SOUL CHEF Chris Newstrom – “Onward and Upward”

Title: “Onward and Upward”
The Chef: Chris Newstrom, Culinary Director of Upward Projects
The Restaurants: Postino, Windsor, Federal Pizza, Joyride Taco House, and Churn
By: Laura Stoddard

I have two words to describe Chef Chris Newstrom: Fire and Cracker. Okay, technically that’s one word, so if you insist upon two: Firecracker and Coach. After our 45-minute conversation, I felt the need to high-five him, then immediately go out and either tackle someone, or whip up a dish so incredible it would blow people’s heads off. His passion and enthusiasm for both what he does and the people he works with veritably radiate off of him. He kept using the word hustle, and seriously, around Chris, that’s what you want to do.

Our meeting began with a quick tour of the Upward Projects offices; an eclectic, colorful space located within a building designed in the 1960s by popular Mid-century Modern architect, Al Beadle. The outwardly basic structure, which once housed First Federal Savings and Loan, shares a wall with one of Upward Projects’ restaurants, Federal Pizza—and you can probably figure out the correlation between the names. Chris proudly showed off the space where his team creates some of its magic. The rest of the magic, of course, is achieved in the restaurants Upward Projects (and Chris, as Culinary Director) manages, namely: Postino, Windsor, Federal Pizza, Joyride Taco House, and Churn. These are some of the most popular, critically-acclaimed dining establishments in the Phoenix valley. Overseeing them is a big job, but I can’t think of a better person to do it than Chris Newstrom.

THE BEGINNINGS
Chris was born in a small town in Minnesota, and developed a love for food at a very young age. “I just loved to eat,” he says. “I was the type of kid who would eat until I was almost sick. I would just continually stuff myself, and I always wanted extra portions of things.” Which is surprising, because Chris isn’t what you’d call, of considerable girth. But at about the age of 12 he started to develop an interest in the cooking as well as the eating. Some of his favorite things to make were meatloaf, steak, and PB & J—but not just any PB & J. “I have this crazy obsession with peanut butter sandwiches which are: honey peanut butter, a little bit of crunchy peanut butter, and some blackberry preserves, with jalapeno potato chips. It’s this sweet, crunchy, jammy—” he gets animated talking about it, and I can see him visualizing this creation, “—And then the spicy potato chips to go with it! I love things like that.”

However, don’t go near him with pork rinds (which he just considers nasty), raw granny smith apples (the tartness makes the hair on his arms stand up), or Taleggio (he hates the smell of this malodorous cheese with the passion of a thousand fiery suns).

As a teenager Chris secured a job as a busboy at a local restaurant called Uncle Sam’s. He was a hard worker, and showed promise, so after about a year, the owner put him in the kitchen. He started at pizza station, then moved on to grill. It was hard work, and fast-paced, but he knew that he was gaining valuable experience. “I just remember that first night of handling all those tickets, and that sense of gratification. It was such a cool accomplishment for me as a young cook. Back then I didn’t know anything. I was just working and having fun.”

When he was about 20 years old he started working at a country club as a dishwasher and busboy. It was another great learning experience. “I used to have to bus all the tables and wash all the dishes and clean all the pizza pans in that place. I had to hustle, and that set the pace for me as a youngster; the sense of urgency. I think that’s so critical to people in this business who want to be successful—urgency and awareness.” At the time, he had a friend who worked at Michael’s Restaurant at the Citadel in Scottsdale. “They were doing a lot of cool, fun stuff over there,” he says. “So I used to pop my head in and learn from them, and that got me really excited about food. I’d already been working in restaurants for about five years, but that really stimulated me, and that’s when I really started to take it seriously.”

THE PROGRESSION
After about three years, Chris left the country club (he was a saucier by that time), and started working at LGO [La Grande Orange in Arcadia] with Craig DeMarco. “I started off as a line cook there and worked my way up to sous chef in a very short time. That was when it had just opened, and within a few years, I got the role of executive sous chef.” Chris then helped Craig open the pizzeria on the premises, as well as Chelsea’s Kitchen, just up the street. “Then I got an executive chef opportunity with them and was there for about six years.”

Chris then stepped away from cooking for a bit to become a consultant—something his natural abilities as a trainer, mentor, and enthusiastic culinary coach came into play. He landed a consulting gig with a company named Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group that would send him to various restaurants for a week or more to train and guide the kitchen team. “I’d take a folder of recipes, and watch everything. I’d train them on every single menu item, do mock services, and get everybody up to speed.” One of the places he helped open and train at was called Founding Farmers, in Washington, D.C. It was a two-story restaurant located inside the International Monetary Fund building, and he laughs recalling how he had a bit of a time trying to explain to Security why he was bringing knives into the building.

