The men and women who work in local restaurant kitchens are like family to me. Whether they’re members of the Tucson Originals, an organization of independently owned restaurants, the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, a coalition of local chefs who collaborate on culinary events, or Tucson Knife Fight, an epicurean battle of epic magnitude, their passion is contagious and their commitment to culinary excellence is limitless.
Among the many chefs for whom I’ll be expressing gratitude Oct. 20—International Chef’s Day—is a man who may not be as familiar to you as those who routinely find themselves in foodie headlines. But I assure you, his work has no less impact on me.
I met Michael Lopez when he was working with Tucson’s Fred G. Acosta Job Corps on vocational training programs for at-risk youth in the culinary arts, healthy eating, and life skills areas. This graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and long-time chef with Marriott International has a passion for serving kids and young adults, and this is something I experienced straight away the first time I sat down to interview him.
He serves today as the food and beverage director at The Forum at Tucson, 2500 N. Rosemont Blvd., a senior living community with programs for all levels of care, from assisted living, to memory care, to skilled nursing. Whenever we discuss his work at this gig where he’s now been for three years, I see the passion that he has for kids manifest in similar ways in service to seniors.
One example is his appreciation for nutritional influences on brain health. His adoption of the Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet has shown many residents how a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish and poultry can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And just to be clear, there are other residents taking comfort in the fact that Lopez’s kitchen can knock out a hot pastrami on rye with a bread pudding closer like nobody’s business.
To Lopez, his work comes down to respect and love.
“Respect starts from within, and when you respect your ingredients, you’ll respect your food, and that respect will show up at the center of the plate,” he said. “When you begin with love, you’ll end with love.”
This attitude of service may have been cultivated in the years that he served in the Marine Corps in the 1980s, but my guess is that it’s simply a part of the Lopez family DNA. For example, when he’s not at work, you’ll likely see him serving on the sandlot in his role as district director for Little League International where he oversees the operations of a dozen local leagues with 4,000 players.
Begin with love, end with love.
I hope you’ll join me in setting aside some time on International Chefs Day to thank our community’s culinarians, from world-class resorts to family-run eateries, who’ve collectively driven the dialogue on Tucson’s food scene.
Michael Lopez is but one. But his service to his residents, his community and his country earns him a hero’s hug in my book.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.