Café Allegro’s All-Local Feast Wows Association of Food Journalists

Executive Chef Chris Lenza and Lead Baker Yesenia Perrino strike a pose at their tlayuda station as food-journalist guests snap photographs | Photo: Jessica Savidge/MIM

Bon Appétit Executive Chef Chris Lenza and his Café Allegro team at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) are known for their commitment to showcasing Arizona ingredients and indigenous foodways. But for this year’s Eat Local Challenge, which was attended by some very special guests, Chris went above and beyond his usual over-the-top local efforts. (One year he drove to the Pacific Ocean to harvest his own salt; for another, he created local versions of every condiment in the café.)

Yellow curry Chinese long bean and white pomegranate-seed salad with cinnamon pickled sweet potato, Serrano chile pickled breakfast radish, and salt-and-thyme-roasted Chioggia beets

When the Association of Food Journalists asked the Café Allegro team to host the opening reception for their annual conference on September 25 — Eat Local Challenge day — it felt like the perfect local storm. Chris jumped at the chance to cook an (almost) all-local feast for such a discerning audience, including retiring San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer and Milk Street Editorial Director J.M. Hirsch. He and his culinary team developed a menu that showcased indigenous Arizona ingredients such as heirloom chapalote corn (one of the oldest maize varietals in America) and cactus flower buds, unusual proteins including Two Wash Ranch guinea fowl, and the pièce de résistance: a show-stopping all-plant-based station featuring a dozen dishes that had guests lining up for seconds.

Chris confessed that one or two dishes had some non-local items, including turmeric and other spices, and that he had not used local sausage casings for his house-made wine-berry sausage. The crowd was forgiving.

Roasted okra with avocado and cashew crema with toasted sesame seeds

“I’ve never tasted okra like this, and I’m from North Carolina!” raved one guest of the roasted okra with avocado-and-cashew crema and toasted sesame seeds. A plant-based Italian oyster mushroom “sausage” with heirloom tomato-garlic-basil sauce proved a crowd favorite, as did the shishito peppers stuffed with grilled pear and blue tinge emmer. “The vegans are so happy to have so many options, and all local!” exclaimed writer Jill Nussinow, aka the “Veggie Queen.”

Chris chatted with guests and explained the process behind dishes like the cholla buds salsa made from rehydrated cholla cactus flower buds, which have a flavor slightly reminiscent of green beans, while Lead Baker Yesenia Perrino discussed how she hand-milled chapalote corn for the house-made tlayudas (a traditional hand-made Oaxacan dish sometimes called “Mexican pizza”) topped with frijoles negros, local queso fresco, heirloom tomato, avocado, cabbage, chile, radish, and cilantro.

“The chapalote corn has a totally different, unique flavor,” said Chris as he passed out samples of the hand-made tortillas.

Tlayuda made with hand-milled heirloom chapalote corn, frijoles negros, queso fresco, heirloom tomato, avocado, cabbage, chile, radish, and cilantro | Photo: Jessica Savidge/MIM

Mesquite meal cookies with prickly pear jam

Both Chris and Yesenia were also proud to share their freshly baked mesquite bread, a blend of mesquite meal and Sonoran white wheat flours made with a sourdough starter. The two perfected the recipe over half a year with help from Assistant Baker Ellie Jaramillo — they even enrolled in classes about traditional sourdough bread baking. Guests could also enjoy mesquite meal cookies topped with prickly pear jam (foraged from the MIM courtyard cacti!). In Arizona, mesquite trees are abundant, but few chefs are utilizing the byproducts like the mesquite pods used to make the flour. Prickly pears also provided refreshment in the form of “serenity” tea: prickly pear juice with a dessert herb blend of sage, basil, and thyme.

“The buses back from the event were absolutely buzzing! Everyone was blown away by the 100% local meal,” said AFJ Executive Director Amanda Miller. The praise echoed across social media, too. For the MIM team, it was a very satisfying opportunity to share the fruits of their local labor with an appreciative audience.

The Café Allegro Eat Local Challenge team: (front row, left to right) Yesenia Perrino, lead baker; Chris Lenza, executive chef; Ellie Jaramillo, assistant baker; (back row) Orlando Soto, cook; Joseph Salazar, sous chef; Sean Crothers, cook; Aaron Lowry, cook; and Paul Mendez, lead banquet cook | Photo: Jessica Savidge/MIM

Café Allegro Arizona-Grown Eat Local Challenge Menu

Tlayuda | with hand-milled heirloom chapalote corn, frijoles negros, queso fresco, heirloom tomato, avocado, cabbage, chile, radish, and cilantro

Two Wash Ranch Guinea Fowl | with turmeric pâté, roasted-black-garlic shallot vinaigrette, Ancient Grain farmers porridge, African spices, toasted peanuts, and okra

“Chef Series” Wine Berry Sausage | with poshol made with Ramona Farms American Indian Foods tepary beans, wheat, and Ramon Farms huun ga’l (whole kernel cob-roasted Pima corn) 


Plant-Forward Station

Socca with za’atar and apricots

Cholla Buds Salsa with local Hatch chiles, fire-roasted onion, green tomatoes, cilantro, and garlic

Shishito pepper and grilled pear with blue tinge emmer

Shishito Pepper and Grilled Pear with blue tinge emmer

Purple Plum and Heirloom Tomato Salad with prickly pear vinaigrette

Roasted Fairytale Eggplant with miso-tahini sauce, agave nectar drizzle, dukkah crumble, and carrot-almond puree

Roasted Okra with avocado and cashew “cheese sauce” topped with toasted sesame seeds

Yellow Curry Chinese Long Bean and White Pomegranate Seed Salad with cinnamon pickled sweet potato, Serrano chile “quick pickle” breakfast radish, and salt and thyme-roasted Chioggia beets

Purple plum and heirloom tomato salad with prickly pear vinaigrette

Yellow Beet Muhammara with walnuts and molasses

Summer Squash Escabeche marinated in Queen Creek champagne vinegar, Mexican lime olive oil, Mexican oregano, and jalapeño

Italian Oyster Mushroom “Sausage” with heirloom tomato-garlic-basil sauce

Fresh-Baked Mesquite Bread

Prickly Pear and Late Summer Peach Jam


Sweets and Beverages

Overnight Oats featuring stone-ground heritage fresh cracked oats with local peaches, agave nectar, and slivered almonds

Assistant Baker Ellie Jaramillo shows off the oat grinder the team used to mill their own oats for the overnight oats

Mesquite Meal Cookie with hand-harvested MIM prickly pear jam

Crow’s Dairy Goat Cheesecake

Café de Olla with locally roasted coffee beans, clove, and cinnamon

Prickly Pear “Serenity” Tea with Desert Herb Blend