When I called to talk with Lee Hillson, executive chef at T. Cook’s at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Phoenix for the Food for Thought series, the first words out of his mouth were, “How are you?”
His question wasn’t said with formality or feigned interest. It was genuine and honest. It was obvious that he wanted to know how I, as a person, was doing during these uncertain times. And I think this says as much about Hillson’s character as anything—he cares deeply about others and finds the greatest joy when he’s teaching his staff or engaging with customers. “I love actually showing my guys something they haven’t seen before, even something as simple as making pasta if they haven’t seen that. It’s great seeing their expression. I also love getting out of the kitchen and talking to the guests at least once or twice a night and the same at lunch. It’s really nice seeing the same locals all the time,” said Hillson.
A culinary veteran for nearly 30 years, Lee Hillson uses fresh, local, mouth-healthy ingredients and focuses on simple preparations and uncomplicated dishes with a Mediterranean flair. Much of our conversation revolved around his culinary influences, his love for Mediterranean cuisine and how to make choices that flavor a nutrient-rich diet that’s good for your overall (and oral) health.
JA: You’ve had such a tenured career as a chef in the Valley, can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to cook?
LH: I was raised partially in Australia and we lived in a small town in northwestern Australia with a lot of English expats. In those days, if you were married, you were given a house. If you were single, you were given a flat. My parents would have a lot of the single people over to cook and hang out and I would watch my parents’ friends cook and hang out. I was always intrigued. And I remember my dad making ice creams and marmalade. Both of my parents cooked—my mom cooks more than my dad—but my dad made delicious marmalade. My mom would cook all the time. Sunday morning my dad would cook breakfast and my mom would do a Sunday roast. Everybody had different methods and did different things with the food, and I never understood how you could do so many unique things with food. So, I went to culinary school and graduated just before I was 18 and moved to America.
JA: You grew up in Europe and Australia. How did that experience of growing up outside of the United States influence your cooking and how you interpreted find dining when you came to America?
LH: I come from Europe, and everybody over there, back when I was going to school was much more bang, bang, bang. You did 18+ hour days and didn’t bat an eye. No excuses. I feel over here, because it’s an hourly work environment, you don’t necessarily work off the clock. People need more help over here in the States. Over in England, it was much more intense, so by the time you were 16, if you were going to finish high school, you knew which trade you were going to do.
I was brought up in the industry back in the mid ‘80s when it was more acceptable to be a little more abused by your chef. Now it’s not like that. It’s a different industry. Yelling doesn’t do much. I used to yell a lot; I don’t do that anymore. It doesn’t do anything. You must be more of a leader and teacher now; you can’t just be a boss.
I think now dining is very different than what it was even 10 years ago. It was more fine dining and now it’s more relaxed. People have more knowledge nowadays about food. It’s a different experience. People have their own vision of what they think they’re ordering when they order it.
When things go back to normal (after the COVID-19 pandemic), I think people will obviously be sat further apart from each other, a lot of distancing is going to change. So, it’s going to forever be evolving. But the restaurant industry is always evolving.
JA: Could you tell us a little bit about the food at T. Cook’s? How do you develop your menu? What does your creative process look like?
LH: It’s Mediterranean inspired, so with that we kind of encompass anything from southern France, North Africa, Spain, Italy, the whole Mediterranean gamut. We might use a pasta from Italy or paella from Spain. We’re not strict, but we try to keep it fairly authentic. It’s a beautiful, beautiful restaurant. I love the property. I feel like I’m back home.
As we come into summer, we might change some of our dishes out for other things. Next year we’ll bring certain things back on, like the carbonarra or bisque. I like to work with the sous chefs. I’m not one of those people where it’s my way or the highway. At the end of the day, it’s a team thing. You become a family. It really is about having everybody’s back. You spend so much time together.
JA: When you think about the amazing chefs in Arizona elevating the industry, who do you admire? Who do you look to for inspiration?
LH: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza from Barrio Cafe. She’s like a hero to me. She’s making meals (for the public) every day. And you can go down and pick up a meal until they run out. No questions asked. She’s amazing! It’s awe-inspiring! She’s phenomenal—what she does for the community and for young inspiring cooks. She’s just an amazing role model for so many people.
JA: She truly sounds so inspirational. So much has changed for the restaurant industry in the past few months, beyond all the recent complications from the COVID-19 public health crisis, were there other trends you were already noticing in the way people are eating now?
LH: The vegetarian movement. We started carrying Beyond Meat at the restaurant. People are getting more savvy with their dining. When people want vegetarian food, they want creative food, not just a plate of vegetables. It’s pretty awesome seeing grocery stores now with the vast selection they have now (and) the different produce they have now. They have things like zucchini “noodles” to make things easier.
JA: Is there any locally grown produce you like to cook with?
LH: I love using Arizona citrus! They’re still about right now, which is good. It’s just beautiful. The oranges are so sweet and the lemons are amazing. I love cooking with that. I mentioned my dad made marmalade; I love making marmalade as well. I love cooking with spearmint and mint, maybe adding it to peas or fingerling potatoes.