“So I’ve spent a lot of my career really training people and teaching them the differences between good and great, because I think great is what brings people back. Whenever I go to a restaurant and try different items (because I want to eat a little bit of everything), there always has to be a dish that stands out, and I think it’s all in the details with that.”

Chris moved back to the valley around the time of the economic crash in 2009, and split his time between cooking at Michael’s Restaurant, and doing some catering work. He got in contact with Doug Robson, a chef he’d worked with at LGO, who was about to open Gallo Blanco, and jumped in to help with the opening. “I went over there, and he and I hustled and bustled, and turned that place around.” Chris then helped Doug open Hillside Spot Café in Ahwatukee, and was appointed chef there.

After that, he went to St. Francis, and was delighted to be working with another contact from LGO, chef and friend, Aaron Chamberlin. “All of the correlations kind of started with LGO,” Chris smiles. “There’s a lot of talent that came out of there.”

UPWARD
After about a year and a half at St. Francis, Chris began working for Upward Projects, and it’s been nonstop ever since. His first job was at Windsor, which had just opened. “I took over the kitchen; really turned the screws on that thing, and got it in a good spot. We started doing brunch and just continued to expand and do new things and move stuff around.” The success and possibilities made him and the Upward gang think bigger. “We thought, Let’s open a pizza place! So that turned into Federal [Pizza]. And then it was Joyride Taco House—I opened the one in Gilbert and the one here in Central. Then it was Postino in Kierland.” You’ve heard the title, ‘The Closer’? Well, Chris is ‘The Opener’.

After two years of this volume and velocity of work, Chris was approached by Lauren Bailey, co-founder of Upward Projects and asked if he wanted to accept the monumental responsibility of becoming Culinary Director. “I kind of hesitated at first, because I had never been in that kind of a role. I weighed it and thought about it a little bit, and then,” in true Chris fashion, “jumped in head-first.” Within four years of him taking on the role, Upward had opened another ten restaurants.

“I found myself overseeing all of our units, and opening them, and it’s really created an amazing skill set for me—I can say that confidently. So I’ve probably got 15 restaurant openings under my belt. The first three months [after opening] are the toughest, for sure, just with staffing and consistency and figuring things out. You definitely have to have a thick skin to get through those things and the long days.” And no doubt, there will be more restaurants to open in the future. Most of Chris’s time now is spent doing culinary research and development for the company, overseeing operations of all the independent concepts, working with his development director on kitchen design and improvements, experimenting with food and menus, and jumping on the line when occasion calls for it.

“When I’m writing these menus,” he says, “and working with our teams, and looking at the concepts, I want our food to be very accessible, and not over people’s heads. I always think about what a dish is going to look like when it’s put in front of the customer and what their thoughts will be. Obviously the visual impact is really important, but sometimes, as chefs, we tend to get ahead of ourselves and a little too fancy. Sometimes people just want a really good cooked piece of chicken, or a good piece of salmon. That’s just a huge part of how I develop food; making sure there isn’t anything pretentious on our menu that’s going to scare people off.”

FOOD AND FUN
Even though Chris and his team work really hard, they also know how to have fun. It was eminently clear, looking around the Upward Projects office, that it’s a place where creativity, fun, and friendship are encouraged and nurtured. Chicken suits. Sumo suits. Diabolical hijinx. Horrible musical impersonators. Water balloons and buckets of confetti. The office has seen it all. Chris referred to the office as “the land of pranks”—which is just awesome.

“We’re super serious a lot of the time, but we also love to have fun. No one’s really off limits. Everybody’s really creative around here. They have their inspiration walls. We do all of our graphics in-house. And as you can tell, I’m really serious when it comes to the food and working in the kitchen, but I love to have fun. I think that sometimes there’s a stigma when you get into positions like mine, that you’re that corporate guy. I’m all about quality and standards, but I want to make sure we’re having fun at the same time. That’s really important to me.

“I still cook in the kitchens, but it’s not like I’m running shifts. Every once in a while I will, to cover. Like if we’re down a person, I have stores I’m responsible for, so I have to get in there and run a kitchen. That’s my comfort zone. When I’m on the line and I’m throwing down, that’s where I’m happy, and that’s the easy part for me, I guess you could say. And I’m fast, so I can confidently say that I can get out there and hang with the guys. I love the intensity of it.”

