MIM Chef Turns Up The Heat With House-Made Hot Sauce

Chris’s colorful hot sauces add heat and flavor to many of the café’s dishes. Clockwise from top left: preserved local lemons, a flask of habanero hot sauce made with local habaneros from Maya’s
Farm; local serrano chilis fermenting in a vinegar solution; fresh-picked Maya’s habaneros; Indian-inspired hot pepper mustard pickle relish; guajillo chili sambal.

Executive Chef Chris Lenza of Café Allegro at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is known for his exhibit-inspired global cuisine with a hyper-local bent — he is Bon Appétit’s regional forager for Arizona and New Mexico, after all.

Chris and his culinary team have even begun making their own condiments with local ingredients, showcasing Farm to Fork vendors and making use of Imperfectly Delicious Produce.

For years, Chris has been participating in Bon Appétit’s Eat Local Challenge. Even though ELC can be even more challenging to do at a specialty venue, Chris has sometimes gone above and beyond to create a 100 percent local menu — some of which he personally harvested! One year, he harvested wheat berries in Yuma, AZ, then drove them to Great Harvest Bread Company in Phoenix to mill the wheat berries into flour for the café’s grab-and-go sandwich bread. Another year, the team hosted a three-course onion dinner with onions that Chris and the team pulled themselves at Desert Roots Farm, including caramelized onion ice cream for dessert. In fact, it was the Eat Local Challenge that inspired the first of Café Allegro’s house-made hot sauces as a way to showcase chilis indigenous to the Phoenix region.

These days, Chris and his team are focusing on recipes for hot sauces made with local chilis for guests who like their lunch with a little kick. He partners with Farm to Fork vendors like Maya’s Farm to purchase excess or Imperfectly Delicious chili peppers, which he and the team craft into a sauce. Working with Line Cook Martin Valdez, the team transformed 100 pounds of excess habaneros into what’s now a staple habanero hot sauce for the café, while serranos are currently in the kitchen fermenting with star anise, sugar, salt, and vinegar for what will become a milder green sauce.

Beyond everyday condiments, Chris flexes his creative muscle by creating sauces and relishes to pair with global dishes as well. For an exhibit highlighting musical instruments of India, he and the team created a hot pepper mustard pickle relish made with local Hungarian hot peppers, full of bright turmeric, cardamom, and cumin flavors. Combining global inspiration with local ingredients, Chris also created a prickly pear and guajillo chili sambal (hot sauce) using prickly pears he foraged on the MIM grounds. He also makes Moroccan preserved lemons with spices and chilis, which he uses to flavor everything from soups to salads.

“It’s nice to offer unexpected recipes you won’t normally find in a museum café,” says Chris. “The hot sauces, pickles, and sambals create a positive buzz and great conversation with our guests.”