Homegrown Revolution: Creative, Culinary City

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Chef Janos Wilder

Chef Janos Wilder


Diverse local people and organizations fueled the quiet revolution behind Tucson’s designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, announced in December. There were backyard gardeners and church food kitchen organizers, as well as a bounty of Tucson growers, ranchers, herders, vintners, foodway enthusiasts and chefs, who influenced this revolution.

One of the earliest participators in Tucson’s “pre-locavore” movement is James Beard award winner Janos Wilder, who was exploring new experiences with regional food tradition in the 1970s. As a young chef of a lodge in the Colorado mountains, Janos used ingredients from local gardens out of necessity, because distributors wouldn’t deliver to the high mountains. Then, a culinary assignment in France fostered a deeper relationship between the chef and his garden. When Janos came to Tucson and opened his first restaurant in the 1980s, he translated his association with localism to the desert, adapting native ingredients for his kitchen. Partnerships and educational programs with non-profits followed, as well as community-building that included hosting the Sonoran region’s earliest farm dinners.

Now, with one in six people involved in food, farm or ranch business around Tucson, Janos knows that — in a creative, culinary city — value must be placed foremost on foodways that nourish the citizenry’s well-being as well as its sense of community.

Janos spoke with BorderLore about how a community is empowered through food. Here are his comments:

On how food informs community dialogue:

Citizenship starts at the dinner table, yes? Restaurants play a crucial role in community building, where at the simplest level the table is the primal place for people to come together. It grows beyond that, to create a place that is symbolic of something special.  Where people gather — we are able to magnify ourselves to being part of group. The gathering becomes celebratory, a witness of diversity in the community. That’s what happens in the everyday ebb and flow of a restaurant. It is all about nourishing people — through the sharing of food and community building.

Las Milpitas de Cottonwood

UNESCO’s Creative City designation also implies food justice and education. Las Milpitas de Cottonwood (a digging crew from community is shown here) is a place for area residents to grow their own food.


But that same community building may occur when people come together in parks or in any place people gather. So, restaurants also must provide opportunities to expand community purposefully. An example is to showcase our farmers to the larger community. Or to educate and build awareness about our heritage—help people understand what’s possible. Restaurants can be a voice for accessibility, encouraging the spreading of the messages about food justice. Restaurants also can build community in their own kitchen, by bringing together chefs to prepare meals around a particular focus. For example, on March 6 we’re bringing together nine chefs to benefit two local nonprofits. In addition to the worthy cause, we’re also building camaraderie among our local chefs — who have a blast creating these creative meals.

All things can come together when we gather to break bread. So, while there’s much these days that diminishes our opportunities for conversation and civility, a shared meal at a local restaurant is one important way of nurturing our sense of community. Food is that essential identifier of our city. It narrates the tale of who we are.

On how “Locavore” begins with curiosity:

When I worked in France I learned that the heart and soul of cooking is the relationship of the chef with the garden… and with the farmer… and with the guy who makes the cheese or bakes the bread. Every chef needs to create those relationships and that’s what I did when I opened my restaurant in Tucson.

Early on I never got out of my kitchen, but I knew that I lived in an uncommon place that grew things I never heard of. So eventually I was able to expand on my vision. I came to Tucson as an Anglo-transplant practitioner who was curious and who wanted to learn. As I uncovered more about our traditions, I discovered a story that could only be told through its foodways. It’s the story about where we are, and about how it brings together the people, the land and the traditions that make us unique.

Chefs who cook in Tucson are aware of our long history:  We have wild cultivars that have grown here for thousands of years and have made a significant contribution to world agriculture. We have all varieties of beans and squashes and chiles. We have seeds that have been collected and saved for generations. And we also have crops that may not be indigenous, but that are important to our economy and our identity, like cattle and citrus. Chefs are curious people who want to embrace all this fully. This is what has come together to underscore Tucson’s worthiness as a Creative City.

On how diversity is a critical collaborator in Creative Cities:

But in this city of incredible diversity in food tradition and culture, it is the mix that enriches our Creative City worthiness. There are so many applying traditional practices, instituting seed networks, educating the people about where food comes from, encouraging the connection to social issues…and “doing locavore” before it became fashionable.

Our growers and ranchers — They’re the producers, the repository. They’re the source. They create. They provide. Our community food bank – It’s the largest in country, with tentacles throughout the community, to support everyone and help us rethink our relationship with the land. Our demonstration gardens educate children about the food chain beyond the grocery store. Our wine makers embrace the “terroir” and all the desert environmental factors that make Arizona wines tell a special flavor profile story. Community Supported Agriculture – This came later to Tucson, which had big agriculture but not the focus on the smaller farmer. So, eventually, that provided an economic piece of puzzle that allowed small farmers the capital to make a stake in planting the seeds and tilling the soil. By supporting CSAs the community invests in its growers.

There are so many examples of individuals who are part of the story. In the old days there was Dick, the mushroom forager, who showed up after lunch service one day with bags of mushrooms he had picked in the White Mountains. As a product of the sixties initially that bag of chanterelles scared the heck out of me! But then after cooking and tasting with Dick, we discovered new ways to celebrate regional cuisine, and a new menu item to offer our restaurant guests.  Dick became a mushroom supplier for many years. You just never knew when Dick would show up.

The point is… We’re all part of the collaborator’s fabric in Tucson. It’s a matter of appreciation for what you have around you. Everyone has a role in embracing what we have, imbuing it with a significance that appreciates how we are unique.

On personal responsibility in the Tucson World City of Gastronomy Designation:

It’s not just about the restaurants or the dining.  This designation has an impact on everyday lives.  It will mean what we make of it.

At Caridad Community Kitchen

At Caridad Community Kitchen; UNESCO’s designation empowers all, from food pantry workers and clients to restaurateurs.


So there’s a big job ahead. An opportunity has been given to us through this designation, but it’s one that we absolutely deserve. We really do walk the walk. The foods we have here are unique; our food history is unique. Our watershed and the solutions we look to, for environmental, social and nutritional challenges – are unique. The care we take in providing for the citizens of our community is unique as well — from our neighborhood church food kitchens to the Iskashitaa worker who gleans thousands of citrus from our neighborhoods for reuse to others in need. To Primavera and Native Seeds/SEARCH and countless organizations… all these make us worthy of designation.  And then there’s the tourist industry, a clean industry with a tremendous number of jobs. It is in our hands to take this designation and make every opportunity count, to become better in our areas…and to know their interconnectivity.

This all fills me with total joy and pleasure. I’m dumbfounded that what actually are very simple pleasures of great food, are what can capture the imagination of a city and result in a UNESCO award. It’s all been about curious and having fun and doing what seems to be the right thing for our food and our cultures. Somehow all this has taken on a life of its own, and it’s what makes Tucson a creative city.  What a cool thing.


  • In Edible Baja Arizona, read Mayor Rothschild’s take on the UNESCO designation and on the newly established Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, here.

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