Rachel McAuley put $3 million into the 7,500-square-foot space, the old Los Olivos Norte. It’s an ambitious undertaking that has brought together a diverse and experienced crew.
Rachel McAuley is a first-time restaurateur, but she has a clear vision and she knows how to delegate. Both traits will come in handy as she prepares to launch her first project.
Zen Culinary, a 300-seat, Asian-inspired restaurant with a contemporary vibe, is under construction at the Sonora Village shopping center in north Scottsdale, slated for a late-October launch.
McAuley is putting $3 million into the 7,500-square-foot space, the former Los Olivos Norte on Pima Road off Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. It’s an ambitious undertaking that has brought together a diverse and experienced crew to executive her vision.
“I don’t have experience owning a restaurant,” McAuley said, “so I started looking around and it took a year to connect with these guys, to get to know them, to have them on board.”
- Kelly Fletcher will lead the kitchen as executive chef.
- Bob Tam of Phoenix’s Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour is partnering with Fletcher to design the menu.
- Michael Liberatore comes from Citizen Public House to lead an extensive beverage program.
- Cristina Serrano has been brought in as general manager.
Fletcher is best known for the 10 years he spent heading up the kitchen at Tempe’s House of Tricks. Most recently, he was chef de cuisine at the historic El Chorro restaurant in Paradise Valley.
“I’ve never met anybody with an exact vision like Rachel,” Fletcher said at an exclusive interview with the Zen Culinary team.
McAuley, who was born and raised in Thailand, came to the United States and settled in the Valley in 2002, eventually moving back and forth between Phoenix and Southern California, where her family runs a small chain of Thai restaurants. She got into the business of importing Thai foods and products, and sold her stake in a wholesaling company to finance Zen Culinary. For McAuley, the restaurant is a chance to build something that is her own.
“She’s not going to do something mediocre,” Serrano added. “If it’s going to happen, it has to be perfection.”
Perfection, in this case, is a concept that McAuley has been developing for years, a stylish Asian-inspired restaurant that draws from Eastern and Western traditions, and places diners in a relaxed, communal environment that’s lively without being brash.
The menu, meanwhile, is a collaborative effort between Fletcher and Tam.
“We’re dating,” Fletcher joked. “We’re always together, always working on the menu. I’ve always been influenced by Japan and Korea, but one of the great things is that I can collaborate with Bob Tam and the evolution of the menu has been insane.”
The menu will feature dishes and techniques from multiple Asian traditions — Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese and more. But McAuley emphasized that it will also feature simple American dishes, like steaks or steelhead salmon, with light Asian touches.
“If you go out for Chinese food, sometimes it’s kind of a blob in a bowl,” Fletcher said. “We don’t want that. We want it to be elegant.”
Also operating along stylish lines will be Liberatore’s cocktail menu.
“Classic cocktails give you the best building blocks to go ahead and create something unique,” Liberatore said. “I want to go ahead and use these Asian flavors in a classic way.”
Among Zen’s libations, he plans to focus on classic, refreshing highballs with sprayed “essences.” He hopes to help build the profile of some Asian spirits that aren’t widely recognized in the Valley.
“There’s so much stuff that should be bigger out here, like shochu, infusions of shochu, playing around with baijiu, which is distilled sorghum. It’s right in between whiskey and rum. I want to incorporate new cocktails that get (those) on people’s palates.”
Liberatore also intends to highlight Japanese whiskeys, and Zen will offer frozen Kirin beer — a thick, frozen beer foam that can be used to cap a glass of Kirin, or utilized in cocktails.
McAuley wants to capture a kind of energetic elegance in a space that’s influenced but not dominated by Asian design.
The large building can seat more than 300 guests across two traditional dining rooms, a large bar and lounge, private dining area and dual patios decorated with fire pits, waterfalls, a piano, an open wine display and a view of the kitchen — seen but not heard — behind long glass windows.
Through the drinks, food and the room, McAuley hopes to inspire a friendly, social feel.
“A person can order their own meal,” she said, “but it’s designed for sharing.”
“I think the concept is that we’re trying to push for what we do when we go out,” Fletcher added. “We’ll just order — ‘let’s get one of these, one of these, one of these’ — and then we just pass around plates. So it’s more of a communal feel.”
“It’s taking the experiences from all of us,” Liberatore said, “incorporating them into something that’s approachable but it still infused with that Asian style.”