Like many of his chef peers, Tony Burris sports a fair amount of body ink. But unlike his contemporaries, Burris has multiple tattoos centered around one, non-culinary theme: birds. On his right inner forearm, a crane takes flight, while a watchful owl peers out from his shin.
“Those are magical, spiritual kinds of birds. One of my first jobs when I was in the forestry service was to go out and do our surveys at night, and they’re just so majestic. They’re like old souls,” Burris says.
The chef himself could also be described as an old soul. Though only in his 40s, Burris has already pursued multiple passions, from studying environmental science and championing local agriculture to opening his own gym and restaurant. The lessons gleaned from those experiences now inform his current role as executive chef at The Barley Hound in Prescott, Arizona. Still, Burris admits it has taken him time to feel confident in his own culinary chops.
“It’s a big learning curve for me—trusting in my abilities and my skill to cook. And even though other people have had that [trust] in me, I’m just now learning it; I’m just now believing it,” he says.
Best described as a rustic, chef-driven gastropub, The Barley Hound is the brainchild of restaurateur extraordinaire Skyler Reeves. Since this first restaurant opened in 2015, Reeves has grown his portfolio into Vivili Hospitality Group, with five differentiated brands ranging from a taqueria and tequila bar to a hearty yet healthy cafe. But The Barley Hound remains the original—and arguably, flagship—concept.
Burris, who came on board in October 2021, says one of the things he relishes about leading an existing operation is bringing his own style into the equation while still taking inspiration from his predecessors.
“One thing I love about other chefs is we all have our own way and approach to cooking and ideas, and Skyler gave me that opportunity,” Burris says. “I was a patron at The Barley Hound in the early days, and I’ve been close to Skyler, so I’ve seen the evolution of the place. He was like, ‘Look, I want you to do what you want to do.’ He had no boundaries on that.”
It was an ideal dynamic, given that Burris is one who works better outside the confines of the status quo—and likes to mix things up.
Last year’s spring menu featured Sous Vide Barbecue Prime Pork Ribs, Scottish Egg with Duck Sausage, Spicy Vegan Curry, and Harissa & Yogurt Chicken Chopped Salad. For Burris, the ultimate goal is to root his dishes in the familiar—but add a dash of the unexpected.
“I’m not trying to make foams and crazy things; I’ll save that for other people. I like comfort food, but I also like to cook it in a way that’s like, here’s a braised short rib, but we also put some bone marrow butter on it. People are familiar with the short rib but maybe they’re not so familiar with bone marrow,” he says.
That ethos has also carried over to the restaurant’s first-ever brunch menu, which debuted last fall. Alongside elevated classics like Fried Green Tomato Eggs Benedict and Sweet Potato Hash, The Barley Hound serves “The Cheege,” toasted brioche with scrambled eggs, cheddar, and pickled jalapeño. The dish was inspired by the chef’s father who would make a simpler version of the dish when Burris was growing up. “My dad actually came up with that word—well, he claims he did,” he says.
Years before working in a professional kitchen, Burris moved from his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend Prescott College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Following graduation, he worked for the forestry department, but all the while, he continued cooking for friends and for himself. He also collected quite a few cookbooks. It was a natural evolution of a longstanding interest; even as a kid, Burris would tweak his mother’s cooking—something, he says with a laugh, she doesn’t appreciate him broadcasting now.
But the deeper Burris dived into all things culinary, the greater its pull became, and eventually he decided to attend an accelerated program at the Arizona Culinary Institute. Following an externship, the newly minted chef moved to Tucson to cut his teeth—and plenty of meat. In addition to prepping ingredients, sautéing dishes, and manning the salad station, he also learned more about butchery, and it’s a skill that continues to serve him well.
“The ’Merica Burger is something that has been on the menu at The Barley Hound since day one. It’s had its little tweaks here and there, but it’s just a basic, classic cheeseburger. I think what makes our burger so special is—and it’s very time consuming—we cut all the meat and then we grind it and patty them ourselves,” he says. “There’s a lot of value in that, I think, when you get a burger that’s hand-cut and juicy. It’s not gritty like frozen patties or anything like that.”
Burris would later move back to Prescott and help open a café/restaurant. But as happens with many in the service industry, the chef experienced burnout, leading him to take a step away from restaurants altogether. He became interested in CrossFit and eventually trained as a coach and opened his own gym.
But taking the chef out of the kitchen didn’t take the kitchen out of the chef.
“The whole time people would ask me to cater parties for them, and it was a great side hustle,” he says. “So I would do that, and then I became close friends with Skyler Reeves … and we created a catering business. We grabbed every party we could grab, we tried to get our name out there as much as possible.”
The catering business, Hawk & Hound, was gaining steam when COVID hit. Despite the challenges, Vivili Hospitality continued its forward trajectory with new restaurants on deck, and Reeves used the pandemic shutdown as an opportunity to renovate The Barley Hound. When it came time to reopen, the proprietor wanted his catering partner at the helm with a slew of new menu items and recipes.
“I think one of the things that motivated me to step in was that I noticed I didn’t feel like cooking was going to be something I was just going to give up again. I’m too far in it. It’s deep in my roots, of what I feel like I should be doing,” Burris says.
And as it turns out, The Barley Hound is the perfect intersection for the chef’s many diverse interests and expertise. Burris works to source clean, local ingredients, whether grass-fed animal protein or organic produce; he is, after all, a chef and a board member of the Prescott Farmers Market. Burris can also trace this commitment back to his forestry days and CrossFit experience.
“Vegetables that come from 20 miles away versus who-knows-where-they-come-from, there’s a lot more nutritional value in those products,” he says. “I want to cook really good food that gives them some nutritional value over some mass-produced items that taste like water.”
And regardless of whether a guest is a vegetarian or straight-up carnivore, he wants them to look at food differently, to see the inherent value in keeping F&B dollars within city limits. In other words, the chef would like consumers to learn from the path he’s forged and the connections he’s made along the way.