Lush Eating in the Desert
The essence of fine-dining in Phoenix is found in an oasis of green at The Farm at South Mountain.
Picturing Arizona conjures up images of desert landscapes, retirement communities, pretty mountaintops, and golf courses—those few patches of green—amid an expanse of dry brown dirt.
But there’s an oasis or two, starting with The Farm at South Mountain, right in central Phoenix.
Once a pecan orchard, the lush, fertile property remains one of the few under-developed gems in a heavily developed area. Surrounded by trees, gardens, and shrubs, the green rolling hills drink in the free-flowing water from the nearby Phoenix Grand Canal. It looks like anywhere but Arizona.
“It really is a little oasis with its own microclimate,” says Dustin Christofolo, executive chef of Quiessence, the on-site fine-dining restaurant. “Even the temperature runs 10 degrees cooler here. “
For more than 40 years, the former pecan orchard was nurtured by a retired cattleman, who ultimately sold the farm to Wayne Smith, a visionary who developed the property into The Farm at South Mountain, with a mix of gardens, restaurants, and markets.
Chef Christofolo’s mother, Pat, bought the entire property from Smith in 2012, after leasing kitchen and restaurant space from the original owner for 16 years. Her purchase included not only the 10-acre working farm and Quiessence, a 75-seat fine-dining restaurant that she opened in 2003, but also Morning Glory, a 125-seat outdoor breakfast eatery that opened the same year next door, and The Farm Kitchen, a self-serve sandwich-and-salad lunch spot.
While Chef Christofolo heads up the shared Quiessence-Morning Glory kitchen, his mother runs the business side of things and uses the space to support her catering company.
“My mom is a lady of many talents,” says Chef Christofolo. “She’s an extreme entrepreneur who knows a lot about cooking and the kitchen.”
However, the chef also deserves credit. Growing up in and around restaurants and kitchens, Chef Christofolo, 33, originally fell in love with the front of the house at Quiessence, learning about wine and management.
“I found my passion through wines and being able to talk to customers about wine, but to be more well-rounded and a potential owner, I knew I needed to learn more about cooking and the kitchen,” he says.
Chef Christofolo got hooked on cooking after graduating from The Italian Culinary Academy in New York City, a program that involved intensive study in Italy—an appropriate start given his grandparents immigrated from Italy. He also honed his knowledge and passion for wine through the Wine Immersion Program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.
Returning to Arizona, Chef Christofolo initially headed up The Farm Kitchen, bringing a seasonal spin to the menu. “I got to have a lot of fun and make some great connections with local farmers,” he notes, adding he also taught himself whole-animal butchery, something Phoenix residents and visitors now travel to Quiessence specifically to experience.
While he was at The Farm Kitchen, Pat Christofolo was running The House at Secret Garden, a casual Italian restaurant just two miles away. She closed it after opening Quiessence and Morning Glory, wanting to spend her time collaborating with her son and focused on The Farm at South Mountain. Chef Christofolo moved over to head up Quiessence, and shortly afterward Zagat named the restaurant one of the five best restaurants in Arizona.
At Quiessence, the chef continues his love of Italian cuisine through handmade pasta, an impressive, 100-bottle wine list, and a six-course tasting menu—but that’s not the only draw.
There’s also the 10-year-old, certified organic, 2-acre garden just off the patio space at Quiessence, run by longtime friend to the farm Maya Dailey. The blend of indoor and outdoor space coupled with the proximity to Dailey’s garden and the working farm beckon Arizona’s finest. So does the menu.
“A lot of our base techniques are Italian from my training, but we like to be very versatile and really showcase the best from the region,” Chef Christofolo says. “It’s great that I can go out to the garden, work with Maya, and discuss what I’m looking for or what I can expect for the upcoming season.”
What he doesn’t get from the garden, he sources from local farmers, made possible by Arizona’s long growing season. From citrus and root vegetables to sugar snap peas in the winter and eggplant, summer squash, corn, and lettuce, plus two seasons of tomatoes in the summer, there’s always something fresh.
Late into the fall, Chef Christofolo was still enjoying crisp cucumber, making chilled soup out of it with fresh seafood, while a summer squash purée served as the bed for a variety of roasted meats and an herb salsa verde.
The chef’s work with whole-animal butchery produces a wide selection of house-made, Italian-style charcuterie, and he gets Mangalitsa pigs from a farm in Mesa about 10 miles away. He also purchases two lambs every two weeks from a nearby farm, sous-vide cooking the meat for 20 hours to make shoulder sausage and pancetta-like belly roll. Beyond that, what doesn’t get made into headcheese, lardo, or spicy coppa gets roasted, smoked, and finished in the wood-burning oven.
“I taught myself butchery by reading books and researching online, and then I started bringing in whole animals, not during prep time but on my own time, to figure it out,” says Chef Christofolo. “When I first started, it wasn’t easy to go through a whole animal, but as I worked with more animals and did more research, I got better at it.”
Chef Christofolo also sources and serves a variety of Arizona wines. “I lucked out that Arizona grows Italian-style grapes for its wine,” he says. “You wouldn’t think that, given the hot climate, but because the desert cools so much at night, the conditions lend itself to great Italian grapes like Sangiovese and also French-style Rhones. We try to give our guests more of what Arizona has to offer, from the produce and meat to the wine.”
He pairs lamb with a red Rhone from Pillsbury Wine Company in Arizona’s Cochise County and pairs pasta with a local Sangiovese.
A third-generation baker, whose grandfather was a baker in Italy before coming to the U.S., Chef Christofolo also bakes his own ciabatta, focaccia, sourdough, and baguettes.
In addition to its restaurant service, Quiessence also hosts private events, and The Farm is a popular destination for weddings. Because Quiessence’s kitchen runs on the smaller side, Chef Christofolo explains the restaurant usually rents out the entire space for private events to execute dishes at the same level.
“We also have a back solarium with a patio where we can seat 40 for a private event,” he says, and when that occurs the restaurant simply adjusts reservations to avoid overloading service.
“Even though we’re a high-end restaurant for Phoenix, we’re not super formal or stuffy,” says Chef Christofolo. However, the Phoenix dining scene can seem too casual sometimes for his liking.
Overall, he likes the direction Phoenix dining is moving in: “I definitely feel there is a lot more progression and more chefs being more adventurous,” he says. “People are also reaching out to local farms more, not only because of better produce but to support the people of our region. … Things here are going in that direction, and that’s what’s pushing the clientele to get out of their comfort zone. This is what’s going to lead more chefs from big culinary cities to come to Arizona and bring us to the next level.”