“Truly, Insanely Passionate” – Chef Kevin Binkley

The Chef:  Kevin Binkley 
The Place: Binkley’s Restaurant
The Conversation: Enlightening and awe-inspiring
By: Laura Stoddard

His name is synonymous with culinary excellence and innovation. His restaurants draw throngs of eager, hungry patrons seeking an upscale experience. Recognition and accolades have followed his career for more than three decades. To tell you the truth, I was a little intimidated to sit down and talk with this notable chef. And yet, as a lengthy and candid conversation ensued about his journey through both life and the culinary world, I found Kevin Binkley to be down to earth, extremely humble and genuine, and tremendously passionate about what he does.

THE BEGINNINGS
Growing up, Kevin had an interest in music, and in his early teens he decided that he wanted to save up for a guitar, so at fourteen, he started his very first job—at TCBY. “I tell people that and they’re like, ‘Really? TCBY?’ And I say, ‘You know what?—I learned some very important things there that still hold true in what I do day-to-day’.” Namely, hard work. In every form. Hired as the low man on the totem pole, Kevin earned his keep (a meager one at that, he admits—it was going to take a long time to buy that guitar) sweeping, mopping, sanitizing, and doing dishes. Learning to spin yogurt into ice cream and make crepes were fun things to learn, and rudimentary though it was, he found that he really liked his first taste of the culinary industry. “And from that point forward,” he says, “it seems like every job that I ever got was, for the most part, relative to food. I like the restaurant business because there are so many different positions you fill, or different ways you approach it.”

After high school, Kevin attended East Carolina University in North Carolina. When he was a junior in college, his guidance counselor gently but firmly told him that he really needed to declare a major, because Kevin hadn’t done so up to that point. “I think he was trying to put my feet to the fire, and it reversed on him,” Kevin smiles. “So I decided I didn’t want to commit to anything I wasn’t interested in using in my profession, and I dropped out.”

THE LIGHTBULB MOMENT
Kevin and some friends found themselves in New Orleans, a veritable smorgasbord of flavors, cooking styles, and exciting culinary experiences. “I ended up staying and getting a cooking job. A good friend of mine (Richie Brandenburg) who was also there, had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park New York, which was ranked the best culinary school in the U.S.” Kevin explains that it was only one of a few culinary schools at that time. “This was before Food Network, before real celebrity chefs and things of that nature.” When Kevin wasn’t working, he’d ask Richie to teach him some of the techniques and dishes he’d learned at school. He was keenly interested in learning more about food, and the care and preparation of it.

After New Orleans, Kevin moved to Scottsdale, where his mother and stepfather lived, planning to go back to college at Arizona State University and finally focus on one area: music, which he still wasn’t completely excited about. It was at this time that Richie (still one of Kevin’s best friends to this day) asked Kevin a pivotal and life changing question: Had Kevin ever considered culinary school? It was obvious Kevin loved cooking and had a knack for it, and he was now, fortuitously, living in the same city as the Number Three-Ranked culinary school in the nation, The Scottsdale Culinary Institute. “And it’s like a lightbulb went off. I’d never even considered it as a career! I just really liked cooking, and I love food and love to eat.”

Kevin recalls his experience touring the institute (known today as Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Scottsdale): “I was shocked. It was amazing! It was like going to summer camp—you know, like a cool summer camp that you were excited about going to, not like one your parents forced you to go to.” He was amazed and delighted that he could go to a place where they cooked food, ate food, and earned an Associates degree doing it. He joined the culinary institute, and was off and running, meeting some tremendous friends and mentors along the way.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON
After graduating from culinary school, Kevin was strategic about where he took his first job. His stepfather, a DuPont salesman for over thirty years, had wined and dined all over the country, and was something of a connoisseur when it came to fine dining. So Kevin asked him what the best restaurant he’d ever eaten at was, and his stepfather replied without hesitation, The Inn at Little Washington. The inn  was 60 miles west of Washington, D.C., so fairly near to where Kevin grew up, and with that unequivocal answer, he knew where he wanted to try to work.

