If you are a Mexican food lover, you will understand how heavenly it was to meet up with Walt Sterling, Chantico’s owner and Head Chef. Nominated by the Arizona Restaurant Association for Emerging Restaurant of the Year (2022), Chantico is one of Phoenix’s newest and most popular casual Mexican dining establishments. I was there to talk to Walt about how he has progressed through his career as a top chef, culminating in the opening of Chantico. What I learned was that Walt is both a talented businessman and a passionate chef, and he is determined to lead Chantico to national success all while sharing some of Mexico’s most delicious dishes with customers.
We sat outside on the porch with other diners, where we were surrounded by the aroma of sizzling beef, tortillas, and flautas. “I never get tired of the smell of our ingredients,” Walt said, settling back in his chair. “Some people who work in restaurants do, of course, but I don’t. How could I? Everything here is fresh and organic, making Chantico a wonderful place to work.”
The ingredients, Walt continued, are one reason behind the restaurant’s success. “The food blends the old and the new and focuses on local, healthy, and organic dishes,” he said. “Also, the cocktails, the design, and the atmosphere were all chosen to transport customers to Mexico City. Our vibe is more cosmopolitan than what you find in other Mexican restaurants.”
While Walt has a BA in International Studies and in Spanish, both from Emory University, he never went to culinary school. “I actually learned to cook by working in Atlanta’s best restaurants during college,” he revealed. “I also worked for some highly respected chefs, including Guenter Seeger, Daniel Boulud, Brad Thompson, and Mary Elaines. They were fantastic mentors.”
Everywhere he worked, Walt concentrated on learning about each position in the kitchen, understanding that this would be key to his success as a chef. He also learned to do French, Italian, vegan, new American, Mediterranean, BBQ, and cocktail concepts.
Eventually, Walt decided to become a chef and launch his own restaurants because he could handle both the creative and business sides of running them. He turned down a promising job with Sumitomo to be a chef and opened Ocotillo, Starlite BBQ, and Sidecar Social Club.
“While the growth of all the companies was incredible, I wanted to branch out into Mexican cuisine, one of my personal favorites,” he said. “I liked not having two restaurants that were the same, and it was time to expand the variety by offering Mexican.”
Walt conceded that he hadn’t counted on the coronavirus entering the world stage. “We opened Chantico on October 19, 2020,” he said. “We got zero assistance from the government because we hadn’t had any sales in 2019. We were in the middle of ground-up construction when the coronavirus hit. It was very stressful, as you can imagine.”
Walt and his team persevered, however, believing in their vision of a Mexican restaurant that would offer great value, a beautiful design, and a forward-thinking menu. “We made it through the pandemic, in part, I think, because no matter what the economy was doing, people still appreciated really good food.”
At Chantico, Walt wears a lot of hats, which is exactly how he likes it. “I write all the menus, do payroll, train the staff, work in the kitchens, and manage investor relations as well as the financial side of the operations,” he said. “I procure all of the ingredients for the concepts and even co-design the spaces with an architect/designer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a ton of fun.”
Behind the success of Chantico, Walt believes, is his dedicated staff. “All of my chef de cuisines and sous chefs started as line cooks working under my mentorship,” he said. “Now they have families, homes, and skill sets that can take care of them for life. We feel responsible for the futures of our staff and put a lot of energy into changing our menus frequently so that they can learn as much as possible. We try to teach them the business side of the restaurant since this is crucial for their long-term growth.”
He also pointed to the uniqueness of Chantico’s menu to explain its popularity. “We are one of the only Mexican restaurants that offers red chili sauce, green chili sauce, dark mole, and rice and beans that are all vegan,” Walt explained. “That means more choices for people who love enchiladas, especially vegans. There are vegan and vegetarian options in every section of our menu.”
Walt is committed to expanding Chantico to the national level. “We are finding so much success simply because fine dining is becoming less desirable,” he believed. “Our customers want great food served by friendly waiters in a great atmosphere.”
He paused, then smiled. “Of course, it never hurts that we import 100% heirloom corn that is nixtamalized in house and turned into masa and tortillas,” he said. “Real Mexican food is about the little details, and at Chantico, you will find out very quickly that we have brought to Phoenix the best secrets of cooking in Mexico.”
Chantico, founded by Owner/Chef Walter Sterling, is a casual Mexican dining restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. It is a scratch kitchen and uses volcanic stones just like those seen in villages to grind the masa and aerate it. For more about Chantico’s Mexican food, please visit https://www.chanticophx.com/.