The hospitality industry runs deep in chef Alex Stratta’s blood. Not only has his family worked in restaurants and hotels for decades, but he also began an award-winning career at a young age. In 1989, Stratta took on an executive chef role at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale and subsequently spent 16 years in the Las Vegas culinary scene. Returning to Phoenix to develop new projects and spend more time with family is just one chapter in his long running cookbook of life.
JA: Getting recognized as one of “America’s Ten Best New Chefs” and winning James Beard Foundation awards is no small feat! Can you tell us how you made your way into the culinary world? Have you always had a passion for cooking?
AS: I was born a fifth-generation hotelier and restaurateur and was raised and educated in the field of hospitality my whole life. Although most of my ancestors were more like directors, managers and presidents of companies, I opted to go into the culinary trade. I quickly got a knack for it and it inspired me to follow cooking as a career path, not really knowing where it would lead me. I love the culture, history and tradition of local, regional and world cuisines.
JA: Tell us more about your latest Scottsdale restaurant, Stratta Lifestyle Kitchen. We’d love to know more about the concept and the driving philosophy behind the restaurant.
AS: The idea for Stratta Kitchen was born from many factors. Most of all, we offer foods that I love to eat daily and that are not only flavorful but healthy and nutritious. There are many culturally rich, traditionally founded and historically relevant dishes on the menu. They’re mostly from the Mediterranean basin and always simply presented with the best quality ingredients available to me.
JA: Many of your menu items are incredibly rich with vegetables, dark, leafy greens and lean proteins. And they also feature unexpected ingredients like local honey, currants, Turkish apricots and more. Can you tell us what your creative process is like in the kitchen? How do you develop your menu?
AS: As far as the creative process itself, it’s centered on bringing tried and true recipes with cultural significance into a menu that’s cohesive and representative of various flavors and styles of cooking in traditional and regional food. The vegetables and grains are the main attraction for the dishes. And the flavor profiles around them are there to give them texture, depth, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, spice and perfume. Having the ability to cook with a well-rounded understanding of a particular dish’s history, I’m able to enhance the flavors with the right regional flavors, condiments and spices. I’d say that there is more history and tradition in our menu than there is of my individual creativity.
JA: At Delta Dental of Arizona, we know how important good nutrition is for our bodies and our mouths. A diet low in sugar reduces the risk for diabetes, inflammatory diseases and oral health problems like cavities and gum disease. Can you tell us more about why it was important to you to create dishes low in sugar?
AS: Although I’m guilty of having a sweet tooth and have a love for desserts, I limit our offerings in this area. The ingredients are inherently healthy and whole without adding sugar or sweetener. I pull the sweetness out of the ingredients through caramelization of the natural sugars in the ingredients. Many ingredients known in the Mediterranean diet are naturally high in antioxidants, nutritional value, fiber and vitamins. They’re particularly high in antioxidants such as glutathione, omega oils and other anti-inflammatories. It’s not scientific for me. The foods are inherently healthy!
JA: Getting kids interested in healthy eating and healthy cooking at a young age is the best way to set them up for good habits later in life. Tell us more about your healthy kids’ menu.
AS: I am the father of 13-year-old twins, Marco and Bianca, and as a chef, I do my best to keep them away from foods I know aren’t good for their diets and activity levels. It isn’t as easy as telling them what they should eat, it’s more about exposing kids to delicious foods, including grains, vegetables, fresh seafood and lean meats. I certainly don’t want to deprive my kids of delicious chocolate, pastries and candy. I’ve realized forbidding these things just makes them want them more! Their mom and I try to balance their meals, serve smaller portions and serve them non-GMO foods as often and regularly as possible.
JA: Absolutely, depriving kids is not the answer. But helping them make good choices like brushing after those yummy sweets is so helpful. What’s something that you love to cook for your family? Do you have any favorite local ingredients you turn to?
AS: I love making vegetable soup or some kind of pasta with mushrooms and good cheese. These are simple, flavorful, familiar and easy to make recipes that keep everyone happy and don’t take too much time in preparation!
JA: We love cheese, it’s so great for your teeth and bones! Speaking of cheese, when you’re at work what brings a genuine smile to your face each day?
AS: I enjoy seeing and working with fresh ingredients, particularly those at the peak of their ripeness, freshness and seasonality. I also like to see cooks that I’ve educated along the way develop into very good cooks with a firm understanding of the why more than the how of cooking.
JA: Do you have any advice for home cooks who want to find creative ways to create healthier meals?
AS: Instead of starting out with a protein or main part of the meal, start with vegetables and then figure out what meat or fish go with them. Turn it around and you’ll be more selective, use less of the protein and focus more attention and care into your vegetable preparations.
JA: That’s an easy tip to follow and ensures you’re filling your plate with fiber-rich veggies each day. What does healthy living mean to you? Why is it so important?
AS: It means having a healthy body, clear and active mind, and peaceful spirit. It’s the only way to go!
Chef Alex Stratta’s Minestrone Soup
This recipe serves 8-10 people and would be a great dish to make ahead and pack into you or your child’s lunchbox for a healthy, warm meal.
- ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup of sliced garlic
- 1 cup of white onion, diced
- ½ cup of celery, diced
- ½ cup of carrots, diced
- 1 cup of red bell pepper, diced
- 1 cup of zucchini, diced
- 2 cups of eggplant, diced
- 10 ounce can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes (in juice)
- 1 cup of cooked white beans
- Toasted cous cous
- 2 quarts of chicken stock
- 1 bunch of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Dice all vegetables into 3/8-inch cubes and keep separated.
- Place a heavy sauce or stock pot over medium heat and add the olive oil until it begins to smoke lightly. Then add the sliced garlic, onions, carrots, celery, and bell peppers. Sweat until translucent and add salt and pepper. Then add the diced zucchini and eggplant and stew until soft.
- Add the canned tomatoes, beans and chicken stock and simmer. Next add the toasted cous cous, thyme and bay leaves. Simmer for 2 hours and check the seasoning levels.
- Soup should be thick and hearty. Once the soup has finished cooking, remove and discard the thyme and bay leaves and keep warm until served.
You can replace chicken stock with vegetable stock to keep this meal vegetarian or vegan-friendly.