The Desert Diner

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The Desert Diner As a youth, Andy Broder was so consumed with an insatiable sweet tooth that he spent countless hours honing an elaborate repertoire of desserts, from chocolate chimichangas to tequila-lime wedding cookies. Sidetracked while practicing corporate law for a dozen years, the Arizona native continued to crave those delectable days when his most challenging trial was finding fresh fruits out of season.

Chef Andy’s true passion ultimately prevailed, and today he owns AndyFood, a Culinary Studio in Scottsdale where he’s put together a wide array of corporate teambuilding programs for groups up to 40. Broder’s hands-on cooking classes are popular because they encourage communication, creativity, reliance on co-workers and collective focus.

“Because everyone’s working toward the same goal, it’s also about knowing when to ask for help,” he says. “It depends if they’re A types or laid back, but some groups really want me to whip them into shape. So I’ll give them the hardest recipes so they’ll be forced to work together.”

Jill Philippe, national account executive for dmc TBA Global, is a huge AndyFood fan for a couple of reasons. He’s always willing to tailor the eating experience around the client’s criteria. And, according to Philippe, chef Andy oozes charm.

“It’s a great opportunity for groups to get creative and have fun in a teambuilding exercise,” she says. “The kitchen is beautiful and he’s so great to work with.”

Chef Andy is among a roster of young cooks transforming Scottsdale’s reputation from cuisine cowtown to foodie fantasy.

For Philippe, it’s all a rush. She thrives on fitting planners with unique dinners in the desert, such as catered affairs at a luxury villa with Bella Palazzo. The company rents out houses for corporate retreats and themed dinners for 20-2,000.

“We like to work with estates and private homes because of the intimacy,” she says. “One of our favorites for smaller, high-end groups is with Desert Botanical Gardens to do their cooking and gardening workshops at La Buena Vida, which is a home on the grounds of The Phoenician.”

Lori James, owner of dmc AZA Events, is also high on the facility. “We held a reception there with Cirque performers and a live butterfly show.” James more recently played off the vibrant colors of a Dale Chihuly glass exhibition by trimming an awards ceremony with custom Chihuly centerpieces.

Philippe also sculpts out events at Heard Museum and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts. But the site that’s perhaps most coveted for exclusive evening receptions and small daytime meetings is the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin West. Now a National Historic Landmark, this distinctive masterpiece was designed by the celebrated architect as his personal home, studio and lab.

“We absolutely love staging events there, especially for a well-traveled and sophisticated groups that appreciate Wright and his work,” Philippe says. “We’ll often bring a high-powered telescope and astronomer to view the skies. It’s such a unique experience.”

Southwest Chic Such signature activities is one reason why groups return to Scottsdale at a stellar rate. “The fact that we see 60 percent repeat group business demonstrates our diversity,” says Kelli Blubaum, senior national sales manager for Scottsdale CVB. “Groups return knowing they’ll have a different experience each time. Scottsdale has so many faces, it’s always like a new destination.”

That especially holds true with accommodations these days. “Within a mile in downtown Scottsdale, we’ve opened four new full-service properties over the last four years,” Blubaum notes. All tallied, this trendy collection delivers 815 fresh rooms with a hip and stylish vibe that’s reinvigorating the destination.

Geared to small and mid-size groups, the chic line-up includes Mondrian Scottsdale, W Scottsdale, FireSky Hotel & Spa and the retro-styled Hotel Valley Ho.

Julie Walker, director of business development for Page, Wolfberg & Wirth in Pennsylvania, was looking for just such a boutique resort.

“I’d never been to Scottsdale before my FAM, but I immediately knew it was the venue we were looking for,” she recalls. “I was blown away by the flora and fauna, and every property I visited had its own unique feel.” She decided on FireSky for her legal firm’s group of 50.

Walker was also wooed by the depth of off-property function spaces. She sourced out quite a variety, including private estates, galleries, parks, museums, performing arts centers, themed artwalks, and Western and Arabian horse farms. She also likes the accessibility and expects to return, adding, “We can take a morning flight and be there by noon.”

We like the 193-room mid-century landmark Valley Ho. It was lovingly restored to its heyday vogue when Hollywood luminaries like Bogart, Monroe and Gabor gravitated to this desert hideaway to cavort in splendid seclusion. Groups can sip and sup amid 25,000 sf of indoor/outdoor function space.

