Sunny Disposition: Chef Ryan Clark stays local with Casino del Sol restaurants

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Casino del Sol’s executive chef, Ryan Clark, knows the key to success.

It’s not only about the food.

“Most people go out to restaurants for the food, but they come back for the service and hospitality,” Clark says during an interview in PY Steakhouse.

“If a server doesn’t know or believe in the food or know about the food, that’s a problem. That’s a big part of hospitality. I try to bridge that gap and build that relationship between them.”

Clark oversees six full-service restaurants, the property’s golf course, the AVA Amphitheater, the conference center and other food and beverage needs at Casino del Sol and Casino of the Sun. He chalks up his success to his team.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to recruit some really great people, and there were already great people here,” he says. “My main goal as executive chef is to set them up for success.

“My job is to bring great people in here, get them trained and show them my vision so they can execute it. I work with them daily to make sure we’re all on the same page. We definitely work to provide the best food and beverage hospitality that we can.”

Casino del Sol boasts PY Steakhouse, Festa International Buffet, Ume, Tequila Factory, Moby’s and Abuelitas, along with a handful of quick-service restaurants.

“We have a lot of variety here for guests,” he says. “We have PY Steakhouse. It’s very locally driven and sustainable. Then we have everything in between from sushi to Mexican food and an international buffet. We have a mom-and-pop-like 24-hour diner.

“I try to involve the chefs more in front of house so there’s not a segregation between them, the servers and managers. I think that’s important in the industry.”

Clark is a Tucson native who attended The Culinary Institute of America in New York City. He interned at Elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort in Paradise Valley and returned to Tucson and worked for Canyon Ranch and Lodge on the Desert. During this time, he was nominated for Food and Wine’s Best New Chef Southwest, named Tucson Iron Chef three times and published his Modern Southwest cookbook.

In 2012, Clark opened Agustin Kitchen downtown, seeking to provide a farm-to-table experience for his guests. In 2015, he left Agustin to become the chef de cuisine at PY Steakhouse, and is now executive chef. He keeps the local flavor intact for Casino del Sol.

“We have more than 30 local purveyors on the menu – everything from the wine and beer and the whiskey to the food,” he says.

“We’re introducing grains into the breads. The dairy is from Arizona dairy farms. We make all the butter from scratch. In the past three months or so, I’ve introduced a local program.”

Clark hired a company that picks produce for his restaurants from farms across Southern Arizona. In August, PY featured summer squash. This month, Casino del Sol is receiving a truckload of fresh apples.

“There will be dishes across the casino with apples,” he says.

Also at PY Steakhouse, the 33-year-old Clark works with local purveyors to sustain a menu of prime cuts and highly graded grass-fed beef. The bone-in ribeye is the most popular dish.

“It speaks volumes for what we do here at the steakhouse because, one, we’re sourcing local; we dry age in-house for 28 days. We rub the steak in a local whiskey from Tucson, grill it and finish it with housemade butter.”

Ume specializes in sushi, baked rolls and stir fry.

“There’s a nice variety on the sushi menu,” says Clark, whose go-to dish at home is pasta, but he loves Honey Nut Cheerios.

Recently, he won the Margarita World Championships for the third time. His previous wins at the event, sponsored by Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance, were in 2012 and 2013.

The winning creation, named the Hielo Verde Margarita (translated as Green Ice), was created for the event and will be available at the Tequila Factory. He used Don Julio Blanco as a traditional base and added sorbet that was heavily seasoned with cucumber, tomatillo, cilantro and mezcal and blended in a Pacojet.

Clark definitely keeps busy, especially this time of year with concerts and pool parties. He also hosts Super Bowl get-togethers, and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day meals.

“There’s always something happening out here, which is challenging but exciting for the team to keep pushing,” Clark says.