Jet Set Cuisine

Jet Set Cuisine

Zulu Caffé, Ciao Baby Catering take dining to new heights

By Marjorie Rice

Dee Dee Maza and her Ciao Baby team at Scottsdale Airport know that when you’re catering, you have to be prepared for anything. Take the time bees attacked the main course—and the cooks—at a barn where 225 hungry wedding guests were getting seated for dinner.

Quick thinking and the chef’s passion for Saran Wrap saved the day.

The chef is Brian Ford, and he loves to wrap things in Saran Wrap. Anything. Including Maza’s purse one evening when she left it behind at Zulu Caffé, the airport eatery also operated by Maza, Ford and their partner, Betsy McKellips.

“Brian likes Saran Wrap so much, we bought him some for his birthday a few years ago,” Maza says. “Any time we do an event I say, ‘Brian, do you have to use so much Saran Wrap?’ It takes forever to get it off.’ He bought me a slicer.”

When the bees attacked the chicken at the wedding, Ford was prepared. “He had the chicken wrapped so tightly the bees couldn’t get to it,” Maza says. “If it had been any other chef, the food wouldn’t have gone out.”

It’s challenges like that that keep the business fresh and fun for Maza and her partners.

In 2011, Maza’s company got the contract to operate a restaurant onsite at Scottsdale Airport. Zulu, located in the terminal, is open 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. weekdays for breakfast and lunch. It serves Airpark employees and visitors, delivers food to the FBOs (fixed base operators) and provides the kitchen for Ciao Baby’s in-air and event catering.

McKellips, whose experience centers on marketing, customer service and sales, manages Zulu Caffé, in-flight catering, events and marketing. Ford, former executive chef at renowned Quiessence restaurant and the Farm at South Mountain, manages both restaurant and catering worlds.

It took a lot of work to bring the airport facility up to the team’s standards, recalls Maza. “Things weren’t functional,” she says. “We tore out the bar, installed tile on the walls and did a lot of cleaning and painting. We also replaced some of the kitchen equipment.”

Zulu’s menu sticks pretty much to basics—but with the panache that comes from quality ingredients prepared by a chef with Ford’s chops. Breakfast serves up the classics—fruit, French toast, breakfast sandwiches, burritos and the like. But Ford kicks it up a notch with dishes like the challah French toast topped with bananas Foster.

Lunch—sandwiches, salads and burgers—also leans heavily on the basics. But the BLT is slathered with pesto aioli instead of plain mayo. Arugula atop the applewood bacon adds a peppery punch.

Want something light for lunch? Sample the cheese board with fruit, nuts, crostini and local artisanal cheeses, or olives marinated in orange, fennel, rosemary and roasted garlic. Hungry for heartier fare? Dig into the Zulu Blue Burger with caramelized onions, chipotle aioli, fried egg, pickled jalapenos, bacon, Gorgonzola and aged cheddar.

Have a yen for something homey? Dig into the award-winning Green Chili Mac ‘N Cheese (Phoenix New Times best Mac ‘N Cheese for 2013). “We’ve gained a lot of regulars,” McKellips says. “We change some dishes on the menu as seasons change, but we’ll never take that off.”

Just seven people staff the restaurant, the chef and two cooks, and four servers. “When the restaurant is open, we’re all hands-on,” Maza says.

For catered events, on-call employees are brought in. “Unlike other caterers, we don’t book 30 events a month,” Maza says. “We limit how many we’ll do. Brian wants to have his hands on everything.”

Ciao Baby stages events at the restaurant, the terminal and in hangars operated by the FBOs. “We do all of Signature Flight Support’s events. We’re doing a big Super Bowl party at Pinnacle Aviation for a large magazine, and a Super Bowl watch party for pilots at Landmark Aviation,” says Maza, describing the hangars as blank canvases that allow the team’s stylists to create stunning events.

The guest list can range upward of 2,000 people at the larger events, Maza says. “Whether it’s 10 people or 1,000, they’re going to get our best.”

Ciao Baby, which has exclusive privileges to have events in Scottsdale Airport’s private hangars as well as the terminal, is now focusing on expanding its event services, delivering the kind of quality associated with top venues in Las Vegas and New York City. “We just teamed up with a company called Fresh Wata, out of Las Vegas,” Maza says. “We’ve catered events for them outside of Arizona, and we want to partner with them to bring events that aren’t normally booked here …We’re also teaming up with Sound Lighting FX so we can put together an event at a competitive price.”

Going forward, the Ciao Baby team hopes to expand and update Zulu Caffé, perhaps scheduling monthly wine dinners after the crush of the Super Bowl is over.

The company also is branching out, catering in-flight meals for Scottsdale Airport customers, many of whom ask for gourmet food and presentation, which is right in Ford’s sweet spot. The meals range from box lunches to more exotic fare.

“We’re constantly evolving and changing,” McKellips says. “That’s the most fun part. That and eating Brian’s food.”