The tables are booked – What’s on the menu?

Inside Tucson Business • Written by Matt Russell • Posted 9/14/14

It’s early Sunday morning, and Chef Kris Vrolijk has just been informed that reservations for a special dinner that he’s scheduled for the following evening have maxed out.

 So what’s on the menu that will soon have guests jockeying for the coveted seats at the tables?

 “I have absolutely no idea,” confessed the chef.

 But he says that’s by design, as his visit to the Heirloom Farmers Market that Sunday morning will introduce fresh ideas for the local foods-inspired menu that will be rolled out the next night.

Welcome to the Market Monday Dinner at Proper, 300 E. Congress Street.

When Vrolijk arrives on Sunday morning at the Heirloom Market, at Rillito Park on First Avenue and River Road, don’t expect to see him with a shopping list in hand. The only thing that’s certain at that point is the number of people for whom he’ll be cooking.

“I never come to market with specific ideas for what we’ll be doing at the dinner,” he said. “I just look for what’s showing well that day and what’s in season, listen to the farmers and let the foods do the talking.”

While so called “farm-to-table” dinners are growing in popularity, Vrolijk embraced the concept long before it became a trend.

“I grew up in a farm community, in the back woods of Kentucky, and spent my childhood gardening with my dad,” he said. He even recalls being taught how to break down deer which his father routinely harvested.

“That’s what I love about Heirloom, it brings back great memories, of great times and great people, and the sense of nostalgia is really special.”

Meanwhile, back at the market, Vrolijk is ready to go. With his black coffee from Exo Roast Company in hand, he begins his journey, looking for the one thing that jumps out and building the menu from there.

As he explained to me, sometimes it’s simply a fig or some peppers that grab his attention. Other times it’s lamb or pork, or even what he calls “that damn fine squash.”

One person who genuinely enjoys watching Vrolijk mix it up at the market is Manish Shah, the market’s co-executive director.

“When Kris gets here on Sunday morning, he definitely looks a little tired after a busy Saturday night at Proper,” he said. “But once he grabs his coffee and throws his backpack cooler over his shoulder, he’s devoted, and it’s a thing of beauty to watch him work.”

While Shah describes the chef’s shopping style as “generally unassuming and without much fanfare,” his height apparently gives him a distinct advantage when spotting the perfect produce and proteins.

 “Kris is tall, and is able to look over the shoulders of everyone else,” Shah said, “and you know when he spots something he really wants because he just goes after it.”

After a short summer hiatus, the Market Monday Dinner returns to Proper this fall on the first Monday of every month at 7:00 pm. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 396-3357. The three-course meal is $35 per person, plus tax and gratuity.

Construction of Heirloom’s new food pavilion is expected to be completed next month, featuring 600 feet of shopping space, most of which will be under shade, and a large space designed for chef demonstrations, culinary competitions and other educational programs.

If you’re one of the first to run into Vrolijk at the market early on a Sunday, don’t ask him what’s for dinner. You’re bound to get a blank stare – unless he’s already spotted that squash.