Chef Chat: Deborah Knight, Mosaic
It's not that she's not good enough. She's just too nice.
She teaches rather than barking orders, which may be why her employees call her "Mom." And they tend to stick around for five or six years -- an absolute anomaly in the restaurant world.
The chef and owner of Scottsdale's Mosaic has been cooking since her grandparents -- who were institutional chefs themselves -- taught her the way around a kitchen as a child. She became a vegetarian and studied Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But she decided to take a different path after graduation.
It was, as she tells it, a kind of epiphany in the library -- "at midnight on a Saturday night when I'm doing a paper on 18th century burial practices of Northern Japanese women," it occurred to her that, "I think I'd rather be doing something a little more social than sit in the Ivory Tower."
Knight moved to San Francisco, started eating meat again and earned a third degree -- this time, as a chef. But don't make the mistake of thinking that her approach isn't still academic.
After paying her dues at various Valley restaurants and earning her chops as a bonafide world traveler, Knight opened Mosaic near scenic Pinnacle Peak in 2001.
She is as distinct and transient as her menu, which changes with the ingredients and inspirations as they come to her. It's currently in the process of another overhaul, she says, because "summer always takes me to the Mediterranean for some reason."
Look for North African flavors, a touch of her favorite, Persian influence, as well as Middle Eastern, Italian and Provencal in the weeks to come.
"That's one of the good things about having grown up as a cook," she says. "You know, we're a little A.D.D., so no one really expects you to stay anywhere more than a year."
That was about as long as she generally stayed at a job pre-Mosaic, before heading off on another trek ("Give me a backpack, and I'm fine," she says). It may have been a Smithsonian-sponsored trip to Egypt or a vacation with her husband, sommelier and General Manager of
Mosaic, Matt Rinn -- indoor plumbing included (for him, not her).
Lauren Gilger A dining room in Mosaic.
Knight approaches cuisine like a war historian studying a battle: She looks at the culture, its customs, its religion, festivals, restrictions, geography and history -- and brings back the flavors to the Valley.
From an Ethiopian-style beef tenderloin with injera bread to a floral flavoring made from nanga (a giant, Taiwanese water beetle), Knight's travels and studies are more and more intertwined with her cooking all the time.
"Global-eclectic" is the phrase she uses to describe her cuisine -- just like the chef, herself.