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For 10 months, the pandemic has been throwing punches at our food scene. This week, it landed a haymaker.
Cotton & Copper, the trailblazing restaurant in south Tempe, will close after February 6. The owners plan to open a new eatery in its place. Physically absent from the new endeavor: chef Tamara Stanger.
Stanger, who will remain a co-owner with Sean Traynor, is decamping to Utah for now. There, she’ll cook at a restaurant on a lake.
“It’s hurtful,” she says. “It’s not easy at all. We’ve been trying to survive for a while here. At first, it wasn’t a big deal … and then something happened. Not only did we feel the pressure, but every individual out there started to feel the pressure.”
In recent years, Stanger has been one of the Valley’s most intriguing chefs, a head-turning talent about as far outside the cookie-cutter as imaginable.
Stanger can sling a mean bubble gum or cheddar ice cream. Even among elite chefs, she has won a mythical reputation for pie, often using acorn and mesquite flour in crust, wolfberries and gemlike cactus fruit as filling, yet also nailing grandma’s classics.
Most of all, Stanger has embraced the sunburnt spaces and true ingredients of Arizona like few modern chefs have.
Night after night, she has used the Sonoran Desert’s ancient ingredients in novel ways, helping to pilot a style of cooking that I’ve called New Arizonan. In the early gray light of wildlands and urban parks, she visits shrubs and trees, foraging mesquite pods, barrel cactus fruit, and tree flowers. She merges these with ageless desert farmed ingredients, like tepary beans and Pima 60-Day Corn, weaving these Arizonan plants into dishes with roots near and far.
She has plated duck with ga’ivsa risotto and onion flowers; pork chops with red corn polenta, pumpkin butter, and amaranth dukkah; thick-cut steaks with squash gravy and bean ash; fried chicken sandwiches breaded in Ramona Farms pink corn. She has cooked a library of preparations with old Arizona soul yet new to the world.
Chicken with mesquite syrup and amaranth, cooked by Tamara Stanger of Cotton & Copper.
Though Stanger will live in Utah, Cotton & Copper may resurface in some form again. “Sean likes to say Cotton & Copper is up in a cloud right now, and we can pull it down whenever we want,” she says. “We don’t know if that’s going to happen, but it’s something that can happen.”
In Utah, her home state, Stanger will be executive chef at The Lakehouse at Deer Creek. The lakeside restaurant stands in a state park in Wasatch County. Stanger grew up hiking and foraging in the mountains nearby. She has been serving as a consultant for the restaurant, helping it connect with ingredients and cooking methods of the region’s deep past.
Though Stanger will return to the Valley on a monthly basis or so (and plans to drop the occasional pie special), she mourns the loss of momentum for the kind of desert-centric ingredients she loves. “Before COVID hit, we were making waves,” she says. “There were huge things happening. I saw lots of other chefs starting to put local ingredients on their menus, people saying, ‘Where’s my place in this?’”
For months, the pandemic has both spurred and stifled culinary innovation.
Foraging and cooking with top-notch desert ingredients, for instance, requires an investment. “It takes a lot of time and labor,” she says. “Is there a payoff? There has to be a payoff.”
Once, there was. Almost a year into a pandemic, the new restaurant that will flesh out Cotton & Copper’s bones will be a more affordable cafe.
“Unfortunately, that changes my direction,” says Stanger, who is drawn to more specialized ingredients and more freewheeling cooking. “There’s this other thing in me that I have to do. And I think this thing in Utah gives me an opportunity to do that now.”
Stanger hopes other chefs will help carry the Sonoran-centric torch, especially once the pandemic wanes.
And yet, Stanger still may bring her forager’s scissors back to central Arizona permanently and reboot Cotton & Copper one day.
“When I first started reaching out to my farmers and stuff [to tell them she was moving], the first reaction was it’s over,” she says. “But it’s not over. This is just the first of a beginning phase for everybody. I’ll still be here. This place is important to me.”
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