Kelzi Batholomaei is the 4th owner and head chef of Mother Hubbard's
Foodie: What is your culinary background?
Kelzi: Very simple, my grandmother taught me to cook. I started in her kitchen when I was very young, 5-6 learning to cook simple things like tortillas, beans and soup . As I grew older, she taught me more complex dishes and techniques, such as making tamales and butchering. By the time I was in high school, I was beginning to earn a reputation as a pretty good cook; that’s when I started cooking professionally. Back then I was a floating cook, cooking on ships and for private gigs. When I decided to go back to school, I worked in my first brick and mortar establishments. My last cooking job was as the opening sous chef at a new kitchen specializing in Provincial cooking. I had just graduated from college and because of the job market at that time, I stayed on for a couple of years. I’m sure that the excitement of opening a new kitchen and a very poor economy keeping me from seriously looking for a job as a landscape architect. But eventually I felt the need to find a job in my new field and it was with a bit of pride I learned that shortly after leaving they received their first Mobile Star.
After graduation I worked as a landscape architect. Fortunately for my cooking, it was a job that allowed me to travel extensively and I was blessed with project sites which were often in countries that loved spicy foods. I learned how to cook many new dishes and many new techniques. For the next 28 years I did not cook professionally.
In 2005 I was under employed; work in the states was quickly drying up. Being one of those who just can’t sit still, I thought I would try cooking again. It turned out to be really discouraging. For 9 months I tried to get a cooking job, even trying some of the chain restaurants. No luck. So I added serving and cashier to the list of jobs I applied to. Still no takers. I was totally deflated when someone I knew told me they just got a job in one of the high end kitchens here in town and he felt the reason he got it was because he used two of my dishes as examples of his abilities. I also applied for the same job and didn’t even get a call back. I guess I was pretty naïve thinking that an over the hill woman who hasn’t been in a kitchen in 28 years would be hired. When the opportunity to buy MHC came about, I took it. I guess buying my job was the only way I’d get back in the kitchen again.
Foodie: How did you discover Mother Hubbard's?
Kelzi: Since coming to Tucson, I have always lived downtown and as far as I can remember, the big “A” frame sign was always on the corner announcing the cheap breakfast. I’m sure it was because of the 1.99 breakfast, but back then, 1979, it was 69 cents.
Foodie: What do you like most about Mother Hubbard's?
Kelzi: I think one for the things I like best about MHC are the guests. We have a wonderfully diverse client base. We have regulars from all parts of the city and from out of town as well. In addition we get people from all walks of life. As you may know, our neighborhood is not among the toniest in town which also influences the diversity of our guests. On many occasions we have had folks come in with little to no money and other guests have offered to pay their tab so they can keep their cash. Yeah, I think it’s her heart that I like the best.
Foodie: How do the regulars receive menu changes?
Kelzi: I have tried to keep a part of the menu as it has always been, nourishing yet inexpensive. The eggs, potatoes, toast and protein or hot cakes and French toast are still available. Many of our early regulars still come in for this part of the menu. However, as my cooking began to influence the menu, we lost some of the guest that preferred the more traditional American diner fare. Now we have “new “regulars" which have embraced the menu changes. What has been fun is challenging some of the more adventurous guest into trying some of our new plates.
Foodie: How is the Tucson breakfast theme different compared to other cities?
Kelzi: In some aspects I don’t think the breakfast scene here differs much from other cities. Breakfast is mostly about comfort food and comfort food is intimately tied to culture. Two eggs, a starch, a protein and a bread. The variations are endless. New Orleans, LA-eggs, blackened fish, grits and beignets, Windy City-eggs, corned beef hash, potato pancakes and toast, Iowa City-eggs, sausage links with gravy, hash browns with cheese and a biscuit, Atlanta-eggs, biscuits and black pepper milk gravy with bacon, Beverly Hills-eggs, lox w/capers, tomato and bialy, West L.A.-poached eggs, hamburger patties, gravy on a toasted baguette, San Francisco-eggs, wild king salmon cakes, toasted baguette, I could go on and on. Tucson’s breakfast scene focuses on diner fare with a Mexican/Latino twist. In that way we’re not much different.
Having said that, there is a national trend in breakfast cuisine which is making breakfasts more creative, expressive and experiential. More of an event instead of just getting comforting, nourishment. Often the restaurants focus on the traditional breakfasts and then “kick it up a notch”, utilizing locally available foods and old school inspirations. I think Tucson is just beginning to venture into these waters.
Foodie: What is your favorite item on the menu?
Kelzi: Of course it would be any of my chilis, I’m a total chili head and love any of them on my food. However, I often have the Huevos Rancheros with beans and corn tortillas. They are light and simple and won’t upset my doc. I admit, sometimes I’ll sneak fried green tomatoes.
Foodie: What is the most popular item on the menu?
Kelzi: It’s more of a class of dishes, with green chile as the base followed by 2 eggs, potatoes and toast.
Foodie: What is in the future for Mother Hubbard's?
Kelzi: Oy, I wish I knew. We’re doing a little remodeling this summer, trying to have the space reflect more of me and not the previous 38 years. Later this month the Grant Road expansion will begin construction and I know it will impact our business. I’m hoping we can last the 14 month timetable.
Foodie: If you weren't a chef, what would you be and why?
Kelzi: I have a strong desire to create, so I may like to return to architecture or perhaps blowing glass. Tom Philabaum was a big part of me being in Tucson. I guess it’s because I like heat and all things hot.
Foodie: Any tips for anyone wanting to open up a restaurant?
Kelzi: Have your eyes W I D E open and have V E R Y deep pockets. Think it over really hard, it’s the hardest thing I have ever tried.