Featured Chef: Chef Robert Eckhardt
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Chef Robert Eckhardt has spent 23 years in kitchens across the United States. For many, 23 years in one profession is an eternity, but Eckhardt still exhibits the passion and excitement of a fresh-faced chef receiving his first knife set. This enthusiasm comes through both in conversation and in the food he creates and prepares nightly at Stella.
Located on 32nd Street just north of Camelback Road in Phoenix, Stella is a modern American restaurant with an Italian flair. ScottsdaleRestaurants.com recently visited Stella and did a video review, getting to experience firsthand just how much pride Eckhardt takes in what his kitchen produces every night.
“I started at 15-years-old as a dishwasher at a little Mexican restaurant in my hometown… about 10 minutes south of Oakland (California)” he recalls. The spark Eckhardt had for the kitchen was quickly apparent to his bosses. After three months he was doing “prep” and then, “Within six months of being in that restaurant, they had me on the line doing the chips, the guac, the salsas… all of that stuff was rocking and rolling.”
Although his first paying job was in a Mexican restaurant. Eckhardt fell in love with the culinary world in a place familiar to so many chefs both professional and amateur. “Growing up I always had the luxury of being in the kitchen with my Italian grandmother,” said Eckhardt. “She lived right next door to us, so I’d get home from school, I’d immediately do my homework, then go to my grandparent’s house. Right around when 60 Minutes or CNN would come on, my Grandfather would sit down and watch his TV, and that was my cue to go in the kitchen and help my ‘Gammy’ cook dinner.”
Eckhardt’s fond memories of his “Gammy’s” favorite recipes are honored in certain dishes featured at Stella. The breading process in the Crispy Chicken Sandwich has the same secret ingredient (hint: RKT) that he enjoyed growing up. Homage is also paid to generations of his family with the individually baked Stella lasagna, discussed in detail later on.
While pursuing his hotel & restaurant management degree at Diablo Valley College, Department Head Nader Sharkes recognized the potential in Eckhardt and convinced him to apply to the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Two weeks after graduating from Diablo Valley, Eckhardt found himself on a flight to Upstate New York. Eckhardt dove into every opportunity that came his way while attending the “CIA,” racking up hours in the kitchen beyond the normal workload, working alongside some of the best Chefs in the culinary world.
Eckhardt spent the next dozen years or so honing his craft, learning the intricacies of running a kitchen and staff. He also took a few years to start his own catering business before the economy collapsed in 2008. In 2012, Eckhardt traveled to Arizona multiple times to visit a close friend. Like so many others, he fell in love with the state. Later that year, he moved to Arizona, accepting the head banquet chef position at Tonto Verde Golf Club. A few stops later, Eckhardt was the sous chef at Las Sendas Golf Club when he was drafted by Kelley Cordova to create and execute the menu for the new restaurant he was going to be managing – Drexyl Modern American Restaurant.
Drexyl opened its doors February 1, 2015. For Eckhardt, it was the first time he was able to create a full restaurant menu from scratch. He focused on seasonal ingredients and promised a continuously evolving menu based on those ingredients. From the start, Chef Robert Eckhardt and Drexyl received adoration from guests and positive reviews. “I’m not going to lie; it was easier than I thought it was going to be at the beginning.” Eckhardt continued, “It can’t just be this easy. And of course, as you stay open for a little bit longer you get to see some of the pitfalls.”
The immediate success and positive feedback at Drexyl turned out to be, ironically, one of the aforementioned pitfalls. It caused ownership to balk at Eckhardt’s promise of regular seasonal changes. “Drexyl was a great, great opportunity. It allowed my name to get out in the Valley a little bit more.” Feeling his well-earned reputation and word as a chef was on the line, Eckhardt was open to a fresh start. Along came restaurateur, Mark Drinkwater and Stella.
Designing a full menu from scratch for the second time in less than two years was daunting – but worth it. “At the end of the day, this one has been more satisfying. It was amazing to be able to step into this and design a menu and have them support you 100 percent. As a chef that’s probably one of the best things you can have is a management team that is supporting you and letting you do what you do best which is cook and design the menu.”
As you can see in the ScottsdaleRestaurants.com video review, there are many highlights on the menu. Since not everyone can sample numerous different dishes, Chef Robert Eckhardt was asked to plan out the perfect meal for someone coming to Stella for the first time.
Shrimp & Grits – Chef’s take: “Hands down one of my favorite dishes. I love grits, I love shrimp. The flavors we put on it here is not your typical shrimp & grits.”
Lasagna – Chef: “I love the way that we do (our lasagna). Lasagna was always big in my family. It was my Mom’s go-to. My favorite thing about the lasagna though was the crispy edges. So when I designed the lasagna here, it was, ‘How do I get more crispy edges on my lasagna?’ And I think that’s really taking hold here. I’m not the only one in the world that loves their crispy parts of the lasagna.”
Bread pudding – Chef: “Hands-down it’s the bread pudding. I grew up constantly eating bread pudding, and to this day my Dad claims he makes a better bread pudding than me. We’ll go back and forth on that all day long. That’s one dish I’ll always carry with me. It’s my go-to dessert.”
It would be difficult to take umbrage with Chef Robert Eckhardt’s choices, but check out Stella and try a few dishes to find out for yourself! Let us know in the comments what you tried, and what your favorite dish was.
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Tony Pontecorvo can be found online at @disguyyy