The thing with success is that it often simply begs the question, “What’s Next?” After a fabulous run of successful restaurants—including three namesake venues in Phoenix over three decades—cooking for Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, and James Beard and Robert Mondavi Culinary Awards of Excellence to his name, Chef Christopher Gross gave himself a hard act to follow.
It’s clear that Gross isn’t simply the executive chef, but the maestro in charge of a culinary symphony that delights no more than 30 diners a night.
Food & Wine magazine named Gross one of America’s 10 Best New Chefs in 1989. In 2016 he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Scottsdale Culinary Hall of Fame. He served on panels with culinary icons Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, and enjoyed Michelin-star time at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles.
Today, Chef Christopher Gross is leading a new chapter at the ICONIC Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix. He’s reimagined this classic venue as the new home for fine French dining in the Valley with his newest version of Christopher’s restaurant—an ICONIC culinary experience in the making.
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The restaurant, three years in R &D, has Chef Gross’ indelible mark throughout. Listening to him describe the endeavor over a 12-course tasting extravaganza, it’s clear that Gross isn’t simply the executive chef, but the maestro in charge of a culinary symphony that delights no more than 30 diners a night. Christopher’s is the restaurant Chef Gross has dreamed about opening for years.
Chef Gross shares with me a notebook he kept throughout the project, where he made notes on menus, and drawings on elements that have now come to life in the restaurant. From the table lamps with a special surprise, to the unique egg-inspired serving dish, it’s a literal diary of concept to execution.
Some of the plates, including the chargers that feature Chef Gross’ hand-drawn cartoon designs, were crafted by Christiane Barbato of Phoenix’s Blue Door Ceramics, others like the cloche serving dish and wine coasters were created by artists at Arizona’s Arcosanti.
Tucked on a corner wall near the staging bar is a framed sketch that the building’s architect Wendell Burnette first detailed his vision for the space. When he presented the rudimentary abstract drawing to Chef Gross and Wrigley owner and Gross’s girlfriend Jamie Hormel her comment was, “Are we being punked?”
While it takes some imagination to see the end result in that initial drawing, there is no doubt they weren’t being punked. The restaurant is a stunning space rooted in clean lines, dark colors and floor-to-ceiling windows that along with a retractable roof can turn the restaurant into an al fresco experience with the touch of a few buttons.
Like other restaurants Chef Gross has owned, this one also has a bathroom that makes a statement with the most technologically advanced toilet in all of Phoenix and floor-to-ceiling windows. If a building can be sexy, this one is. Add in the 180-degree views of the Phoenix cityscape, Camelback Mountain and the legendary architectural statement made by the Arizona Biltmore, Christopher’s pours on the romantic ambiance.
Attention to detail is infused in the restaurant at every turn. Art lovers will notice Yves Klein’s famous “Leap into the Void,” photograph on one wall. Chef Gross was given permission by his foundation to produce one, and just one, official reproduction of the black and white photo. Klein’s widow, Rotraut Klein-Moquay is an artist living in Paradise Valley, and it’s her striking cobalt blue painting that greets guests when they first walk into Christopher’s.
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The foodie extravaganza begins with a classic French welcome cocktail prepared tableside to set the stage for what’s to come. Christopher’s uses a special vacuum distilling process to create its own bitters and fruit essence to infuse into the craft cocktails.
Sitting at the chef’s counter, I have a front-row seat watching the chefs cook over fire in the open-flame kitchen and meticulously plate every dish. Chef Gross designed the wood-fire cooktop, which was then forged locally by Studio Iron in Apache Junction.
Christopher’s is unique in that there are no real set roles. You won’t have a server; rather dishes are presented by the same chefs who prepared them. Chef Gross believes that not only does this help train young chefs in all aspects of the business, but also teaches them that their role in the guest experience doesn’t end by putting up a dish on the pass.
Diners can opt for the wine pairings with each course, or select a bottle from a wine list that is the largest in Arizona. Wrigley CEO and wine director Paola Embry, who coincidentally is Chef Gross’s former wife, curated the overwhelming wine book. During the pandemic when many restaurants were closed and not wanting their allocations of wine, Embry was able to snap up some bottles that are rarely seen in Arizona.
Over the three-hour gourmand feast, there isn’t a dish that doesn’t delight, but there are definitely several that standout. The Egg in Egg in Egg is presented on an egg-like domed platter Chef Gross designed and inside there is a small egg serving dish with a decadent creamy egg mixture topped with Ostera Caviar and gold leaf inside. I’m not normally a caviar fan, but this delectable bite has me reconsidering.
In another course, a sliced diver scallop presented in a Béarnaise sauce with a quail egg I’m instructed to mix in has to be the most melt in my mouth, rich scallop I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
It sounds sacrilegious, but I can take or leave pasta, that is until one bite of the Wood Smoked Cepe Agnolotti bathed in sauce Meuniere and topped with a ridiculous amount of early summer truffle. In another course, a sliced diver scallop presented in a Béarnaise sauce with a quail egg I’m instructed to mix in has to be the most melt in my mouth, rich scallop I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
Chef Gross worked with the team at Arizona’s Arcosanti to bring Paolo Soleri’s famous bells to the restaurant. In the Sounds of Arcosanti Bells and the World’s Best Blue, diners ring in the cheese course with the faint sound of the bell, which serves as a dome that when lifted unveils Rogue Creamery blue cheese sitting on a black pepper tuile.
While the tasting menu is the heart of Christopher’s, on several weekdays a menu of classics Chef Gross became known for throughout the years is offered. On the three-course prix fixe menu are favorites like ABC Foie Gras Terrine, a dish Chef Gross created with Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, and Smoked Truffle Infused Filet, which he wowed Julia Child with on her PBS TV show in the 1990s. The restaurant just launched a lunch and brunch service.
As one of the most celebrated chefs in Phoenix, Chef Christopher Gross has come a long way from the child that would only eat plain foods with no sauce and no condiments. With that youthful palate, it’s hard to believe he ever got into the restaurant business, but what started as stints with Baskin Robbins and Jack in the Box as a teenager evolved into a job in the kitchen at the Adams Hotel in downtown Phoenix when he was 18.
“This was the first time I thought that food was kind of interesting, and it was at a time when I realized I needed to find a career,” said Chef Gross.
When the hotel went bankrupt, all of the chef’s told Chef Gross that he needed to go to Los Angeles if he wanted to pursue a culinary career. He landed at the Century Plaza Hotel, where their corporate chef took him under his wing and had Chef Gross working all the dinners they catered for A-list clients.
While Chef Gross wasn’t part of the hotel’s formal apprentice program, he wanted international experience, so he jumped when the corporate chef gave him a lead in London. While that hotel position didn’t pan out, Chef Gross landed a job at a small French restaurant making £20 a day, and the rest as they say is l’histoire.