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Pascua Yaqui Tribal Members Staff the Kitchen and Serve Thousands at Casino del Sol Resort

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Swinging doors in the West can lead to more than just a dingy saloon. The swinging banquet doors at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe's newly-opened Casino del Sol Resort in Arizona lead straight to the sights, sounds and delicious smells emanating from a gleaming state-of-the-art kitchen where everything from room service breakfasts to sit-down banquets for a thousand hungry diners are prepared.

“If you calculate the site’s daily head count, we have a capture rate in our ten food and beverage operations in excess of 75 percent each day—three out of four people who come here to stay or play have something to eat. That’s roughly 3,500-4,000 covers per day and we can go higher. As we grow, the skies the limit,” says Executive Chef Jason Jonilonis, “probably closer to 5,000-6,000 covers a day.”

Not only is it fascinating to watch the slicing and dicing part of meal preparations, all the steps that lead up to the actual plating of hundreds of meals prepared exactly alike, the kitchen itself is a training ground for Tribal team members. There are 165 employees involved in creating and serving meals at Casino del Sol and roughly two-thirds of that staff are Tribal members working both back and front of the house. “There’s a buzz that this is a culinary leadership mecca for folks to learn how to become chefs,” says Jonilonis.

“When I got here four years ago, there was one Tribal chef in the kitchen. Now there’s 15 Native supervisors, sous chefs and chefs as part of our team. We’ve created positions for Tribal members to introduce them to the varieties of responsibilities available—a tribal culinary assistant supervisor position that leads to the title of sous chef or grooming the strongest line cook and developing them to move up.

“I don’t want my philosophy to be to train the culinary team to just be a sous chef here, I want to train them to go on to San Francisco or New York or L.A., all knowing the ins-and-outs of what it takes to bake or butcher or make sauces, dressings, or garnishes. I want them to have a fully-rounded mentality, cross-trained in multiple areas and ready to join the ranks of culinary professionals. We’re not just giving them a job, we’re helping start careers.”

That concept appears to be working. “In the past, the paycheck was the thing and little else mattered. Now we’re seeing more and more Tribal members ecstatic about the opportunity of becoming a chef someday—they’re working harder, understanding the message and walking into the kitchen with a new level of professionalism.”

Tribal member Enrique Alcantaz, executive sous chef and No. 2 kitchen boss, leads by example. “His job is to know what I want done before I even ask for it,” Jonilonis says. “He’s a capable, competent, strong leader who knows what to do and how to handle things and ultimately when I punch out, this will be a Tribal led culinary operation from top to bottom.”

Iris Hernandez garnishes crab cake appetizer plates. (By Lee Allen)

Iris Hernandez garnishes crab cake appetizer plates. (By Lee Allen)

At the moment, the man who got his first chef’s knife at age 10, is commander-in-chief whose ideas have elevated the operation from basic to sophisticated. “When I got here, we were virtually opening boxes and calling it a done deal. We’ve revived the lost art of cooking from scratch with quality ingredients and farm-to-table concepts, preparing food from the heart and creating a level of passion in everything that goes on in our kitchen.”

Being a American Indian-owned casino with eateries, menu selection is mainstream and contemporary, but also includes feature items with Native elements—and that’s not just squash, corn and beans. Corn is used, but with chili aioli; spinach is jalapeno pepper spiced, and you’ll find subtle hints of chipotle and chimichuri.

“Because the Yaqui Tribe originated in Mexico, a lot of the food is of Mexican/Southwestern influence with products indigenous to the area,” says meat cutter and Chef de Cuisine Carlos Aponte, who helps invent the menus. “I want to make more Native-inspired cuisine available, like elk, venison, duck and rabbit. Braided into a ring and roasted off with a Gran Marnier apricot sauce, I’m betting this Hunters Parade would go over well.”

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The Executive Chef described his cuisine philosophy this way: “Food in the Southwest should make you feel good—like sunshine on your face, clouds in the sky, and the color of mountains at sunset. You should find inspiration in the simple things in life and cook with passion and finesse. There needs to be a kind of emotion involved, a hint of warmth from chilies, earthiness from sage, and intense colors found in prickly pear fruit.”

On the evening Indian Country Today Media Network visited, a fashion show and wine tasting was followed by a banquet of four courses—a cold starter salad of baby greens, arugula, asiago and foccaccia croutons with basil vinaigrette was followed by a warm crispy crab cake topped with corn relish and garlic pepper aioli. Next came an entrée of roasted free-range veal with a wild mushroom medley, creamed parmesan spinach and au gratin bacon potatoes, followed by white chocolate amaretto cheesecake with a cookie crust—with all servings accompanied by wine pairings.

And while the meal itself would certainly prove memorable, it was the preparation and presentation that resembled a moving tableau in time. “Our team has learned the French concept of all things in place,” Jonilonis says. “Surgeons don’t enter the operating room until all instruments and personnel are lined up and ready. They, and we, operate together like a sports team where you can have a star quarterback, but if you don’t have a good, solid, hard-working line, the QB can end up in the grass.

“Few people realized at the start just how important every member of the stewarding team is. If you don’t have clean silverware and glassware, you can’t plate a meal properly. Everyone has an identified role and all the preliminary steps need to be done in order for the chefs to work to the best of their abilities.”

As Banquet Manager Nico Carbone monitors front of the house event progress in the dining area and radio relays requests to the back of the house—“We need more white wine at table four”—cooks are tweaking the timing of their oven offerings as ten white jacketed personnel form two lines to plate up dozens…hundreds…of crab cakes, all exactly the same, a claw positioned next to the cake adjacent to a swirl of aioli and topped by relish and a sprig of parsley—no deviations from the norm. As each plate is prepared, it is covered and placed in a warmer oven.

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In the kitchen hallway, Pastry Chef Leobardo Ramirez and his helpers assemble the cheesecake sweet treat. Wine stewards uncork and line up beverage bottles. Servers cut and plate butter patties, again, every plate looks the same as the next, all the same size, all facing the same direction. Then, similar to military operations, the hurry up turns into a wait as event ceremonies run later than scheduled.

“It happens,” says Banquet Chef Javier Castro. “We’re the heartbeat of the hotel and this department can be a monster if the dominoes don’t fall on schedule. But once we get the ‘go’ command, we’re prepped and ready and everything comes together.” Team leaders, Cristobal Cazares (Room Chef); Mario Carmelo (Chef de Cuisine), and Garde Manager Chef Iris Hernandez wait quietly and patiently. “No stress,” Carmelo whispers to himself as a reminder to stay calm and ready.

“We’re close now,” radios Banquet Manager Carbone, a signal for all personnel to assume their posts and perform their assigned functions. Black-vested waiters and waitresses present their serving trays which are each loaded with ten covered plates from the warming oven. The swinging doors open and close repeatedly as enough trips are made to serve all banquet attendees.

And when the guests have been wined and dined, tables are bussed, ovens are cooled, and the scullery crew takes center stage as everything gets cleaned and put away for the next such operation.

“For two weeks, since we opened up on 11-11-11, I’ve literally rolled out of bed, come to work, and then rolled back into bed—but it’s been worth it,” says Executive Sous Chef Alcantaz. “There’s no such thing as a normal work week in this business,” adds Jonilonis, “although I’m hoping that as we settle into a comfortable daily routine and hone in on how we do things, our work weeks can drop back to a more normal food staff schedule of only 55-60 hours.”

All the long hours, all theTtribal training efforts, all the dedication and effort, is aimed at a higher goal. “The tribal council’s vision is to be the heavy hitter in the local market,” Jonilonis says. “We want to bring Las Vegas to Tucson.”