“I went out there to do an interview, which was a two-day affair, and after the first day I was sure I didn’t get hired. The second day I sat down with the chef and the manager at the end of the evening, and they offered me a position! The pay was nearly poverty level, even though I’d just graduated culinary school, but I felt like it was a blessing, and I was pleased that I was going get paid at all if there was an opportunity to work there.” Even though he was once again, low man on the totem pole, just doing garnishes for the cooks at night, he valued the opportunity to work at the 5-Star, 5-Diamond venue. He made it his mission to learn every role in the restaurant, to never regard any job as beneath him, and to hone his cooking skills at every opportunity. From preparing garnishes, he became a breakfast cook. Then he was moved to the hot line, and eventually, he found himself working near restaurant owner and chef, Patrick O’Connell. “I don’t think the chef knew my name for the first 12-15 months I worked there, but then he started to recognize my efforts and how much I cared, and also that I was being able to work in multiple positions.”

And that’s when everything changed.

THE RISE
Chef O’Connell recognized what Kevin was capable of, and they started to build a rapport. He took Kevin under his wing, having him assist with special events, traveling all over the country. It was an amazing time. “Patrick O’Connell is my mentor,” says Kevin. “He is a genius, first of all. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. He was always gracious and appreciative.” This was a time of great exposure for Kevin. They went to the finest places, ate decadent food and sipped world-class wines. He saw the regard and respect with which Chef O’Connell was treated. “There’s no question, he opened my eyes.”

Kevin worked at the Inn at Little Washington for several more years, moving up to role of executive sous chef, working directly under Chef O’Connell, and running the kitchen at 25 years old. “It was a lot of responsibility,” Kevin recalls, “And it was overwhelming, but it was do or die. I remember at one point—because it’s intense, you don’t get a lot of positive feedback in this business—I went to Patrick because I didn’t want to hurt his business, and I wanted to make sure that the restaurant thrived, and I sat down with him and the general manager, saying, ‘Look, I really appreciate you guys giving me this opportunity, but I don’t want to fail you, and I feel like I am. I think you should consider bringing someone else in. I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere, but I don’t feel like I’m meeting your expectations, and I’m disappointed in myself.’ I was shocked at how they responded.” They told Kevin that, in fact, he was exceeding their expectations, and he walked away with a sizeable raise.

With that boost in confidence, and nearly four and a half years of experience at the Inn, Kevin decided it was time to broaden his horizons. His next job was at The French Laundry, a Thomas Keller restaurant, in Napa Valley. He started as the butcher and once again, made it his goal to learn and master every position. He rose up the ranks, fortunate to get to the point where he was working the hot line at night right next to Chef Keller.

“After I’d worked at The French Laundry for a little over a year, I went to him and said I needed to experience some other parts, and that my next step was to be a chef somewhere. I was closing in on 30, and had a timeline that I wanted to get things done in. I told him I wanted front of house experience, basically, on the service side of it, so I could understand it better. As a chef, I thought that would be important. I also wanted to get more baking experience. While I was at The French Laundry, the pay was lean as well; I would have to work on my days off, so I was working seven days week. You didn’t have a choice if you want to succeed in this business—when you’re working in the places I was. So the chef allowed me to work as a server for the last three to four moths that I was there. I was a food runner, and I got to see that side, which was tremendous for me. I was also working with a company my wife was working with, in their bake shop. This was Joel Gott’s group, when they had Palisades Market. So basically, I was able to fulfill the areas that I thought I was weakest in.”

LESSONS LEARNED
Kevin and his wife moved to Phoenix in 2002, and he worked as the chef at a restaurant that had been open for about five years. This was a very different experience, however. Kevin was used to working with talented people, in exclusive arenas, learning about hard work and ethics. But in this new role he inherited, what he calls, a total mess. “I went into this place as the chef and it was a lot of clean up. It was disheartening going into that environment, and it was an uphill battle. I learned a lot about what not to do. That was an incredibly valuable lesson to learn.” The cooks and wait staff weren’t engaged, the front of house was poorly handled, and he was dealing with dishonest owners. “It was eye opening, learning what not to do, which was ultimately instrumental to my success. I saw how poorly things were handled, and didn’t want to do that.”

