By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Chef John Panza and Pastry Chef Cassandra Hankison, the team behind Senses. Visit Senses online via Facebook or SquareUp.Com/Store/Senses. Reach out by emailing SensesLLCInfo@Gmail.Com or texting SENSES to 22828.]
What is it that Senses is and does?
Panza: There’s three parts to what we do. We do popup dinners in and around Prescott, restaurant takeovers, and in-home dining experiences. The popup dinners are probably the most unique event we do. You purchase tickets to the meal without knowing where it is or what you’ll be eating. Twenty-four hours in advance, we disclose the location and the menu and let you know if it’s BYOB and things like that. When you arrive at the event, it’s up to 30 people all seated family style at a big table. It’s dinner and a show — I’m out in front and talk about the meal and there’ll be Q-and-As. It’s very intimate and very interactive. Some of the places we’ve done that have been the Groom Creek Schoolhouse and Studio 12, which is a photo studio, and the Thumb Butte Ramada in the Prescott National Forest. For the restaurant takeovers, you know a little bit more about it, specifically where it’s at. We work with small businesses and adopt our menu and meal to them. It’s not always family style seating for that. For the in-home dining, we do catered events or parties, but also do them as in-home takeovers, which are more interactive. Myself being the chef, I’m there talking about techniques, teaching homeowners about cooking. We customize the menus for the home events. It could be 12 courses for two people or three courses for 30 people.
Hankison: It’s a unique experience, something outside the handful of restaurants you have to chose from. It’s the fast growing food trend to date, as well, so it’s something new we’ve brought to Prescott from bigger cities around the world. One of our customers told us they’d done something similar when they were in Germany recently.
What’s the price range for these experiences?
Panza: It varies, obviously. I’d say from $28 to $85 a head depending on the situation. I’d say $60 a head is a good average. It’s always going to be high-end service and food. It’s always going to be a unique location.
Hankison: We also like to focus on local food and supporting local growers. We’re always shopping at the Prescott Farmers Market.
Panza: We get inspiration from wherever we’re having events, too. When we’re in a coffee house, like Black Dog Coffee & Tea, where we’re talking today, I’m obviously going to use their coffee. When we did an event here, I did some South American and Guatemalan-type food because that’s where their coffee comes from. So, we took those flavors and I put my own spin on them. It’s hard to say what we’re going to do for a given event. We adapt and change things for every location.
What are some of the cooking techniques you showcase?
Panza: Well, it’s a mix of modern day techniques, cooking styles, and plating.
Hankison: You’ve got to talk about sous-vide. That’s pretty interesting and people always ask questions about it.
Panza: It’s a two part process. The first involves vacuum sealing whatever you’re going to use. The second involves cooking it in a very controlled water bath. You circulate the water and measure the temperature with a tool that’s accurate to the tenth of a degree. It cooks the food evenly and keeps you from overcooking pieces of meat. The most extreme example is a pot roast. When you do that at home it takes six or seven hours, low and slow. With sous-vide, I’d take the same cut and cook it at 125 for three days. It’s just as tender, but it’s still medium rare all the way through. … It takes a lot more planning, especially for that. With a piece of chicken, for example, I’d cook it for about four or five hours. The idea is for it to be tender and moist all the way through.
What are your backgrounds?
Hankison: I went to culinary school in California and studied baking and pastries. So, I’m trained as a party chef, but as of late I’ve been doing more with marketing and helping Chef John in the kitchen.
Panza: Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a chef. You know how they ask you what you want to be when you grew up? Well, I knew, and I said “a chef.” I went to ASU to do the normal thing and get the normal college experience. That last about half a year before I left to go to culinary school at Scottsdale Community College. I worked at a few different places including Different Pointe of View, the longest tenured four diamond restaurant in the valley. After that I was overseeing things at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. Then I got a call from a buddy from the Capital Canyon Club at the old Hassayampa Country Club and I came over as the executive chef. That’s where I met Cassandra. Eventually, I got to thinking the whole town needed something fresh, so we started Senses. So, we’ve been going since July, 2016.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
Panza: Just explaining to people what we do.
Hankison: It’s getting people to break habits, like having date night at the same place every week. People can be pretty set in their ways, and this is something different. But we want to do good food and give people a unique experience.
Panza: It’s always a unique experience. For instance, we did a dinner at Sean Goté Gallery and I was very inspired by all of the art that’s hanging on the walls there. We did a hamachi crudo and the sauce on the dishes dripping down the plates like paint. Next we did homemade ravioli and the tomato sauce was splattered like paint, as well. Then, the entrée course was a smoked venison dish with sweet potatoes that came from the Farmers Market, then desert was an opera cake. … So, we’re inspired by the food that’s around us and the places we’re serving it.
Hankison: We always try to use a lot of local produce. The biggest issue with local food here is fish, obviously.
Panza: But we have a source that’s as fresh as anywhere else in the state. We really want to have good sea food along with higher end proteins like venison. We had rabbit the other day, which was the first time I’d worked with rabbit. That was at the old racket club out in the woods with all those big trees. I thought rabbit would be the right thing to fit those surroundings. We use lamb a lot, too, and veal cheek.
Hankison: That’s part of the reason we don’t announce the food too far in advance. We want to see what we can get that’s new and different that day.
Panza: I have no idea what we’re going to do until I see it, really.
What else goes into the dining experience?
Hankison: The chef’s table is right there, so you’re in the splash zone. From cooking to plating, Chef John talks about what he’s doing and there’s a lot of conversation with dinner.
Panza: People ask questions. I talk about cooking different things. We get a lot of questions about where we get our produce, so I’ll say it again: We’re huge on the Prescott Farmers Market. Also, the venue is so important. We build on whatever’s there. If we’re in your home, we’re going to do our take on backyard barbecue or home-cooked classics. We’ll use the flavors you know, but make them into something else. It’s also very seasonal, depending on what’s fresh.
So what’s next for Senses?
Panza: Well, actually, we’re purchasing a restaurant here in town and … well, I’m not sure when I can announce this so … [Editor’s note: Visit 5ensesMag.Com and click this story for news on this front. An announcement from Senses is expected in mid-May.] The first step is opening a restaurant proper and expanding what we’re doing.
Where does the name Senses come from?
Panza: We were just driving around brainstorming and thinking about what we wanted the name to be.
Hankison: And I asked you what you wanted people to experience.
Panza: I want people to experience more than just taste. I want them to be visually excited, for it to smell good and for them to hear the action in the kitichen and for the music to be just right and for the textures to be new and exciting. I wanted to go beyond taste, to touch all of the senses.
Hankison: And there you go, Senses.
Visit Senses online via Facebook or SquareUp.Com/Store/Senses. Reach out by emailing SensesLLCInfo@Gmail.Com or texting SENSES to 22828.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.