By Marjorie Rice
As a journalism student in Michigan, CJ Kahley, today chef de cuisine at Geordie’s in the Wrigley Mansion, wanted to be a travel writer, exploring different cultures through the lens of their cuisines.
His career path took a turn when he entered culinary school to get a solid grounding in cooking.
“Culinary school (Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas) is where the passion started,” Kahley said. “I realized I enjoyed being in the field rather than writing about it.”
He graduated in 2007, then began a cook’s tour of another sort. Being a top restaurant chef is a journeyman’s profession, with chefs moving from kitchen to kitchen to learn hands-on about different cuisines and techniques from experts, and Kahley’s career has followed that path.
“I chose Las Vegas because Vegas had everything,” he said. Stops included Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lis, Bouchon by Thomas Keller (no relation) and at Michael Mina at the Bellagio, then on to San Francisco, where he worked with the MINA Group, helping to open Steph and Ayesha Curry’s International Smoke restaurant and PABU Japanese restaurant, among others.
“I was fortunate to live in San Francisco and visit the restaurants and chefs I had only read about,” he said.
Eventually Kahley made his way to Arizona and another series of kitchens, learning all the way.
It began at The Mission in Old Town Scottsdale, with chef/owner Matt Carter. “I consider him my mentor,” Kahley said.
The seven years he was at The Mission was an education in Latin cuisine, Kahley said, especially learning to work with fresh and dried chiles and various citrus fruits.
“I consulted with Matt to open The Mission in Kierland Commons and Fat Ox in Scottsdale,” he said. “Fat Ox has a fantastic pasta program and I learned how to make pasta from a guy there named Chops Smith. I think he’s the best in the state.”
Last October, Kahley joined Geordie’s.
As he relaxed at the chef’s table, Kahley talked about his goals for the restaurant. “We changed a couple of the pastas, and added a couple of new dishes, like the octopus fritto, but I still feel like I’m trying to figure it out — what does this want to be?”
The octopus is braised for three hours in olive oil, almost like a confit, so it’s succulent and tender, then it’s dipped in a squid ink tempura batter for a light, crispy crust, served over fennel puree and topped with pickled fennel.
“It’s been well received,” Kahley said.
Another favorite is the steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, cooked with wine, fennel and garlic, then enriched with a bit of tomato nage, a buttery coulis with sherry vinegar, and served with baguette and pistou butter.
The menu is a work in process. For now, call it eclectic.
“We call it American food because American food is basically anything and everything,” Kahley said. “I take little things from my chefs as well. One of my sous chefs is Jewish — I fell in love with that cuisine when I was in San Francisco — so we talked about doing something with an Israeli influence.”
About that chef’s table — a long table in the spacious kitchen that serves 10. Dinners run $175 to $195, not including wine.
Guests come into the wine cellar and have a few small bites and some sparkling wine, then sit at the long chef’s table, where Kahley prepares and serves each course.
“We go all out at the chef’s table, but for our regular menu we try to keep it with as little fuss as possible,” Kahley said.
As an example, the prime beef tartare gets taken up a few notches for the chef’s table patrons, but the foundation is the same — prime beef, aged in-house.
Kahley points out the cabinet where whole prime rib roasts are aging in controlled humidity and temperature.
“We keep them in there for 60, 65 days before we start selling them,” he said.
These days, the Mansion Cut of that beef on the main dish menu is one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” main dishes, but the taste and texture are incomparable.
Other menu temptations include onion soup gratinee; whole branzino served with toasted farro, chicory salad, black garlic and yuzu; bucatini carbonara; and can’t-miss duck fat potatoes as a side dish.
Paired with those is the mansion’s award-winning 12,000-bottle wine collection, under the direction of Paola Embry.
“I don’t pretend to know much about wine,” Kahley said. “I know what tastes good, and what I like, but I can’t tell you where it’s from or what vintage it is. Just sitting with Paola, sometimes just a few minutes, I take on more knowledge than I ever had before.”
Geordie’s, at 2501 E. Telawa Trail, is open 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday (the bar opens at 3 p.m.), and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, for brunch. For more information, call 602-955-4079 or visit www.wrigleymansion.com.