Locally Sourced: Janos Wilder has a one-two punch with Carriage House and Downtown Kitchen

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Janos Wilder is a gastronomical genius, many would agree.

Tucson’s only James Beard Foundation winner opened Janos on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art, marrying French technique with local ingredients, on Halloween 1983. The casual, less expensive J BAR followed featuring the foods of Southern Arizona, Latin America, Mexico and The Caribbean.

He helms Carriage House Event Space and Cooking School and the adjacent chic Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails as well.

With cameras overhead, oversized wooden doors and subtle white wallpaper, Carriage House has become an ideal place for weddings, cooking classes and corporate events that require accommodations for 40 to 120 people.

“We have a partnership with Tucson Medical Center to create healthy eating classes and videos for them,” Wilder says. “We work on a variety of different topics that are going to be helpful and healthy. Eating healthy should never require you to sacrifice at all. It can taste great, be great.”

The building is more than 100 years old, initially housing a Studebaker showroom that faced Broadway. The Carriage House ballroom was the service department. When the building became available, Wilder jumped on the opportunity.

“My restaurant is right next door,” Wilder says of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. “We felt there was an opportunity downtown and a demand for event space that we couldn’t satisfy at Downtown Kitchen. We have a full kitchen in the back of Carriage House.”

As for Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, it was founded in 2010, when Wilder saw the opportunity to move downtown because it was being revitalized. He describes the menu as “American food with a global vision.”

“Every summer we do something called ‘Downtowns Around the Globe,’” he shares. “We started that in 2010 when Tucson received the city of gastronomy award. I thought, ‘Let’s do our sister cities in gastronomy.’ Every summer, we do three to four different cities of gastronomy.”

He’s covered cities in China, Italy and South Korea.

“It’s super fun,” he says. “There’s a lot of research that goes into it. It’s very expansive for us and our guests. It really is a way to emphasize what it is we do.”

In October, Wilder focuses on food and ingredients from Tucson and the Sonoran Desert. This is a longtime passion of Wilder’s.

“When I opened the first restaurant in 1983, I advertised for gardeners before staff,” he says. “It’s a great way to cook. It’s become better for us. There is a lot more demand for those ingredients. When we started doing that, nobody else was doing it.”

Wilder’s innovative style comes from his mother. He was impressed by the passion she brought to her cooking. Wilder started doing odd jobs at restaurants in high school, but never thought it would be a career. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from University of California, Berkeley, in 1976.

He soon realized his real love was in the kitchen. After graduation, he worked for three years at the historic Gold Hill Inn in Colorado, which sparked his interest in local ingredients.

Santa Fe and Paris were next on his itinerary. He worked alongside the chefs at three restaurants, which exposed him to French classical and nouvelle cuisine. In learning more about French cooking he came to appreciate the French chef and his relationship to his gardeners. When he moved to Tucson, he brought his love for global cooking and local gardens.

Wilder, who splits his time between Colorado and Tucson, is looking forward to the future of Carriage House.

“I think we’re on a good trajectory,” he says. “We’ve found our niche in the market from day one. With Carriage House, we found a model that works for us, and we cater to different things. The events are going to change all the time.

“We created this space and, in terms of weddings, we’re making people’s dreams come true.”