JA: Speaking of using ingredients on hand, can you tell us a little bit about your experience on the Food Network Show, “Iron Chef America”? It sounds intense!
LH: I think it was an amazing, amazing experience, but probably the scariest hour of my life! It’s funny because you literally had one hour to cook. And then you had to plate up either first or second for the judges. You were only allowed to reheat a dish. You couldn’t recreate it. It was an amazing thing to go through—a lot of fun, a lot of stress. It did a lot for my career in a lot of ways. From a selfish point of view, I got to go do cooking demos on cruise lines, and it gave me a chance to give back to different charity causes. I still get to do the charity work 2-3 times a year. I’m very fortunate that “Iron Chef” gave me the chance to do these charity events.
JA: When you’re not chopping up strange ingredients in under an hour, what do you love to cook just for yourself or your family?
LH: I love cooking Italian. I love making pastas, different ragu sauces. I’m a big Italian fan. I’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of Mediterranean cruises. I just made mushroom truffle tortellini last night.
JA: That sounds delicious! I was an Italian major in college and so I appreciate your love of Italy! For those of us cooking at home a little more often these days, what are some things we can do to up our game?
LH: Just go online and try something different and don’t be scared and just have fun. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Just try it another time. If you fail at something, it doesn’t mean you’ve done it wrong. It’s just a chance to do it another time. I started a sourdough the other day and my first loaf was a little dense, so I just tried again and this one looks a little better. Everybody is from a different part of the world—you could be Greek or Irish, we’re a melting pot over here. So if somebody turns around and says, “My heritage is German. I’m going to try a German a dish,” that’s really cool.
JA: That’s a freeing attitude to take. What role does health play in your cooking? What does eating healthy look like to you?
LH: People have been eating gluten and flours for hundreds of years, but we’ve altered it, which is why people have a hard time with it now. We try and go for food at our house that’s not packed with preservatives or is organic or locally grown and doesn’t have a whole bunch of junk in it. And just eat in moderation. I think you’ll continue to see an upsurge in people continuing to make bread. It’s healthier for you when it’s homemade. It’s easier to digest. Just be smart. Don’t just eat pizzas and burgers every single day.
Take veggies and rather than boiling the junk out of them, just roast them or blanch them so you’re keeping the nutrients. I’d rather buy local lettuce than pre-packaged lettuce, it’s fresher. If you eat lettuce from Blue Sky Farms and then try a bag the next day that’s prepacked, you’ll eat more of the packaged stuff because you aren’t getting the same nutrients. You don’t feel as full. The nutrients fill you up. It may seem more expensive, but that bag of lettuce from the grocery store will wilt and go rotten in a few days. The local lettuce will last longer. Invest money in the local farm food because it lasts longer and you won’t throw it away.
JA: At the time that we’re speaking, T. Cook’s has temporarily suspended operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can Arizonans still support the industry?
LH: We’re completely shut down but support all of the local restaurants. If you want a burger, why not go to Zinburger or The Porch rather than Burger King? Supporting anybody with a local business, that’s what we need to be doing. We need to keep supporting every local restaurant, every local hotel, when things resume to normal. I think it’s amazing that this is what people are doing. I think it’s amazing that people are going out and supporting local right now.
Chef Hillson’s Slow Roasted Lamb with Tarragon Roasted Potatoes
(Originally published on AZFamily)
4 roasted & stuffed lambs (see recipe below)
8 oz cherry tomaotes
8 oz roasted fingerling potatoes (see recipe below)
4 oz jarred marinated tomatoes
8 oz jarred artichokes
5 oz Boursin cheese
2 oz mint
6 oz lamb jus (see recipe below)
Fresh parsley sprigs or celery leaves
For lamb: Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut onions, roma tomatoes, carrots and celery and place them in a roasting pan with sprigs of rosemary, garlic and a sachet of whole black pepper & bay leaf. Add four lamb necks to the roasting pan and slow roast the necks for approximately 6-8 hours until the meat is falling off the bone. Cool slightly and take meat off the bone, leaving it as much intact as possible. Discard bones. Save mirepoix and the jus from the pan for the sauce… set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine small diced marinated tomatoes (4oz), Boursin cheese (4oz) and mint (1T). Lay the meat out so that it is flat. Take some of the cheese mixture and place in a ball in the center of the meat. Form the meat into a ball shaped, enclosing the cheese mixture. Wrap the lamb with caul fat and set aside.
For the roasted potatoes: Cut fingerling potatoes into one to two bite sized pieces, after having cleaned them thoroughly. Toss with salt, tarragon and oil and roast in a 350-degree oven for approximately 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft to the bite and brown and crispy on the outside.
For the lamb jus: Pour the contents of the lamb roasting pan (minus the sachet and sprigs of rosemary) into a pot. Pour chicken stock into the pot just until the stock covers the cooked vegetables. Heat until vegetables are nice and soft. Puree and then strain sauce into another pot. Reduce to sauce consistency.
To plate: Start with a spoonful of the vegetable on the bottom. Place the roasted lamb on top. Spoon the lamb jus on top of the lamb so that it spills into the vegetables. Finish with fresh parsley or celery leaves.