By Jeff Kronenfeld; photos by Maria Vassett (unless otherwise noted)
I didn’t get the name Persepshen at first. Was it a vegetarian Greek restaurant using a variant spelling of Persephone, the goddess of grain and green things? Or possibly an alternate rendering of the ancient Persian Empire’s capital Persepolis? Of course, the answer was neither.
Persepshen — pronounced perception — is a restaurant in Phoenix with an almost extremist commitment to the DIY philosophy. Not only is the food made from scratch, but all the meat comes from animal carcasses butchered in house. Co-Owner and Executive Chef Jason Dwight may cleave cow joints on the regular, but he never cuts corners. The same is true of his wife, Co-Owner and Executive Pastry Chef Katherine Dwight. If you want locally sourced food so mouthwatering its almost consciousness-altering, then I recommend driving, biking or hopping the light rail to Persepshen.
Jason is the former head butcher of Publican Quality Meats in Chicago. Katherine was a baker for MJ Bread, home of the best buns west of the I-17. After decades of working endless hours for others, the couple realized they weren’t getting closer to their dream. A little over three years ago, they did something to change that. “We decided to quit our jobs,” Jason Dwight explained. “We bought an old World War II military trailer, built a wood-fired oven on the back and then started our business.”
Jason and Katherine sold baked goods and sandwiches out of the trailer at the Uptown Farmers Market. The pair also catered events and private parties. Jason enjoyed the work but got tired of hauling an 8,000-pound war machine. Sometimes it had a mind of its own. “I learned that the hard way,” Dwight said. “First red light I came to when I was towing it, I ended up stopping about three-quarters of the way into the intersection. After that, I realized I couldn’t really go above 25 miles per hour.”
After building a following and history of turning a profit, they applied for a small business loan. They sought long-term parking, preferably attached to a brick and mortar location. As Jason drove slowly home one day, construction barred his usual route. He took Central Avenue instead, passing by the recently closed Hula’s Modern Tiki location. There was a for rent sign. He parked the multi-ton caravan and called for a viewing. As the landlords and Katherine came over, he peeked inside — the space seemed torn up, but brimming with potential. Katherine agreed. The stars aligned. The loan was approved the next day and soon after they locked in the location.
The couple brought the same DIY spirit to the remodel, using local materials whenever possible. They did most of the work themselves, with the help of family and friends. The main communal dining table is made from bark beetle-killed pine. Its feet are old irrigation pumps Jason salvaged from a junkyard. Above the table hangs a chandelier made from the better part of a juniper tree beautifully studded with warm lights of varying sizes.
Given his nearly half footlong but well-kept dark beard and barrel chest, it comes as no surprise Jason is a bit of a lumberjack. “My sous chef and I yanked a tree out of the side of the mountain with chains on the back of my truck and then dragged it up the mountain, threw it in the back of my pickup, tied about 20 red flags on it and drove home,” he explained with evident relish. “Again, repurposing all local materials to create a space, that’s what we like to consider to be our dining style: rustic yet refined.”
They succeed by this or any metric. I visited twice, once alone early on a weekday evening and once with a friend on a Saturday night. Neither time was the wait long. The staff was friendly, well-informed and quick to offer suggestions. Not only did our servers generally know what local farm our food came from, but even when it was harvested.
The menu can change from day to day, but its basic structure remains the same. There are snacks, small plates, big plates, and real big plates. You could probably eat a real big plate alone, but the food is so good you’ll want someone to exchange ecstatic eye rolls with. A kids’ menu and a range of desserts round it out.
Specific cuts and some dishes are only available for a limited time. It can be difficult to predict. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. “You go to a restaurant that says, ‘oh, sustainability,’” opined Dwight. “They have a hanger steak on the menu. You only get one hanger steak per steer, but they’re selling a hundred a week. It’s not truly sustainable. Whereas, we’re using every single part of that animal to create a new dish with every cut.”
To start things off, I ordered wood-roasted oyster mushrooms. You can taste the careful process that went into preparing this dish. The mushrooms were cooked until they were just tender enough, and not a moment longer. They were soft but held their consistency and natural kick. The black garlic, shallots and black brandy demi-cream amplify the pungent umami quality of the locally grown fungi while adding char.
We had to try the charcuterie board, a stalwart of the real big plates section. It consists of five types of meat, three pickled vegetables, mustard, jam and a nearly two-foot-long strip of lavash. Every crunchy bite of the lavash was packed with smokey, sesame seed goodness. It was a perfect vehicle for proteins with a dab of the bitter IPA mustard or blueberry ginger jam. The porchetta was like cool, meat-honey. The pork kidney terrine was a perfect cylinder of pâté. It was inspired by a dirty martini — the drink and not the sex move — with vermouth, pickle brine, and black pepper. I closed my eyes as I chewed the capicola, salami or others, savoring the little moments of meat heaven.
The vegetables sharing the huge wooden plank refused to play second fiddle. The pickled daikon, a Korean variety of radish, had powerful but well-harmonized flavors of orange, ginger, and vinegar. The beats were hot, kicking like an abrasive Kombucha mule, and yes, I liked it like that. I found it a perfect palette cleanser. My personal favorite was the curried cauliflower, which was peppy and crisp.
Another of the more regularly available dishes are the pork belly steam buns. It seemed nearly every party in the restaurant tried these, and it wasn’t hard to see why. They came lined up like three albino Pac-Men eating salads. They were durable and not messy to eat with your hands. Even the third one we cut in half held together. The hardy square of meat shredded easily as I bit in. The doughy bun and generous portion of vegetation added a light crunchy profile.
We also sampled the signature cocktails, which are reasonably priced. Our party being fond of the red end of the light spectrum, the Ginger predictably proved the favorite. It is made of gin, ginger and strawberry vanilla shrub. It was sweet, strong and only eight bucks a pop. A dirty fighter by necessity, I also tried the Sucker Punch. It consisted of bourbon, lemon-orange, merengue and a dark Luxardo cherry on top. Its sour smoothness made a fine aperitif.
It would be easier for Justin and Katherine to order everything at once from a Cisco or Shamrock. Making a quick buck or doing it the easy way isn’t what they are about. Doing things sustainability may be expensive and require more work, but at Persepshen that is just how they do it. “That’s part of the challenge, the drive, the motivation and the excitement of utilizing every piece of everything. Living the way my grandparents and great-grandparents used to live because they had no other choice,” Dwight said. “Just trying to bring it back to the roots of real food done real well.” Visit persepshenarizona.com.