For Gary Hickey, cooking was a necessity.
Hickey was an at-risk youth living on the streets for about a year when he became involved in Youth On Their Own, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless youth graduate high school.
The program, which was in its first year of existence, helped Hickey land a job at a local Greek restaurant by the University of Arizona where he washed dishes, helped with prep and was able to take home as much gyro as he wanted.
At 16, Hickey got his first professional job at a restaurant in the Foothills Mall.
Fast forward years later, Hickey now runs a popular restaurant in downtown Tucson and was recently on primetime TV where he won $10,000 courtesy of the Food Network.
Before Hickey helped start Charro Steak and Del Rey at 188 E. Broadway, he worked all around the country, including for big companies such as PF Chang's and Lone Star Steakhouse. He found his way back to Tucson after his mom got sick. He temporarily stepped out the kitchen, later becoming a bartender and taking some time to spend with family.
Hickey returned to the restaurant scene when he got a job at the now-closed McMahon’s Steakhouse, where he eventually became general manager after the previous one quit.
In another turn of events, the chef quit as well. Hickey became both the chef and the manager.
Since their corporate office shared space with El Charro, Hickey became friends with El Charro royalty: Carlotta and Ray Flores.
“He'd [Ray] always stopped me in the halls in the morning because we'd go to corporate to print menus or pick up checks and he'd be like, hey, what do you think of this? Or, how would you handle this situation?” Hickey said. “We could call it the five-year job interview. He was interviewing me every day.”
After Hickey left McMahon’s he tried opening a restaurant of his own, but things didn’t work out. It was then when Ray reached out, offering Hickey a job where he would be able to help around the restaurants in the Flores family's Si Charro group.
“The whole family is kind of like a family that I never had,” Hickey said. “Ray and myself work really, really well together when it comes to creating new things or putting our heads together to try to solve problems.”
They later found the red brick building that sits on Broadway and fixed it up, filling it with rustic décor. Despite its makeover, they still weren’t sure what the restaurant was going to be.
Inspiration struck when they learned that one of Carlotta’s cousins had an El Charro restaurant in Casa Grande decades ago. The end of the menu read: “All your favorites, just like the original, plus we have steak.”
“That's kind of how Charro Steak was born,” Hickey said. “With my background of being a butcher, we really wanted to offer an all-natural grass-fed Mexican Steakhouse, because there was nothing in the market.”
Charro Steak and Del Rey opened in 2016 and became Tucson’s only 100% grass-fed, mesquite-grilled sustainable steak and seafood restaurant. Hickey said they source all their beef from a ranch in Montana.
“It's very expensive, but we have a legacy to take care of those who take care of us,” Hickey said.
When it comes to working on the menu and new dishes, Hickey said he and Ray often have whiteboard sessions where they lock themselves in a room with magazines, pictures, social media posts, cookbooks and any other inspirational materials to help come up with new, inventive recipes.
There are a few questions the recipes need to address before they make it on the coveted menu. What’s Charro about it? Does it represent the Sonoran Desert? Is it true to the Charro heritage of being sustainable?
For example, since one of the things El Charro is known for is their tamales, they wanted to create one with a lobster spin. Inspired by a recipe he found for lobster thermidor, Hickey took a lobster and stuffed it with a green corn tamale and topped it with green and red chile.
“It's been like our No. 1 Instagram, TikTok worthy dish that's ever happened and it was just because I got frustrated with the tamales that we were making,” Hickey said. “I went back there and stuffed that tamale into a lobster and everybody was like, holy crap.”
Most recently, Hickey took his talents to the big screen and participated in “Battle of the Decades,” a Food Network competition show. Hickey was paired with a younger chef as they tackled various challenges that required them to incorporate ingredients from the past or take on viral trends.
Hickey had tried out for other TV shows, but “Battle of the Decades” was the first time he got to show the world what Tucson had to offer.
“I really wasn't expecting to get it so I was just being a super goof ball and they [the producers] just loved it,” Hickey said. “I tried to have fun with it and represent Tucson and I think I did a good job.”
Ultimately, Hickey and his partner advanced to the final round, where they had to compete against each other and make crepes suzette, a French dessert.
Staying true to his Tucson roots, Hickey took a risk and reimagined the dish by using popovers instead of the traditional crepe. In the end, Hickey was declared the winner and was awarded a whopping $10,000 prize.
“I felt like I took a risk making Indian frybread but I feel like it paid off and I still got to represent Tucson,” Hickey said. “That win was super special because it meant that what I've been doing was validated.”
From TV shows to lobster tamales to hosting Tucson Knife Fight, Hickey has taken his humble beginnings and solidified his legacy as a Tucson chef.
For the 16-year-olds hoping to one day become a chef, he advises that they be passionate about it, saying it takes a true soul to take care of people.
“It's not a forgiving business, but if you stick with it, take care of your community and take care of the people around you that lift you up,” Hickey said. “I wouldn't be able to do any of this without any of them and they know it because I tell them every day. Take care of the people that take care of you.”