Finding a Sense of Place in Tucson's Culinary Scene

Tucson flourishes as a UNESCO-designated Creative City of Gastronomy.

UNESCO launched the Creative Cities Network in 2004 with a mission of promoting cooperation between cities excelling in sustainable urban development. In December 2015, Tucson was designated as the only Creative City of Gastronomy in the United States, joining 17 other Cities of Gastronomy across the globe.

“Being a City of Gastronomy is a unique opportunity because food culture, food experiences are probably one of the most popular things that people do now,” says chef Janos Wilder, owner of Tucson’s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails and the Carriage House event center and teaching kitchen.

A multitude of factors led to the city’s designation—from Tucson’s deep agricultural past and many heritage foods to the mixed cultural influences in the region’s cuisine to a wide-ranging lineup of research-based and education-driven programs that address urban sustainability efforts, food security and food justice issues.

The region’s culturally layered cuisine has roots in Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American traditions. Its land, cultivated for more than 4,000 years, yields beans, squash and maize, among other unique crops.

“It’s the longest continuously cultivated region in the Unities States,” explains Wilder. “It’s really sort of a remarkable factoid, given that we live in the middle of the desert.”

Since opening his first restaurant in Tucson in 1983, Wilder has been committed to a market-driven cooking philosophy—the notion that the best food is closest to you. “I was very interested in growing our own food,” he says. “We started advertising for gardeners before staff.”

Wilder, a James Beard Award winner and board member of a local seed preservation and distribution organization called Native Seeds/SEARCH, has had a steady hand in nurturing Tucson’s food scene, as have many other local chefs, organizations, farmers and artisans.

Barrio Brewing Co.

A self-guided tour through the City of Gastronomy may lead you to Mission Garden, which re-established the birthplace of Tucson with demonstration gardens located on the banks of the Santa Cruz River; to Native Seeds/SEARCH’s seed bank; to the Garden Kitchen, a seed-to-table cooking education center; and to the city’s many locally operated restaurants and bars utilizing locally sourced ingredients—including Barrio Brewing Co., which produces its own locally brewed craft beer in a warehouse near downtown Tucson and serves brews and food at its taproom.

At Wilder’s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, a regular menu is complemented by a “Sense of Place” menu from October through May, featuring innovative twists on traditional Sonoran dishes. A special summer menu called “Downtowns Around the Globe” features dishes from other Cities of Gastronomy.

“We think that the designation has really increased awareness of not only our thriving food scene, but also the innovative research and outreach programs at the University of Arizona related to food and also the interest in locally produced foods and urban agriculture in the community,” says Jonathan Mabry, historic preservation officer and the City of Tucson’s representative for the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. “Tucson is now increasing awareness of its food traditions and promoting the cultural producers of its food heritage on a global platform.”