When the finalists for this year’s James Beard Awards were announced, memories of my old friend, Chris Bianco, made me relive his story. Chris and I, along with a long-lost third musketeer named John, lived in the same Scottsdale apartment complex as virtual teenagers for a time in the mid-’80s, when the three of us did little more than get our feet wet in food service while we feast on a steady diet of bongs for breakfast and endless hours of basketball play afterwards. While neither Chris nor I know what became of John since those days, we both got by in the restaurant business. I’m not suggesting that we have become professional colleagues over the years, of course. It wouldn’t be fair to say that at all. While I stayed in the pipeline too long and was just another life-long worker in the industry, Chris lit a much more ambitious flame and became larger than life; a rare Beard Award-winning virtuoso of pizza-centric purism who earned an otherworldly reputation for his craft, along with endless praise and plaudits from the world’s culinary connoisseurs.
During our salad days together, I laughed at Chris’s circumstances as he worked anonymously, making homemade mozzarella in the bathtub of his apartment, much to the chagrin of a girlfriend who was causing him no-good grief for his fledgling, perfectionist efforts. for making his way in the world of food. When I heard that he had gotten a small corner space in a busy Phoenix market in the late ’80s, I was happy to hear that he had made some progress. By the early ’90s, Bianco’s burgeoning pizza company had become a huge success in a fancier uptown location. When that mall’s location proved insufficient to meet his needs and its crowds, Chris moved into a downtown digs that has long since become hallowed ground for a who’s who of Pizzeria Bianco worshipers (Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld, Jesus, et al.).
Not surprisingly, major awards followed. In 2003, Bianco turned the face of the Beard Foundation, until then focused on fine dining, by winning in the Best Chef of the Southwest category, becoming the first pure pizzaiolo to obtain such an honor. He then doubled down on his laurels nearly two decades later, taking home the 2022 Beard Blue Ribbon for Outstanding Restaurateur, which, by then, also amounted to lifetime achievement recognition for his long and purposeful work as a sole advocate for partnerships cultivated among food. producers, food hospitality professionals and local epicurean populations and consumers. Among those bookend trophies, Bianco became the founding father of the Rushmore-style slow food movement, a warrior for the causes of his fellow culinary artisans, and, in 2010, ultimately a victim of his own tireless efforts to feed to as many people as possible. world as he could according to his convictions, after suffering a severe asthma attack complicated by pneumonia and years of flour in the air that he reached his lungs while operating his pizza oven. Bad news from Arizona about his work-affected health made headlines on The New York Times. Chris twisted his paddle, cleared his throat, picked up a pen, and wrote his 2017 tome eponymously titled: Bianco: pizza, pasta and other foods I like. I hope she found an address where that annoying old girlfriend can send her a signed copy. As recently as 2022, Chris was busy with something you might have gifted to yourselves, maybe you’ve watched Netflix and chilled out with episodes of Chef’s Tablein which he preaches parts of his good gospel sermon on gastronomic virtues like Tom Waits speaking us through his songwriting truths.
“He’s the Coltrane of pizza,” the narrator of his episode emphasizes my own analogy.
It’s been a minute since Chris and I last saw each other. Still, to me it is a monument of what someone sincere, intentional, ambitious and committed can achieve through their life’s work. I never told him how much I admire him for that. Instead, I’ve always made fun of him back then, when he couldn’t do anything to stop my once quite lethal outside shot from the baseline. But I only do that because I’ve always been a little envious of how much success he made in his career. I guess here’s the moral. In any story shared by friends who were just having a little fun when they were young, there are typical stories of wasted youth, told in retrospect from different perspectives by those who worked a little harder than they played and those who didn’t.
Take it from me; a guy with gray mustaches that took too long to grow, talking about his old friend with two beards under his belt and trying to make me feel a little better by association. Over time, get-togethers become less fun when you’re the one whose great playing days ended when adulthood was just beginning.
And I had another chef friend: Delmar Jensen was a character I will never forget, who cooked in a restaurant I once mismanaged. After one of his notoriously long lunch breaks, he returned to work at the end of dinner double high like a kite on something. As I stood in front of a chest-high kitchen step wondering whether or not he was capable of doing the job that night, I noticed that the two other cooks who were normally positioned next to him were keeping their distance and ogling me. very open. When one pointed toward Delmar, I approached the railing and saw him naked from the waist down.
“You can’t do that,” I whispered within earshot of the seated customers. She smiled widely, laughed maniacally for a moment, covered herself with an apron, and cooked the rest of the meat that way. I put half of it in the bag myself, let that happen. True story.
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