled me out of the boat. I was fighting it downstream and it took about half an hour to reel it in. It pulled out the reel, it cut my hand, I really got beat up. My arms were just jello. When I pulled it in, they said, oh, it’s a steelhead, we don’t have a steelhead tag, we have to let it go. And released it. Ha, but now I’ve got him on the menu. I win. It's served with msickquatash, which is the native word for succotash. It’s just a lovely dish, it’s a great dish, it’s personal to me.
What is your goal? I absolutely want to stay seasonal, but make sure it makes sense for this restaurant. Something unique and genuine that you can only get here. I’m actually going to meet with the beekeeper today about making our own honey. I’m meeting with the forager very soon and we're going to go out in the desert and forage. You can’t have this meal anywhere else - that’s my goal.
What do you see for the future? I’m enjoying this moment right now. I’m just trying to stay focused here on how can I make this better. We really genuinely care about each other. I want the restaurant to do well and I want all of us to be a team and do well together. I want to evolve with this restaurant and just see where we can take it. There are no limits.