Looking Back on 10 Years of the Devour Culinary Classic
Guest article by Howard Seftel
Phoenix hosting a gourmet food festival? Not too many years ago, this town might have had a better shot hosting the Winter Olympics.
Let’s climb in the Time Machine and set the dial to 1978. That’s the year the Valley’s first restaurant guide, “100 Best Restaurants in the Valley of the Sun” hit the bookstores. (Remember bookstores?)
Among the culinary gems cited were Red Lobster, Piccadilly Cafeteria and The Spaghetti Company. The authors were a Paradise Valley couple with time on their hands, and a disposable income which they enjoyed disposing at restaurants. In their artless guide – at least by today’s standards -- they explained sushi to the uninitiated (“rice and raw fish”); bubbled over the Magic Pan’s waitresses’ outfitted in “cute red, green or blue peasant dresses;” and noted with happy astonishment that the vichyssoise at Finch’s actually contained “small morsels of potato.”
The restaurant scene wasn’t much better when I started reviewing in 1992. Yes, by that time we had Vincent, Christopher and RoxSand, but you still didn’t need the fingers on both hands to count the number of top-notch independent chefs. At times, I was desperate to find a restaurant to review. Looking back, my spirits probably bottomed out the week I had to eat my way through a mall food court.
But over the next 15 years, fueled by a booming economy, massive domestic and international immigration and an explosion of sophisticated interest in food, the local culinary scene boomed. During this time, nine chefs from this once steak-and-potatoes state won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef – Southwest.
So by 2005, a group called West of Western thought the town was ready for a big-city food event. For five years, they successfully organized a two-day eating binge every March, housed first in a vacant downtown Phoenix lot and then moving to the Phoenix Art Museum. Credit West of Western for launching what now seems to be an almost weekly calendar of never-ending food festivals.
But neither West of Western nor the festivals it spawned has ever begun to match the scope, sophistication and quality of Devour, which replaced West of Western at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2010. Celebrating its tenth anniversary in February 2019, it’s not only indisputably this town’s premier food event – it’s among the very best in the nation.
What makes Devour stand out year after year? Check out the chef participation list. It’s filled with Arizona’s top chefs, who aren’t into Food Network appearances, building restaurant empires or becoming celebrities. They are craftsmen and women, working chefs, in their kitchens night after night making sure your meal is up to standard. Many of them may still be under the radar nationally, but I’m not being a hometown booster when I say that they can compete with the best chefs in New York or San Francisco.
And they go all out at Devour. Anyone who last year swooned over Kai’s smoked ocean trout with squash escabeche and huitlacoche chumeth, the Dressing Room’s takoyaki hushpuppies with tomato sriacha jam and Gallo Blanco’s flapjacks with plantains Foster knows what I’m talking about.
And then there’s the venue. Last year the Valley’s premier food event moved to the Valley’s premier outdoor setting, the gorgeous Desert Botanical Garden.
Does it get any better than strolling through the magnificent Southwest landscape, noshing on deliciously crafted small plates while sipping Arizona wines under the springtime desert sun? Not to me, or to the thousands of enthusiastic attendees who sell out Devour year after year. Maybe this is your year to get in on the fun.
Written by Howard Seftel
From 1992 to until he retired in 2015, Howard Seftel spent 23 years writing about the Valley restaurant scene, at the Phoenix New Times and Arizona Republic.
A native New Yorker, he lived abroad for five years after college in the 1970s -- three years in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, followed by two years in pre-revolutionary Iran working for an American company.
He then moved to Berkeley to work on a Ph.d, teaching there and at Antioch University in Los Angeles before settling in Phoenix in 1990.
He and his wife Kathleen have two daughters, two sons-in-law and three grandsons.