On most days, Ryan Swanson can be found running the kitchen at Kai, Arizona’s only five-star, five-diamond restaurant located at the Sherton Grand Resort at Wild Horse Pass.
The 2006 graduate of the Scottsdale Community College Culinary program is Chef De Cuisine at Kai, which puts him in charge of kitchen’s day-to-day operations, including creating and overseeing the dishes found on the menu.
Because the restaurant is located on tribal land, he makes sure that menu honors and reflects Native American traditions. On any given day, a Kai dish will feature bison, duck, squash and/or desert plants.
“I try to make sure that we constantly represent this restaurant and this community correctly,” says Swanson, who was promoted to his current position in 2015 after serving for six years as Kai’s sous chef.
Evan Johnson, Kai's general manager, works closely with Swanson to help make sure the restaurant is meeting the high standards diners and others have come to expect.
"He has a lot of innate talent," Johnson said of Swanson. "He has an eye for presentation and can play with the flavor profiles. Each one of his dishes tells a story."
Swanson is quick to praise SCC’s Culinary program for helping him develop into the professional chef he is today.
“I wanted a place I could go and learn and not spend a lot of money,” said Swanson, who also has a nutrition degree from Arizona State University. “I realized Scottsdale was the best place for me. A lot of the people I worked with had been to that school and they were the best people in the industry.”
Working at a nationally recognized restaurant such as Kai brings added pressure to the job, he acknowledges. He and his staff are always aware that a mystery shopper from Forbes or Michelin or another restaurant ratings publication can be dining in the restaurant on any given night.
“It’s a lot of pressure but it’s a good pressure,” Swanson said. “It keeps you honest.”
Although he says the TV reality shows and Hollywood versions of being a chef often don’t reflect the reality of working in the profession, he does advise students to be ready to hear constructive criticism.
“My best advice for young students out there is to develop thick skin and learn from the best. Be ready to accept criticism when criticism is necessary. The best chefs I worked for always made sure I was doing it the right way.”