Hotel Scottsdale The 492-room Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch is home to the Native American & Environmental Learning Center. Local Hopi tribe artisans showcase traditional crafts, music and dance in the “collaborative living history venture.” And a Native Heritage Seed Garden showcases over 30 indigineous plants native tribes traditionally used for sustenance. For group gatherings, resort chefs prep authentic Native American recipes served in a vivid marketplace atmosphere.

The sprawling resort just capped a $50 million transformation, that included a pair of new eateries. SWB (Southwest Bistro) is centered around a huge demonstration kitchen, and groups can book 4-course Wine Me Dine Me dinners with tequila and wine parings. Alto Ristorante features an artisinal cheese and meat cellar, and diners will often follow dessert with a gondola ride around the resort’s lakes, which planners can set up as exclusive events with dedicated gondoliers. The renovation also enhanced Spa Avania, the muy chi-chi suites and 70,000 sf of function area.

Executive chef Mel Mecinas at Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale Troon North believes in the “frying pan into the fire” adage. This cutting-edge chef fires up the energy with his Chef du Jour program where smaller groups ready a complete menu while working in a rapid-pace restaurant kitchen. He says die-hard competitors thrive on the intensity.

Chef Mecinas serves up milder teambuilding tasks as well. “We’ll organize a chili cook-off where teams are given the same ingredients to create their own chili,” he says. “They have fun and learn something new along the way.”

In nearby Paradise Valley, the buzzy 253-room InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa is making all kinds of headlines since it opened this winter. The Andalusian-style desert oasis conjures up dreamy Moorish images of exclusive Arabian horse ranches outside Cordoba and Seville. Ornate and colorful tilework, a judicious use of weathered wood adornments, romantic fountains and statuary all recall a Spanish nobleman’s grand hacienda. Nudging up against the Camelback Mountains, the InterConti brand’s first US resort offers 27,000 sf of indoor meeting space.

Check out the Prado restaurant, either for a glass of rioja or partial buyout. Two private dining rooms and a fun arched terrace are smart choices for smaller gatherings, with tapas from the open wood-fired brick oven. And how about that Moroccan-themed Mbar? A little jamón serrano and maybe a fig and star anise mojito sounds positively delightful. This is the face of Scottsdale’s future.

Escape to Sedona Gone are the days when Sedona was merely a spiritual garnish to Scottsdale’s smorgasbord of spas. Driving time between the two cities is around two hours.

“We love to accommodate groups exclusively,” says Jennifer Wesselhoff, president/CEO of Sedona Chamber of Commerce. “But we also value those large conventions in Scottsdale, so we also market Sedona for day trips and pre- and post-meetings.”

Wesselhoff proudly toasts the region’s blossoming wine industry that has some folks lauding Sedona as the next Sonoma. “Wineries like Page Springs Cellars are becoming big with groups,” she says, noting that these venues are ripe with opportunities for workshops and function hosting.

Anthony Flesch, president of Events in Sedona, insists that the destination’s smaller size doesn’t limit its options. “We have access to beautiful places like Rancho Los Lagos, a private ranch where we’ll bring in a chef caterer for a 5-star culinary experience set in an incredible green meadow with a red rock backdrop.”

Lori Lunz, program manager for meetings/incentives with Johnson & Johnson’s Advanced Sterilization Division, went to the other extreme with her Rancho Los Lagos cowboy dinner. “It was a perfect setting for our casual evening with western teambuilding games, ATVs and a country and western band.”

Flesch also gives thumbs up to Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, where cobbled streets, intimate courtyards and wrought-iron gates set the stage for traditional Mexican village-themed affairs. “We host all types of receptions and dinners with hanging lanterns and flamenco guitarists playing the background.”

For smaller groups, take a look at the 89-room L’Auberge de Sedona Resort. Think of it as that luxurious second home in the mountains you’ve always dreamed about.

“It’s our 25th anniversary, and we’ll be finishing our $25 million expansion and enhancement in November,” says Karla Lewis, senior sales manager. The resort can accommodate up to 120 in cute and charming cottages, the grand lodge or the Creek House, with 15,000 sf of function space.

“We love Sedona and we’re already talking about returning in three or four years,” says Lunz. “We never do that. But there’s so much interest since it’s a fantastic mix of luxury and casual. Sedona served all our purposes as a destination.”

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