Meet Chef Charles Wiley – A Valley Culinary Legend
Writer Shoshana Leon
Photos Courtesy of Mountain Shadows and Chef Charles Wiley
The Valley has a lot of amazing chefs, and Chef Charles Wiley has inspired many of them. With more than 40 years of experience, Chef Wiley has developed culinary talent at some of Arizona’s most celebrated resorts, and has earned some of the industry’s most impressive accolades.
A native of New Jersey, Chef Wiley came to Arizona in 1989 when he was offered the position of executive chef at The Boulders Resort and Spa in Carefree. In 2001, he opened Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa, where he helped create the concept and menu for the resort’s celebrated Elements restaurant. He then launched ZuZu, Hotel Valley Ho’s signature restaurant when the hotel reopened in 2005.
He continues to oversee all food and beverage operations for Westroc Hospitality, which has revitalized several historic properties, including Sanctuary, Hotel Valley Ho and Mountain Shadows. Chef Wiley currently serves as executive chef of Hearth ’61, Mountain Shadows’ acclaimed signature restaurant.
The acclaimed chef has seen the Valley dining scene change over the last three decades.
“The resort boom of the 1980s had a tremendous impact on the culinary scene,” he said. “Several new upscale resorts attracted a well-traveled clientele who appreciated fine cuisine.
“The Valley was becoming a culinary destination that drew talented culinarians and restaurateurs from all over. Purveyors had to step up their game and offer fresher and more diverse products to stay competitive.
“I love how the Valley has evolved since I arrived in 1989, with the proliferation of farmers’ markets and local artisans. Where there once was just a handful of good restaurants, there are now at least a hundred.”
Local suppliers are part of the Valley’s culinary evolution, and Chef Wiley works closely with many of them.
“Beautiful food comes into the kitchen every day,” he said. “Chula Seafood will bring in pristine swordfish caught the day before from their boat in San Diego. Jason Raducha, owner of Noble Bread, bakes a proprietary loaf for us and every loaf is a beautiful, natural thing to behold. Bob McClendon and Pat Duncan send us organic vegetables and fruit so gorgeous that unpacking them is akin to opening a box of jewels. Dave Jordan, who owns Two Wash Ranch in New River, raises our chickens and turkeys for Thanksgiving. They are so fresh, firm and succulent that guests say they never tasted such a delicious bird.
“It is these local, passionate artisans that have our staff and me bursting with pride that we have the good fortune to serve these amazing products to our guests.”
Exceptional Moments in an Extraordinary Career
Chef Wiley’s first job in a kitchen was in South Lake Tahoe as a dishwasher in 1973, skiing in the morning and working at night. “The cook walked out on a busy night and the owner trained me. From that point on, I was a cook,” he recalls.
Chef Wiley decided to pursue a culinary career when he lived in Alaska in the 1970s. “I was inspired by the endless diversity of cooking and techniques, the beauty and sensual nature of food, the camaraderie and energy in the kitchen, and I loved the immediate gratification of making people happy,” he said.
Jacques Pepin and other great French chefs inspired Chef Wiley.
“I bought Jacques Pepin’s ‘Le Technique’ in 1976. It changed my life,” he said. He was also inspired by the American food revolution in the late 1970s with chefs like Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters pioneering California cuisine, as well as the rise of prolific New York City chefs including Larry Forgione and Tom Colicchio.
“Although I embraced and practiced classical cuisine early in my career, I fell in love with the fresh, light, unstructured approach that was known as California cuisine,” said Chef Wiley. “So much of what we do is still rooted in classic technique. My approach and attitude toward ingredients are the culmination of decades behind the stove. It’s always amazed me that you can give six chefs the exact same ingredients and they will produce six different dishes based on their experiences and how they interpret what they see.”
Before coming to Arizona, Chef Wiley worked in California and Utah.
“I have had the good fortune to cook with some amazing people over the years. My favorite gig was as Chef de Cuisine of the Roof Restaurant in Salt Lake City. I could ski several days a week in the morning and cook beautiful food at night.”
There have been several amazing accolades in Chef Wiley’s incredible career. He was recognized among Best Hotel Chefs in America by the James Beard Foundation in 1992 while at The Boulders, and he has been invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City several times, one of the most coveted honors in the culinary industry.
“I was first invited to cook at the James Beard House in 1992,” said Chef Wiley. “It was one of the high points of my career to present our version of Southwestern cuisine from Arizona.”
In 1994, Chef Wiley was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs by Food and Wine magazine, and he is a member of the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. In 2017 and 2018, he was host chef for the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America dinner at Mountain Shadows, featuring the Valley’s best chefs.
Continuing to Inspire
With nearly 40 years of culinary experience and a plethora of awards, Chef Wiley still enjoys being in the kitchen with young chefs.
“At this point in my career, one of the most rewarding things is mentoring the new generation of chefs who will go forth and make their own mark on the world,” he said.
One of the many chefs who has learned a lot from Chef Wiley is Richard Garcia, executive sous chef at Hearth ’61 at Mountain Shadows. Chef Garcia worked with Chef Wiley at ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho for more than nine years, and currently works with him at Mountain Shadows.
“Chef Wiley has been a true inspiration over the many years that I have worked by his side and he has taught me to be a professional culinarian,” said Chef Garcia. “Watching him perform has pushed me to be the best chef I can be, and to really appreciate the beauty of crafting amazing cuisine. Not only is he an outstanding chef, he is a genuine person as well.”
The Valley is very fortunate to have such an accomplished and talented chef in our community for nearly 30 years. He is truly an icon, helping to build a wealth of culinary talent and playing a critical role as the Valley culinary scene continues to flourish.