“With harvesting wild foods, we always say ‘Mother Nature’s our only boss’ and if you can give it up to nature, then you learn how to go with the punches,” says Brett Vibber of The Table at Junipine in Oak Creek. Chefs Jaren Bates and Brett Vibber focus on providing meals that represent Arizona cuisine, which means using local farms and foraging expeditions to create the dishes on their menus. Surrounded by the wilderness of Oak Creek, the two are able to form and continue relationships with neighboring farms and forage daily for the foods that show up on menus.
Vibber’s fascination with food stems from his history with from-scratch family dinners, PBS chefs on his childhood television and his love for hunting, fishing and foraging. As a teen, he worked at a local pizza place that led him to move to Italy to study Italian cuisine closely. In Italy, he watched firsthand as methods in farming followed the seasons. When he came back to the US, he worked in many different restaurants from Japanese cuisine to tapas and has traveled around the world, helping many different restaurants open up.
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“You can taste when people are honest and passionate about their food, which is what brought me back to Arizona. I grew up hunting, camping, fishing, boy scouts, etc. It’s always been a way of how I lived. In Italy, that’s how it always is. When something is in season, they use it. I have always gravitated towards those kinds of restaurants where local and fresh are real,” says Vibber.
Bates and Vibber met at Roka Akor in Scottsdale, both beginning their careers in the restaurant industry. They later worked together again in Chicago and again when Vibber opened Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine. There, they found they shared a love for Arizona cuisine, seeking food that could tell Arizona’s story. Whether it was foraged, local or indigenous, they were seeking food that was uniquely Arizonan.
Vibber says, “I really wanted to incorporate farmers, ranchers and especially indigenous farmers that I’ve been exposed to in my time in Arizona. I wanted to tie a lot of things from my youth and experiences in other kitchens, incorporating not just locally grown foods, but also foods that were indigenous or heirloom species to Arizona. ”
Bates in a similar vein is interested in the use of food that can tell its story, whether it is from his own background or the places he works in. Bates grew up on the Navajo reservation and after a serious injury to the knee that prevented Bates from playing football in college, he attended the Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
The two opened Roka in Chicago, and Bates discovered not long after that the city was not for him. He missed the mountains and nature and moved back home where he learned that he wanted to make it as a chef. He worked in various restaurants that taught him what he was truly looking for in his career. In one kitchen, he discovered his dislike of premade, canned food. Used to the high end ingredients at Roka, he was called elsewhere.
Bates says, “I ended up moving to Colorado, which was a humbling experience. I got to see a different view of what the food world has to offer. I got to play and work with high end, farm fresh produce delivered from not even ten miles from the restaurant. There, I realized this is what food should taste like.”
Bates fell in love with cherry tomatoes first, then charred carrots and then Grand Junction Palisade Peaches. The chef he worked with in Colorado instilled a love for the story each vegetable had to tell. Bates moved from using many ingredients, to minimal ingredients in dishes to really allow the vegetables to shine. Now, he focuses on taking these vegetables and giving them a distinct new shape in pastries and deserts. Taking after his original teacher, his mother, he is reliving a lot of her work in the stories he tells with his food.
When Cartwright’s opened under Vibber, the two were on the same wavelength of using local produce to tell Arizona’s story. While Vibber’s visions were coming to life at Cartwright’s, he felt that the restaurant was too large, serving at one point over a hundred and eighty people.
“Here, I can see every table from the doorway of the kitchen. If not the doorway, I can see the tables from the kitchen window. It’s allowed us to have a smaller menu that’s hyperseasonal. A more intimate dining experience,” says Vibber.
Cartwright’s closed just before the pandemic as Vibber sought new spaces for his current concept. He wanted to be in a place where people traveling through will pass by and stop in, a place where people who are visiting Arizona can also taste ingredients that the state offers. The hope is to also create a space to teach people to forage and cook with that at a time later.
Arizona is made up of six different biomes, which lends itself to being one of the most diverse regions in such a concentrated area. Throughout the past decade, Vibber and Bates have built relationships with local farmers from around the state and in various regions of Arizona to create a seasonal and sustainable menu that supports farmers and ranchers long term and allows them to really prepare for the seasons based on crop growth and seasonal foraging. It took years to develop the menu.
“It’s a lot of hard work to go out there and forage, then process it,” says Bates. “It’s worth it. When we go about foraging, we tell people to do so responsibly. You have to respect Mother Nature. For a while, none of this food was around. We’re bringing back a lot of foods that were before colonization, not just beans and corn but mesquite pods and juniper. Part of it is about flavor, but also about caring for your body.”
Bates brings to the table traditional indigenous ingredients and turns them into his very own dishes. From steamed corn ice cream to butternut squash caramel, in showcasing indigenous ingredients, he is bringing indigenous people and pride to the forefront.
The two have been hard at work to bring Arizona’s ingredients to the table. At Junipine, you can find dishes made with local acorns and mushrooms. Perhaps the tree you passed down the road to get to the restaurant plays a part in what is on the plate in front of you as you dine. Everything in Vibber’s and Bate’s lives have come to play a part in The Table.
“It’s a melting pot of experiences that create a chef’s concept,” says Vibber. “It’s a reflection of you at some point, and this is how we put it all together. I can’t imagine just doing one type of food. I want to showcase where I’ve been, where I’ve come from and the people that I’ve worked with and have taught me along the way.”
You can find Vibber and Bates at The Table at Junipine Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.