After a few months, he was able to turn things around. He was given carte blanche on designing the menu and hired new cooks. “They were pretty dedicated to me, my philosophy and the way I was approaching food. And we became a pretty awesome team, and created some awesome food.” However, irreparable damage had been done before Kevin’s time at the restaurant and it soon closed.

Fortunately, Kevin was already working on opening Binkley’s in Cave Creek, so he turned his attention to that, and while trying to raise money for the restaurant, he and his wife Amy catered to keep them (just barely) afloat. “We ended up opening Binkley’s in Cave Creek in 2004. May 25th, I’ll never forget that day. It was the scariest and probably most exciting day of my life in my professional career. I would work well over 100 hours a week for the next two years to try to make it successful, and fortunately, we were! We were considered a success story, which makes me really nervous for people that aren’t successful, because, like I said, this is a struggle every day. It’s tough. The amount of hours and effort that goes into it. But I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love food. And I love cooking. Basically,” he laughs, “it seems like every year I make less money as I’m getting older, as opposed to making more. But I’m trying to find quality of life and how to make this business work still be proud of what we’re producing. Because if I’m not, I don’t want to do it.”

BINKLEY’S
After 13 years, there were four Binkley’s restaurants in the Phoenix valley, doing, in Kevin’s opinion, moderately well. But it became overwhelming. Four locations, 130 employees, and Kevin was driving sometimes five hours a day between restaurants. “I felt like I was always training, or putting out fires, or hiring and firing—not growing as a cook; which is really what I am. I’m a technician, not a manager.” And, regrettably, he got to see the seedier side of owning a business; dealing with dishonest employees who stole and lied, and tried to sabotage his business. It was extremely disappointing and frustrating.

So he shuttered the doors of the Cave Creek and Scottsdale locations. Café Bink still exists in Carefree, but he turned over management to a trusted friend and talented chef, Justin Olsen. And at about this time last year, Kevin decided that he would move their flagship restaurant, Binkley’s Restaurant, to the Midtown location, an intimate venue (a converted house), flanked by gardens, in a charming neighborhood.

“I love this location so much. We wanted to do Binkley’s here originally, 15 years ago. At the time it was Sophie’s, a really cool little French bistro, but the owner (John Crosby) wouldn’t sell it. But I maintained a really good relationship with him. I shared with him what I was trying to do, my vision for my restaurant.” To Kevin’s delight, John Crosby reached out to him about five years ago and asked if he knew anyone who’d be interested in taking over Sophie’s and buying the property. “I said, ‘John, you know I’d love that’, so that’s how we ended up here!” However, there was a problem. “I told him the banks wouldn’t touch me, I’d just paid off our investors, and I didn’t want to raise more capitol.” Amazingly, John Crosby said that he personally would be the bank. So they worked out a deal. “He was in his eighties at the time, so he’s never going to see the entire return, but he’s a renaissance guy and he loves what we do, and he wanted to make sure that this landed in our hands. It’s super cool. It touches my heart when I think about it.”

Kevin and his wife sold their house in Anthem, poured all their remaining money into the new restaurant and moved so that they could be closer to the flagship location. In fact, they moved into a home that’s only a two-minute walk to the restaurant. From there, “We simplified. Not managing as many people. Focusing on food, doing what I love. These [restaurants] are my babies. Even to this day, my hours have been cut way back, but it’s all-consuming.”

THE BINKLEY’S EXPERIENCE
Regarding the new Binkley’s Restaurant, Kevin says, “The concept we’re doing here now is so different from anything I’ve ever seen before. We all work together. It’s not like where you have front of house and back of house; where you have kitchen and servers. It’s more that we work together as a team. I’m really pleased with our results so far, and I know we have a long way to go, but we’re getting better every day, and that’s super important to me. I have a lot of dedicated people that work for me. I need people who are die-hard, who want to be here no matter what, and people that I feel good about. When people fall off, if there’s not the right person to come on, we just won’t hire anybody. We’ll just limit the amount of reservations that come in so we can still provide the experience that’s necessary.”

