By Valerie Vinyard
Brian Smith looks like your everyday unassuming college student, but the 31-year-old is one of Tucson’s top chefs.
“Ever since I was little, I enjoyed cooking with my grandma and mom,” says Smith, who has two younger brothers. “It was a very big part of our family. We sat down and ate dinner together.”
The Tucson native’s first job was cooking on the line at the now-closed Buddy’s Grill when he was 16.
Over the years, Smith has moved up to executive chef of Maynards Market and Kitchen. He started as the chef de cuisine in August 2016 but earned the executive chef spot in December that year.
Located in the historic train depot Downtown across the street from Club Congress, Maynards has been open since 2008.
Smith is proud of the garden he’s cultivated in the back of the restaurant, which grows about 15 vegetables and herbs including tomatoes, fennel, chiltepin and eggplant.
Last year, Smith won Tucson’s Iron Chef competition, beating out Travis Peters of The Parish, a Southern fusion gastropub. The secret ingredient in the competition was pork belly.
Smith graduated from Pima Community College with a degree in culinary arts in 2008.
“There was really no thought in making money, but I’d always heard people say you should enjoy what you’re doing,” he says. “So, I gave it a go.”
While in school and after a couple of years at Buddy’s, Smith wanted to “do something that was more elevated.”
He started cooking at Acacia Real Food and Cocktails, a fine dining restaurant in the former Soleil spot at Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive. Chef and owner Albert Hall took Smith under his wing.
“I learned a lot,” he says, noting Hall’s attention to detail rubbed off as well as paying attention to his surroundings. “I learned the stuff you don’t learn in culinary school.”
He remained at Acacia until it closed in August 2016, and briefly moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to “stage,” or try out, for a spot under executive chef Sean Brock at McCrady’s.
While he was there, he received a call from Todd Hanley, who owns Maynards, an upscale downtown restaurant. Hanley offered him a chef de cuisine position. Though he had been a longtime fan of Brock’s, he chose to return to Tucson.
Maynards, an award-winning restaurant that uses local ingredients in its seasonal dishes, has been described by The New York Times as “dark and handsome.” The market offers retail-priced wines and has a bar. It features weekly wine tastings, and Smith dreams up inventive monthly wine dinners.
After Acacia closed, Hall recommended Smith to Hanley. Frankie Santos of Frankie’s Cheesesteaks, as well as a U.S. Foods purveyor, also had given Smith the thumbs up. Hanley was looking to add someone who would bring an upscale mentality to the kitchen.
Smith was an immediate hit, Hanley said.
“When he staged, he was meticulous,” he says. “Our food went from good enough to great.”
Hanley usually expects new employees to take some time to get acclimated, but Smith didn’t need it.
“It’s hard to know how someone will be, but it’s pretty easy when your food is instantly better,” Hanley says. “That’s just tangible, objective information.”
Hanley noted that being an executive chef encompasses a variety of tasks.
“Being a chef is as much about being great with food as being a great leader,” he says.
Part of Smith’s job is hiring talent in the kitchen, which he admits can be a challenge. Overall, though, he says that it’s helped him grow and become less impatient and more tolerant. He estimates that he works 60 to 70 hours a week.
Because Tucson has been designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, Smith has traveled the globe. He has visited Parma, Italy and Brazil to put on cooking demonstrations and attend food festivals. He recently returned from the Eastern coast of China, where he represented the United States at the 10-day International Food and Wine Festival.
Lewis Swartz, who goes by “Junior,” has worked at Maynards since October 2015. The 26-year-old says Smith started at Maynards when he was still cooking on the line.
“He brings a new sense of style to traditional cooking,” he says. “He loves to take old traditional ways of cooking and find new ways. He combines traditional teaching techniques to new-age techniques.”
Since Smith has taken over, he has changed Maynards’ style, offering more “worldly dishes” from Asia and the Middle East.
“The food is more evenly balanced,” Smith says. “It’s more like what America really is.
“This menu feels good.”
Maynards Market and Kitchen
400 N. Toole Avenue
545-0577 or maynardstucson.com