Address and phone: 54 E. Pennington St., 622-5023
Meet Mike McCord, executive chef at Café 54.
The Norfolk Beach, Va., native grew up in Naples, Fla. An 8-year-stint in the Air Force brought McCord to Tucson, where he worked in law enforcement at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
“After I got out of the Air Force, I went back to take care of my mom, who was dying. And one day, she gave me a heart-to-heart about how life is too short not to do what you really want to do, and I realized that I wasn’t doing it, and that what I really wanted to do was cook,” said McCord, 41.
He picked the best restaurant he could find in Tucson – the then Five-Star rated Tack Room – and started his career as a dishwasher in 1996. Three years later, he ascended from pantry cook, to sauté cook to broiler cook. McCord was the only employee of the Tack Room ever to win its employee of the year award twice, he said.
McCord left the Tack Room to run the kitchen at Thirsty’s Grill, where he spent the next nine years. From there, he did a six-month stint at Miraval Life in Balance as a sous chef before accepting the executive chef position at Café 54 about a year ago.
The cafe’s primary mission is as a job training program serving people who are recovering from mental illness. McCord is one of six job coaches who train employees on everything from baking to dishwashing and janitorial work. The cafe also provides job placement for it’s trainees, who spend from six to nine months in the program.
“I really had no idea what I was getting into and was a little scared at first. But the whole concept of helping people and the way we’re able to train people and get them jobs is really rewarding. I can’t believe it’s been a year,” McCord said. “Plus, it’s an open menu, so I can do whatever I want.”
Question: What’s your favorite restaurant in Tucson?
Answer: I really like Red Sky (New American Cuisine & Catering). I’ve done some catering work for Steve Schultz (chef/owner), and he’s a great chef. I’ve learned a great deal from him.
What’s your favorite dish to prepare and why?
I’ve always seemed to have a knack for chili. I was runner-up at a nationwide chili cook-off, and I also won at Jonathan’s Cork chili cook-off a couple years ago.
What’s your favorite dish to eat?
I love a good steak on the grill, a good rib-eye with a baked potato. I’m craving one now.
What’s unique about the Tucson restaurant scene compared to other cities?
I like that we’re not jam-packed with chains. I went to South Carolina for my niece’s wedding and every fricking corner was full of chains, so I really like that there are a lot of good local chefs here with restaurants.
What’s your favorite or most-used gadget or kitchen utensil?
My chef’s knife, and I love our combination oven. It’s a Rational.
What do you always have in your refrigerator?
At home, I’m a mac and cheese and hot dog kind of guy, unless I’m entertaining.
Why are you a chef?
I just love it. I love the organized chaos of the kitchen, the hustle and bustle of a restaurant. I feel at home when I’m swinging food with one hand, on the cell phone making an order with the other, and kicking the fridge door shut with my foot.