Obviously, you want to know the type of cuisine you can expect when you go out to eat, so I asked Kevin what people can expect at his restaurant. His response was honest and somewhat philosophical. “I don’t know if you could classify the type of cuisine we serve. What I always tell people is, contemporary American, because I’m not sure what that means! It leaves a pretty open-ended interpretation, but seems to appease people. Because, what’s American? What’s contemporary? My dishes reflect a cross-section of travels and foods that I love, and things that I’ve experienced.

“We change at least a third of the menu every week, so if somebody came back every month, they’d have an entirely new experience. That’s our menu right now for tonight,” he says, gesturing to a long blackboard displayed on the wall. “It’s 27 courses. See where it says tomatoes? That’s actually five separate courses of tomatoes right there. It’s a 3 ½-hour, 27 course experience.” Patrons make reservations in advance, pay a set fee (just over $160), then come to enjoy dinner without having to worry about paying or tipping at the end, or potentially having a heart attack when they see the huge bill they’ve wracked up. Kevin says he’s eaten at 3-Star Michelin restaurants that have amazing food and atmospheres, but when they receive the tab at the end of the night, it’s a blow to the gut. He once received a bill at a restaurant at Paris that literally could’ve been a mortgage payment! He doesn’t want people here to experience that here, and he thinks it’s just time to shake things up.

“I’ve been cooking at this point for over 30 years, and I think the traditional restaurant model is broken, and I feel like it’s kind of stagnant, and it needs some change. Not that I’m like some sort of genius—far from that, but there’s people who have pushed the limits and have done well with it. What we’re trying to create here is totally different.”

The concept, in simplest terms, is that Kevin and Amy want to make diners feel like they would if they invited them to their home for dinner; to provide an intimate atmosphere, without the hassle of money changing hands. “So when you come here, when the weather’s nice we start you on the patio, because if you come to our house, we wouldn’t sit you in the main dining room for 3 ½ hours and present you with a bill and you leave. You come in, and you are in our hands. We cook for you, and serve you—we’re right there with you.

“We want people who come here to have an experience of a lifetime. After a few courses on the patio we move to the bar. After that we move into the dining room, which runs into the kitchen, and just like in our home, the kitchen’s open. We invite people, just like we would at home, to go anywhere, any time. If you want to go behind the bar, if you want to go into the backside of the kitchen, if you want to ask us or the cooks questions, it’s all open. I’ve never seen anything like it either, but we have nothing to hide! This is who we are. It’s not like we’re the best in the world—we’re well aware of that, but we’re certainly trying very hard and we put our best foot forward every single day.”

Again, as I sit talking to this chef, I am amazed by his candor and humility, but also by his ambition and the amount of confidence he has in his team and the concept of Binkley’s guest centric restaurant.

CLOSED FOR THE SUMMER – FUTURE RESERVATIONS
I was fortunate to catch Kevin literally on their last night of service before closing for the summer. Kevin will be doing some travelling in the next few months; some business, some pleasure. Part of his travels will take him to Japan, where he has the opportunity to train with a Kaiseki chef. “I don’t speak Japanese, he doesn’t speak English, but there’s a translator that will be there, and I’m going to learn from a master for a few days. It’s going to be an unbelievable experience. Food is one of those things, and I think there’s probably a lot of things like this; certainly with wine, that the more you learn about it, the more you realize you don’t know. And our lives are too short to pass up any opportunity to grow and work with really great people, so this is an opportunity that I feel like I can’t pass up.”

The restaurant will re-open on September 13th, and reservations are open now. Only 24 seats are open on operating nights, and they do fill up quickly. Check the website for days and hours, and additional beverage packages you can add onto your reservation.

I knew Kevin needed to get back to his prep work, so I finished with one final question: What advice would you give people who want to get into this business? He thought about it for a minute, then said, “It’s an awesome profession in a lot of ways, but if it’s not something that you’re truly, insanely passionate about, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. It gets harder every year to be successful in this business, so you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to LOVE it.”

And it’s more than evident that Kevin Binkley does.

Thanks for your time, Chef!

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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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