HIGH POINTS
According to Chris, every part of his career is rewarding, but probably the highest point (so far) was being invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City in 2015. Here’s a small-town boy, totally self-taught, by now about 20 years in the business, going to the Big Apple for the first time to cook for mentors, peers, and critics at this most prestigious of places. It was intimidating, but ultimately, one of the greatest experiences of his life.

“I got to travel to a new city and create a menu of items that really spoke to my experience and my heart, and I got to deal with my team and people that I love working with. Brent [Karlicek—also from Upward Projects] actually came and did the wine for it. They were all there. It was just a great experience. And finishing it—just kind of sitting there and really letting it soak in afterward; it was a big accomplishment.”

On a personal note, Chris is the proud father of two grown children. His son dabbled in the culinary industry for a bit, but has since moved onto the realm of real estate, and his daughter is an athlete and a ‘super brainiac’, according to Chris. It’s obvious he’s exceptionally proud of both of them. His son is also into cars in a big way—taking after Chris. They both own Mustangs and love to take them out to the Gila Bend airstrip to blow off some steam, while having their hair blown back driving at magnificently excessive speeds.

PHILOSOPHY AND ADVICE TO OTHERS
This is really where I got the coach vibe off of Chris; when I asked him his philosophy on succeeding in this business, and his advice to others considering getting into it. Prepare for an awesome pep-talk.

“I think the key to success is really being humble and not letting your ego get the best of you, and just working hard and always trying to learn. I really want to make people happy and I always want to challenge myself. I’m an intense person. I really care. So much. I just want people to smile when they eat at one of my restaurants. The experience they have and the hospitality our front of house provides. I believe in making people feel special. I really try and convey that through our food consistently.

“I’m a very competitive person. Like, I want to win. Everybody wants to win, but, I want to win. And I will be very thorough in my thought processes to make sure that our dishes are bulletproof—using exact procedures and measurements; teaching our chefs how to taste; making sure that they understand the details of what to look for in getting quality in the door. Because the better product you have, the better chef you are. And I really like to give a lot of credit to my guys in the stores, because they’re the ones who are grinding every day, making things happen.

“It really goes back to saying Yes. I think if you put your head down and work hard, the rewards will come. Follow your gut. Don’t follow the dollar. Sometimes there are guys that will be looking for another dollar an hour, and don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to pay your bills, but if you really want to apply yourself and go somewhere in this business, you need to find a business where you like the food; you like working with those people and that group; and it’s the right culture fit for you. You stick with it, you be consistent, you show up on time, and push yourself to do better, and you’ll be rewarded.

“Plan on working a lot; don’t call in sick unless you really are,” (he laughs) “You know? And just think about that it takes a team; don’t be self-centered about it. It’s like an engine; every piston’s got to be rolling smoothly, and if there’s one that’s messed up, it screws up the whole driveline. Be able to take feedback and work on a team, because a kitchen is such a big team sport.

“It goes back to saying Yes. Head down. Work hard. Be very aware. The greatest chefs know what’s going on in every corner of their restaurant at all times. Knowing what’s going on all the time is a huge part of success. I think anyone who applies themselves and exudes that they care in something will get rewarded.

“Not everyone is meant to be a culinary director. Not everyone is meant to be an executive chef. Just learn and apply yourself. I think the biggest thing is, just follow your heart and do what feels right. Sometimes if you go and work somewhere for a couple dollars less, but you can learn more, that outweighs the payment. When you’re young, just get out there. Work holidays. Work nights. Work weekends. It will provide you with such a strong skill set, and that will build a lot of confidence in you as an individual.”

“I just had my thirty-eighth birthday, and I think as I continue to go on, I try and stay humble and continue to learn, and I just really want to surround myself with talent. I want people to come in here who want it, and want to grow and want to get better. And I’m committed to working with them. I don’t think that’s the easiest for some people. But if they’re open to feedback and they want to learn and grow, and they’re driven, they’re going to thrive. That’s what gets me charged up; teaching people and teaching awareness, and what to look for, and how to do it. That’s what really gets me super excited.”

Seriously, at the end of our conversation I high-fived Chris and was like, “Yeah! Get it, brother!” He meets every challenge head-on, takes every opportunity to train and educate both his team and himself, continually experiments with ingredients and food while keeping the customer in mind, and strives to always remain humble, playful, and dedicated to excellence.

Loved talking to you, Chris. Thanks so much for your time!


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Erik Merkow
Founder and CEO at Az Food & Wine
Erik: a father, writer, entrepreneur, son, photographer, corporate guy, friend, brother, and foodie wine guy



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