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R Mario’s First Friday Feast

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Image provided by Chef Mario.
Downtown Phoenix’s Chef Mario Has Thrown The Best All-Night, After First Friday Gathering Of The Phoenix Arts Community For The Past Five Years But He Feeds The Arts In More Ways Than One

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By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 7, 2014 — Renetto - Mario Etsitty is an institution in the Phoenix arts scene. “Chef Mario” is spoken of with great regard and reverence for both his contributions to the arts, as well as his welcoming personality. Though his formal training was in fine arts at Arizona State University, his calling seems to be cooking and he regularly shares his gifts.

For more than 5 years, Chef Mario’s First Friday after party has been where artists, musicians, gallery staff, and just about anyone else involved with First Friday who stays up late can be found after the festivities. His door opens at midnight, and does not close until after the sun has come up.

According to the chef, it is more than just great food being cooked up at his after party, because one of his favorite aspects of the monthly tradition is the collaborative projects that have been born between the hours of midnight and sunrise at his home at 908 E. McKinley. The event has led to the meetings of many neighbors, friends, collaborators, and the like, and, according to the Chef, it is still not being used to its full potential.

At most First Friday Feasts, Chef Mario is the only person who really addresses the entire group except perhaps someone getting the group’s attention to listen to Mario, or perhaps someone calling for donations. The Chef said he wants his home to be a platform where people can feel comfortable addressing their neighbors and fellow arts-district people. Though the meal is open to all, the chef does hope to collect donations of either cash or food  for his efforts to keep the tradition alive.

For those who do not wish to stay up late to break bread with Chef Mario, he is currently working at Urban Bean/Tertio at Seventh Street and Osborn Road. But he took a break from feeding the downtown arts district to talk with Modern Times Magazine.

Modern Times Magazine: When did you start cooking?
Renetto - Mario Etsitty: I’ve always been cooking, ever since I was 7 or so. My grandma had a chuck wagon so I’ve been helping her out since I was a kid.

MTM: Where have you worked in your cooking career?
RME: The Phoenix Public market was one of the big places I used to work, and also Rula Bula, I was the sous chef there for a while, and a few pizzerias before that.

MTM: Tell me about your former restaurant Rezbot.
RME: Rezbot was something that was where Nachobot used to be and after Nachobot closed, John (Sagosta) approached me about it. He was like, “OK, lets make this into a place to get food from a Native American perspective.” It was for awareness because it’s something that’s not around as a cuisine or as like an option. We live in this country and there are these places for Italian, Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian, what have you. But as far as the indigenous people here we don’t have our own cuisine. Even the Mexican doesn’t quite come close to it, because it’s sort of the bastardization of Spanish influence and American, I guess. So that was the main goal, to bring that to the downtown area, just have a spot that had Native American food and have things that you normally don’t get. We used blue corn a lot and we had lamb on our menu, I think the main thing about the food there was making it fresh right there. It was a place where you could get something fast but also made to order.


MTM: Besides Rezbot, in what other ways does your indigenous heritage shine through in how you cook?
RME: Somewhat, where I’m at right now at Teritio and Urban Bean there is some of that in play, I get a little bit of freedom in terms of what I can present. The stuff that I’m working on tends to have some of the ingredients like pumpkins and mixed beans and that sort of stuff. Just being aware of the flavors we have and trying to use them as much as possible. But for the most part, it’s kind of hard to really bring that into it. One time we had wine dinners so we had a wine pairing with guest chefs and one of them was Hugo Medina. He’s Bolivian so he did Bolivian food. So I did one of them and we used ingredients from Navajo culture. So we did rabbit, which was part of our diet a long time ago. Spinach, corn, blue corn, pumpkin, beans, these are our dishes. So we made things that used these ingredients and we did it with a white wine pairing, it was pretty good.

MTM: Why do you choose to open your home to the Phoenix arts community every First Friday?
RME: When I moved to Phoenix initially, I moved to this house in December. So the First Friday of that January was the actual First Friday after party we had. Everyone was asking “when are you having a housewarming party?” And we were just like “oh First Friday why don’t you just come over after everything is done.” So that’s when it started and a lot of it has to do conceptually with the idea of no sleep. Where I come from we have no sleep. It’s actually a ceremony and even the peyote ceremony there is no sleeping, it’s something that takes place all night long. So that was part of like an art festival that happened all night long, so these are the ideas that pushed the boundaries of what art is and how art can be perceived. One of them being food. We have art for the senses, sculptures you touch, painting you see, music you hear, and in a way its an artistic expression of bringing people together and having the smell and the taste of the food and the sharing of that. In that process, like the no sleep ceremony idea, is sort of the attraction of people. You build a community, people coming together and helping one another and making the community stronger and the ideas and all the different elements make us prosper through cooperation.

