Chuck Wiley Shares His Oddball Guilty Pleasure and Makes the Best Cooking-to-Music-Genre Comparison Ever
Cafe ZuZu, Hotel Valley Ho
6850 E. Main Street, Scottsdale
This is part one of my interview with Chuck Wiley, the executive chef at Cafe ZuZu at the Hotel Valley Ho. Come back tomorrow for part two, when Chuck talks about the local chefs he most admires, the local dishes he loves to eat, and his sensual last meal on earth.
"I'm Forrest Gump," Chuck Wiley says, explaining that his career path has been a series of right-time, right-place events that led him from turning wrenches in New Jersey to running resort restaurants in Arizona. The car mechanic gig didn't last long. He was 18 and struggling to remove a muffler one arctic winter morning when a chunk of ice fell on him and he thought, "I gotta get out of here." So he followed a friend to Laguna Beach, CA where he dabbled in construction, bused tables and got interested in snow skiing, which led him to Lake Tahoe. Wiley worked in a small restaurant there, skiing all day and washing dishes at night until the cook walked out and the owner ordered Wiley behind the stove.
He stayed there long enough to learn how to cook, then moved over to the Sahara Tahoe Casino -- a place he describes as a food Disneyland with its own butcher shop and bakery as well as dozens of cauldrons of simmering soup stock. The atmosphere was intense, but Wiley loved the precision timing (they were feeding people during shows), not to mention the fact that he cooked for Elvis Presley, who came there often. This was the 70's, and the kitchen was full of European chefs who, Wiley says, treated an unschooled American kid "like a dog." But he stayed and he learned, cranking out 2200 meals in an eight-hour shift.
When he and a friend got the bug to get rich quick by working on the Alaskan pipeline, they moved to Anchorage, where Wiley fell into the restaurant business again, helping a restaurant owner open two restaurants there before heading to Park City, Utah for more skiing. He was working at the Hotel Utah (landing the chef de cuisine position through a series of fortuitous events) when he met hotel developer Bill Nassikas, who planned to build a ski resort with incomparable food. Wiley jumped on board, landing the executive chef position in 1985.