Five minutes ago, Josh Hebert ate a side of French fries at Taphouse Kitchen.
“They’re ours, and they are fantastic,” he said of the fries.
By “ours,” he means Frites Street, a brand of potato created by chef Flip Isard that Hebert latched onto after just one taste, investing in Isard’s creation and distinguishing it with a celebrity chef brand that Hebert appears bashful about.
“Flip wanted a better fry like the ones he ate traveling through Europe,” says Hebert, gently sidestepping any mention of his celebrity chef status. “He thought the frites he had in Belgium were the best, and he started playing around with different recipes, trying to come up with the perfect fry.”
Isard made launching the perfect fry pretty easy, Hebert says. “Flip found a superior quality potato and matched it with the right technique for that potato. That was all there was to it.”
Hebert loved the result. “We had a fun conversation and I said, ‘Look, I know every chef in town, and if you want to wholesale these, I’ll invest.’” A couple of years later, Frites Street fries can be found on menus across the country. A newer line of gourmet potato chips is also selling well for the pair.
No one who’s followed Hebert’s high-profile career is all that surprised he’s helped rebrand the country’s most popular side dish. The 44-year-old chef has made his name as a rebel, both introducing and predicting trends in the Valley’s restaurant scene. Posh, his renowned Scottsdale restaurant, introduced improvisational cuisine to the Valley; his recently shuttered ramen shop, Hot Noodles, Cold Sake, predated the ramen craze by some months.
“Right now, I’m just relaxing a little bit,” says Hebert, by which he means running a weekly kiosk at a local farmer’s market, maintaining a long list of private-chef gigs, and teaching classes at Scottsdale’s Classic Cooking Academy.
It’s a more restful schedule than Hebert is accustomed to. His career took off early, after a brief stint at a chain restaurant at age 16. “I was doing that for about six months and then Tarbell’s opened up,” he remembers of Chef Mark Tarbell’s signature restaurant. “I really wanted to work there, and I kind of begged my way into that kitchen.”
Cheffing stints at higher-profile restaurants in San Francisco and Tokyo followed; Hebert returned to Phoenix and Tarbell’s, this time as executive chef. Posh soon followed, and diners lined up to see what Hebert would do with mussels and snails and fish cheeks.
Creating dining trends wasn’t Hebert’s intention, but cooking for a living had always been on his menu. “I’m not going to give anyone that romantic story about how I was inspired by my little Polish grandmother,” he says. “But she did put out a huge spread on Christmas and Easter, and it was terrific. I liked eating, and I started cooking when I was 11 or 12, and it just took off from there.”
Lately, he’s been thinking a lot about how his industry will survive the COVID pandemic.
“It’s caused enormous changes,” he says. “Everyone is talking about the staffing shortage, but the increases in food prices and real estate prices are also huge. The insufficiency of the Restaurant Relief Fund is very real. The chance that the Delta variant is going to bring another wave of pandemic and another restaurant shutdown is there.”
Hebert believes it’s inevitable that the cost of eating out will go up significantly. And he’s certain that restaurant workers won’t come rushing back once the pandemic is behind us.
“You can’t blame people for leaving our industry for a better-paying industry,” he says. “A lot of young people are going to work at the dispensary for $25 an hour or driving a truck for Amazon for $18. The only solution is to pay our people better, and the downside of that is the $25 entrée is going to cost $60.”
Despite all this, Hebert is thinking about maybe going back into the restaurant business, though he’s not offering any details. “I’m paying attention to what’s happening in the industry and I’m having meetings with people,” is all he’ll say. “I’m out checking out the scene, and what I’m seeing is that executive chef jobs are paying about the same as what I was making 20 years ago. So if it’s not going to be better money, I’m going to hold out for something really special. Otherwise, what’s the point?”