Chef John Panza and Cassandra Hankinson of Biga by Senses will be two of the featured chefs at our Farm to Table Dinner on August 27, 2017. PFM Market Manager Kelley Villa sat down with them to chat about why they love local food.
Prescott Farmers Market: How long have you been in the Prescott area?
John Panza: When I was working in the San Diego area, I got a call from a friend of mine. He told me that Capital Canyon Club needed a chef. He brought me out to see the place, and I fell in love with the city.
Cassandra Hankinson: I moved to Prescott from Southern California. John and I met at Capital Canyon Club. We’re both transplants!
PFM: What’s your role in our local food system?
JP: We brought a different level of dining to Prescott, starting with Senses. Senses is a pop-up dining restaurant. We host pop-up dinners, as well as in-home dining. Basically we wanted a restaurant, but didn’t have it quite yet. We were looking at what was trendy and new – pop-up dining is “popping up” in the culinary world, and it hadn’t been done before in Prescott. We started getting excited about bringing people into other smaller businesses. We hosted great dinners at Thumb Butte Distillery, Kiehl House, Black Dog Coffee & Tea – and we were building tons of connections. We loved the cross-promotion between small local businesses that happened naturally.
CH: We love showing people that you don’t have to go far [out of town] for something awesome. Groom Creek Schoolhouse was our first pop-up spot – we used the school’s chalkboards to write up the menu, and we worked Prescott Winery to pair each course with a wine. It was amazing.
JP: We recently got the opportunity to purchase a restaurant. We recently took over Biga [at 623 Miller Valley Road]. We brought style and flavors of Senses to Biga to find a great balance. We love showcasing local ingredients in an approachable and comfortable way.
CH: As for our role in the food system, we are truly doing Farm to Fork. People get so excited to see local ingredients on our menu, and they can taste the difference too. People love the Caprese Salad with locally-grown tomatoes.
PFM: What’s the importance of supporting local agriculture?
JP: We think it’s important to keep money within the community. We’re grateful to all the local businesses that have helped us along the way – they support us and vice versa. That goes for farmers as well. We think it’s great to make more people aware that farmers are growing these beautiful products very close to us.
PFM: Tell me about your passion for food. Where did it come from, what sustains it?
JP: Ever since I was a little kid, every time someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my answer was always “a chef.” I grew up in a family that’s half Lebanese, half Italian. Throughout all the parties, when my siblings were out greeting guests, I was always in the kitchen. I felt more comfortable in there. Then I made my way to culinary school. I had some jobs in Phoenix, most notably at Different Pointe of View, where I trained under Chef Anthony DeMuro. I’ve always believed that food is that thing that brings everyone together.
CH: I also went to culinary school. In northern California, I was pretty bored. I started taking cake decorating classes, then I went to school just for baking. I was actually on Cupcake Wars [Food Network game show]. We won the Valentine’s Day episode – our “secret ingredient” was wine and cheese. I’m coming full-circle now with the sauvignon blanc cupcake with goat cheese frosting that we’re bringing to the Farm to Table Dinner!
JP: I have this drive to be the best… I’m always doing research, reading cookbooks, and trying other high-end foods. I won’t take a whole recipe, but I’ll take an idea and run with it. It’s a matter of trial and error, and listening to the people who try our food.
CH: We love doing market research. It’s so important to be keeping up with trends, and it makes our job is so delicious. [The previous owners of Biga] Kristen and Annie had something awesome. We have a great team.
PFM: What’s it like raising little ones around so many vegetables?
CH: Carter is a chef in training! He is John’s little sous chef. One time we were going to Biga to have dinner. Instead of ordering a burger like he usually does, he ordered fish! We were so surprised. He couldn’t wait to eat it – he picked it up with his hands!
JP: Both boys will try anything! They will try anything once — that’s our rule.
CH: Maxton wants to grow vegetables. It’s inspired by the market! They love going to the market. He goes to school at Primavera, and he loves helping water the garden.
PFM: The Farm to Table Dinner is in less than 3 months! What are you most excited about?
CH: We’re excited to work with Aimee [Novak] and Harley [Guy]. We’re really looking forward to seeing everyone eating all our food!
JP: We see the dinner as just one more step to bringing awareness to local farms and all the work we do.
Biga by Senses hosts Farm to Fork Family Suppers, typically the last Sunday of the month. These suppers are multi-course, family-style dinners. There are large tables that seat 10-12 people each. Everyone passes around platters of food. John and Cassandra shop for many of the ingredients at the market the day before. I highly recommend attending. Buy your tickets online ahead of time, because seating is limited for this intimate experience. -kmv