New executive chef consumed by food passion
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
He has cooked for presidents and even a prince. He has wowed numerous celebrities with his kitchen prowess. He knows many of the great chefs on a first-name basis.
But Kevin Walton’s favorite dish doesn’t have a fancy name or a dozen ingredients. It doesn’t require an expert touch around the oven. It just requires one thing: passion. Oh, and three other things — bread, peanut butter and jelly.
“It’s the simplest, but it’s the best,” he said. “My wife still teases me. Every holiday everyone’s having turkey and I’ll have a little bit, but I still love my peanut butter and jelly with a glass of milk. It’s a memory for me, and it just triggers good times.
“My grandmother taught me the basics that I still instill. If they can tell you put love into everything you do, the basics are where it’s at. Even if you’re making PB&J, it’s the best one they’ve ever had.”
Of course, the executive chef of the new Lope House restaurant at Grand Canyon University Golf Course, which opened Jan. 1, can do a whole lot more than make a tasty PB&J. A long list of celebrities would attest to that.
During his stints at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, The Phoenician and CopperWynd Resort and Club in Fountain Hills, Walton’s expertise was enjoyed by an A-list group that included presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, Tom Cruise, Halle Berry, Elton John, Mike Tyson, Emmitt Smith, Ice-T, Billie Jean King, James Hetfield of Metallica, and a number of NASCAR drivers, among them Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth.
And don’t forget the Saudi Arabian prince who ordered one of each item on the menu just so he could see what they all looked like … and then chose the ones he wanted. “He’s visual,” Walton was told.
Most recently, Walton was executive chef for the Babbo Italian Eatery chain and had a hand in opening six restaurants, so getting the GCU Golf Course location going is simply another feather in his chef’s hat.
“With the multiple restaurants he’s opened and the experiences he’s had, that was the no-brainer part of the hire,” said Brett Cortright, general manager of the Grand Canyon University Hotel, which like the golf course features student workers from the Colangelo College of Business. “And he also came highly recommended, of course. When he talks about specific situations, he talks in a manner so clear and basic, you can hear him saying it in the heat of the moment.”
Indeed, just listening to the passion in Walton’s voice as he talks about his new restaurant makes your mouth water. He can bring the heat on a variety of culinary topics, such as:
What it’s like to open a new restaurant:
“It’s very stressful, but it’s an organized chaos — just like kitchen work. It’s a beautiful dance between contractors, between myself and everyone, working together. It flows. When you have the right teams in place, it looks to the outside eye like chaos, but internally we’re all dancing.”
Why more and more restaurants have open kitchens that can be viewed by diners:
“People’s perceptions are changing. We want to showcase what we do. We want to say, ‘Hey, everyone is more than welcome to see us.’ We’re an open book instead of the old world of kitchens behind closed doors. We’re a new generation of cooks, and we want to promote cleanliness, fresh, clean, organized, crisp, just vibrant things. We want to have guest involvement, too.”
Why GCU’s new restaurant isn’t the typical golf course experience:
“The culture here makes it outstanding. We’re saying, ‘This is us, this is GCU.’ We’re representing everything behind that, not only with that but with our food. We’re representing it with freshness, very vibrant colors and great service.” Here’s a sampling of Walton’s approach to customer service: One time, when he overheard that his restaurant didn’t have the type of jam a young child wanted, he went to a store, bought it and delivered it to the family’s room.
Why buying local is so important:
“The presentation is where I really want to shine. I want to use local vendors and farmers to make it almost like farm to table. That also helps the local economy. But it’s a task to find vendors or farmers who are local. There’s kind of a hidden network behind all of this. There’s a little chain that we all follow. We all try to help each other in that aspect: Who’s got the best vegetables this month? Who’s got the best meat? We also watch the crop reports. We watch the weather because that affects crops. Finding the right product and knowing the right season, that’s the trick. That’s why we talk.”
Walton has talked with or even worked alongside a number of prominent chefs, including Todd English, Masaharu Morimoto, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Jacques Pepin and Wolfgang Puck. His favorite cooking shows? “Chopped” (of course) and “Dinner: Impossible.”
He and his wife, Lana, have two daughters, Jillian, 6, and Harper, 2 (“I’m surrounded by three beautiful women. I got the trifecta.”), and he likewise feels fortunate to have landed in a place where he can try out new recipes and share old favorites while feeding off the can-do energy:
“Brett and I were talking in my second week here and he said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but everyone here is too nice.’ He said, ‘You’re waiting for that to stop, right? It doesn’t. It won’t stop.’
“Everyone here is just so positive — the energy, the kindness, the willingness to help. I’ve started in places where it happens but then it wears off, but here it hasn’t worn off. Regardless of whether it’s their job or not, they point me in the right direction, they help me, they guide me.”
It all goes together like peanut butter and jelly. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.