Chris Curtiss Talks About Why He Left Noca, What's Next, and Settles a Rumor

Categories: Restaurant News

On Sunday, a disturbance in the dining force was felt at Noca, the contemporary American restaurant in Central Phoenix, when it was reported that its executive chef, Chris Curtiss, was leaving.

I had a chance to talk with Curtiss, the culinary whiz who was nominated this year for the Southwest category of Food and Wine magazine's People's New Chef of the Year and the AZ Culinary Hall of Fame, about why he left, his next gig, and a rumor I heard about McDonald's burgers being served to a group of disgruntled Noca patrons.

Curtiss told me he had been feeling like he needed to make a change for the past two months and that Noca owner, Eliot Wexler, knew he was unhappy.

"I knew it was time to move on," Curtiss said, "And I wanted to make a change that would bring me happiness and satisfaction."

He's already found it.

One Step Beyond, Inc.
Curtiss hopes to better the lives of his new crew at One Step Beyond, Inc.
Curtiss is set to be the new catering director for One Step Beyond Inc., a community-outreach program in northwest Phoenix for people with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. In his new role, Curtiss will provide training, culinary development, and employment opportunities in catering to individuals with those developmental disabilities.

"A friend of mine who is in the position now called to tell me about it a while back," Curtiss said about the job opening. "At first, I didn't think much about it, but then it felt like the right thing to do."

Curtiss says his plan is to take on the new role while his fiancée finishes grad school and eventually move to New England or Seattle where, ultimately, the couple could start a family and he could open a restaurant.

"I'm from the Bay Area, and I've never gotten used to the heat," Curtiss said. "I love the climate and culture of those cities, and there's a larger demographic of people who enjoy dining out."

On life at Noca, Curtiss was effusive about his staff, saying most have been with him since day one and remain capable of executing his vision at a high level. This, despite some rumors I'd heard that some of his team were less than happy working with him.

"I'm sure some of them weren't," Curtiss said. "A lot of young people in the industry don't understand the sacrifices that come with starting up a restaurant like Noca. I was working 45 to 55 days in a row, 60 to 80 hours a week. I was tired and burned out.

"A while ago, I went through some personal problems and needed to cut down the time I was spending at the restaurant," Curtiss said, adding that even in his last months at Noca, he was still putting in a lot of hours. "Some of the team may have been resentful that I wasn't there [as much]."

Noca owner Eliot Wexler and Chris Curtiss at McClendon Farms.
On his replacement, Curtiss said Noca owner Eliot Wexler has a clear vision of whom he wants.

"I recommended to Eliot that he hire from within," Curtiss said, "But whoever it is, I don't doubt Noca will continue to thrive."

And what about the rumor that, at one point last year, Wexler served McDonald's burgers to a group of unhappy patrons?

Curtiss laughs, "It's true. They were being obnoxious, and some of them were drunk. After one of the women complained they'd have to go to McDonald's after the meal because the portion sizes were so small, Eliot went to McDonald's and brought them back burgers."

While leaving Noca is bittersweet for the chef who made the restaurant one of Phoenix's best places to eat (in addition to earning Noca a James Beard Award semifinalist spot for Best New Restaurant in 2009), Curtiss said that, while he'll miss his crew, it was ultimately the right decision, that he may do a few pop-up ventures in the future, and that he's excited about his new opportunity to give back to the community.

So when does he start?

"I start my training immediately," Curtiss said. "I don't like to lag."

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Kathy Monkman
Kathy Monkman

I think a lot of Chefs are suseptible to burnout.  So much hard work and long hours.  Best wishes to Chef Curtiss.


If this guy is a good chef at all, he must have checked out a while ago. I had dinner here in early May, and every aspect of the meal had egregious technical errors, from a seiously overcooked pork chop to an unseasoned appetizer. In addition, each course took more than 45 minutes to come to our table. We actually laughed out loud when the waiter asked if we wanted dessert. What a disappointment from "one of the best restaurants in the Southwest." They should be ashamed to put out such poorly cooked food--you are only as good as the worst thing you charged someone for!


What about where Elliot broke eggs on his face in front of employees before opening the restaurant? Can't believe that story hasn't gotten out.


Funny story about the McDonalds.  I've never been that impressed with NOCA, its a complete ripoff of NOPA in SF in decor, menu, name, food.  Wexler's jaw dropped and he agreed as much, when I called him out on that on opening week.


Seriously, you need to get a life and move on from Noca which stands for North of Camelback.  NOCA has an amazing menu created by Eliot and his chef.  His jaw probably dropped by your ridiculous comment not the actual comparison.  You seem to show up on every website to state your point that NOCA ripped off NOPA.   To compare two different chefs cooking is not comparing apples to apples. There are many many restaurants that use seasonal ingredients and amazing food but you can't "RIP OFF" a chefs cooking!

Dominic Armato
Dominic Armato

" Wexler's jaw dropped and he agreed as much, when I called him out on that on opening week."

This I don't believe for a second.

Ashooltz are the similarities and have you ever been to NOPA?The interiors aren't even similar. The interior of NOPA is much more urban and inviting than noca. The use of an acronym for the restaurants name is the only similarity in my opinion and as far as that is concerned there are a plethora of restaurants in existence that use this method for their name. 


Huh? The menus/food of the two restaurants overlap in that they are both Modern/New American food with some Mediterranean influences. Noca's menu and concept is much closer to that of Blackbird in Chicago. 

And as to the decor? What, the use of warm neutral tones was pioneered by Nopa? Huh. OK.


Me too!  He no way agreed...his jaw dropped from the stupid comment!

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