Western society is all about competition, who’s better, who’s the best, it’s all about getting upfront. While traditional Native Cultures are all about cooperation. Helping the community, the community coming together and building and achieving a stature of greatness and prosperity. The food that we share is for our bodies that we may continue to have the strength to make art, and write music, and plays and poetry and whatever else. Even just manning the galleries and promoting all of these things takes a certain amount of energy and the food helps with that. We also pray before we eat and the prayer that we have is because we are spiritual people. Whether we are religious or not there is a certain thing that is beyond us out there. So we dine people, we see that so we include that. We also always share water because that’s part of our culture. Where I come from we share water because that’s the epitome of being a generous person. To share water with people regardless of who it is. So when we have our meal we share water first and that’s sort of so that everyone becomes encircled in that, and most of what we make we are always inclusive of everyone. the idea is people bring things together and we make things together, and that doesn’t usually happen but eventually that’s the goal.

MTM: Where does all the food come from?
RME: I have access to restaurant depot and the farmers market and stuff like that. So sometimes I’ll go to Costco or something like that, and buy whatever's on sale or go to Restaurant Depot and buy whatever’s available, because I am by no means a wealthy person. I am barely makings ends, so the idea is, this is kind of like a sacrifice in a sense because you go out one night, you can easily spend $50 to $100 on a night of drinking with friends and stuff like that. So in a way instead of spending that much money on going out, I just buy some food, make it and have friends come over.

MTM: Do you ask for donations?
RME: In my culture, if you’re the host it’s impolite. It’s one of those things, like on your birthdays we give gifts, you don’t get gifts. I mean people do give you gifts but you don’t ask for it, you don’t parade. So it’s a different perspective in a way. A lot of people have been here long enough and they’ve come by enough that they now understand. But we had well over 75 people last time and $65 came in and that’s barely a dollar per person. But it will be what it is. Right now I’m OK because I have two housemates so it’s doable. It’s sort of like giving back to the community in that sense because that’s the idea.

MTM: Can you explain the “rituals” that occur at your dinner party?
RME: So generally back home, like I’ll put out hors d’oeuvres and stuff like that, but generally back home no one eats until everyone is ready and all the food is ready. There’s a bucket of water and there’s a prayer for the food. A prayer of thanks, it’s always different and it also depends. We sort of celebrate the months as well. Every month we say the name of the month in our language, and each name sort of tells what happens that month. The prayer is the first thing we share. We pray we get blessings from the water and food and blessings for our livelihood, or our path the means by which we make a living. The path that we walk on, which may be our job, our schooling, or whatever we do and the food we ask that it gives us physical strength to achieve those goals. The prayer itself is sort of asking for and then within that moment with all the people there we ask for long life and happiness and that's the epitome of our goal, to have a long life and be happy, and we sort of like do that, and then that’s when we share the water.

The ritual of the salt started a while ago because in my culture when a child laughs for the first time we say that the child has become human. Up until then the child is not human, up until then that child is still attached to that world where the child comes from. The child is given to us with pain. There is pain and hurt and discomfort, that’s all a child knows. Being severed from the womb being no longer secure with the mother, now it’s in the real world where you have to fight to breathe, it’s work. When you're in the womb it’s all taken care of. It’s beauty, and when you come into the real world you’re separated, you’re hurting you’re shitting yourself you’re peeing yourself, you’re hungry, you can’t communicate, no nothing. So there is all this negativity in a way, you know the blessing of a child, yeah, but the child’s life is negative in a way. But, at some point the child realizes that there is joy and there is happiness, by laughing. So the first time a child laughs it is celebrated and that’s the point where a child becomes human, and their first act is to give food away. They give salt away, and salt is given to everyone, and the salt is a very important spice. It’s the first spice that we ever had as humans. Wars were fought over it in the old world, salt mines were coveted you know, people destroyed each other for it. They went to war and everything for salt. Nowadays nobody gives a shit about salt, but a long time ago it was hard to get and so precious. So that was the child’s gift to people to give them salt, and in a way by giving the people salt it refreshed them so we give them salt, because for my part of the bitterwater people, I am part of the salt clan. So we do the grinding of the salt so everybody helps grind it and we all put our energy into it and then we use that to flavor our meal. So we are flavoring each other’s lives, so it’s sort of this conceptual symbolic idea, if we grind the salt and share the salt in that manner.

MTM: Any plans of ever stopping?
RME: At some point maybe, it'll probably take something pretty drastic for it to stop. It’s also not to say it’s never not happened. There was a time when it wasn't sustainable. As long as it doesn't cost me more money than I have it will continue. Hopefully, it continues because it’s something I think is kind of cool.  

MTM: What other events do you cook for?
RME: Local to Global, I also usually provide The Quincy New Year’s meal. Usually local art parties, I’ve done art openings, local weddings.

MTM: How many years have you cooked for Local To Global?
RME: Five or so, it’s been awhile, about the same amount of time I've been doing First Friday. The first local to global was many years ago and a friend of mine and I helped out, and it wasn't until a few years later that we did a progressive picnic and it was a picnic that was all vegan and everyone came over and we were promoting progressive ideas and a liberal agenda, just about making people eat more conscientiously and think about social justice.

Jeff Moses a senior contributor at Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at jmoses@moderntimesmagazine.com.
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