Chef Swanson’s quest for perfection fuels Kai’s cuisine and experience

Kai at Sheraton Grand Resort at Wild Horse Pass.
Kai at Sheraton Grand Resort at Wild Horse Pass.(Jeff Popovich)
Updated: Jun. 19, 2021 at 6:00 AM MST
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GILA RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- The drive through the desert along the winding road toward the Sheraton Grand Resort at Wild Horse Pass gives you that rugged Arizona desert feel but also ease of tension after leaving the hustle and bustle of the metro behind. Arriving at the resort feels like you’ve traveled an hour or two outside of Phoenix, a serene and quiet place to relax and enjoy yourself. Walking into Kai, the resort’s AAA Five Diamond and Forbe’s Five Star restaurant will end up providing quite the enjoyment for your stomach and tastebuds!

The layout for Kai is simple but elegant, moving from room to room with walls decorated with Native American art and craftwork. The professional and lavish atmosphere maintained and curated by Kai’s staff and Executive Chef Ryan Swanson’s kitchen indicates what one should expect for the food: it’s going to be delicious! After a decade of working his way up the ranks at Kai, Swanson said every day is still a learning experience, pushing him and his team toward a continuous goal of perfection. Chef Swanson (who assured me there was no relation to Ron from Parks and Rec) said from the minute he walks into work; perfection is the first thing on his mind.

“From the onset of the day, I try to be perfect in everything I do, ultimately leading to a perfect guest experience. I want the guest to have a memorable experience, something that they’ll never forget, a one-of-a-kind experience,” Swanson explained. “So, we just have to make sure that we show up every day and do our very best. That’s what I got into this business for; nurturing and giving people what they came for when it comes to food.”

Chef Ryan Swanson at Kai.
Chef Ryan Swanson at Kai.(Jeff Popovich)

At an early age, Swanson knew he had a passion and talent for cooking. He says he always liked being in the kitchen and started his culinary journey as many others did while in high school: he got a job at a local pizza shop. Eventually, the pizza place would be replaced by a French restaurant, during all of which Swanson absorbed his cooking knowledge. It didn’t take long for the cooking world to speak to Swanson, who knew being a chef was something he always wanted to do.

“That was the tipping point for me, realizing this is really what I want to do. I didn’t want to do anything else; I enjoyed the speed of it, the pace of everything, the environment of the kitchens. I enjoyed working with ingredients and learning how to use them in different ways, and I just enjoyed learning,” Swanson said.

The meals being expertly whipped up in the kitchen are being made with care and preciseness, even down to the drops of sauce or garnish during plating. It’s about hitting every mark, from being visually appetizing to the aromas and taste. Whether it’s the indigenous Arizona ingredients, the story, or the cultural background behind the meal, there is a lot more going on at Kai outside of the food - the experience.

Mike Medicine Horse Zillioux (Pima, Cheyenne, Pawnee) Cluster Vision, Acrylic, 2014.
Mike Medicine Horse Zillioux (Pima, Cheyenne, Pawnee) Cluster Vision, Acrylic, 2014.(Jeff Popovich)

“This restaurant’s main aim is to educate, and I get to run that kitchen, and I think that’s a huge, huge honor for me. So that’s the best part of my day; I get to come in and plan on trying to make people’s experiences memorable,” Swanson said. “They get to learn something, they get to see something, taste something that they’ve never got to try. Hear a couple of stories from the local community; we like to very much tie our local and cultural stories in with our food and tie everything together as a harmonious story and a meal, especially when there’s a travel community that supports that, and we’re here to support and give back in that way as well.”

Jeff’s Picks:

Kai is truly a fine-dining experience fueled by unique flavors, great food, atmosphere, and service. Kai, which means “seed” in the Pima language, keeps its menu creative and utilizes locally farmed ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community and family-owned businesses around the Valley. It all culminates into some top-notch food. Here are some examples of what to expect quality-wise with some of Kai’s more popular dishes!

Grilled Tenderloin of Tribal Buffalo

Without a doubt one of the easiest pieces of tenderloin I’ve ever had the privilege to cut through. Exceptionally grilled with a tedious amount of attention to assuring the desired medium-rare cook. A wonderful combination of flavors and textures are at play, with tasty chorizo beneath the tenderloin adding a hearty profile and kick of spice. This dish has been a long staple for Kai, and the smoked corn mesquite puree was a succulent bridge tying the two types of meat together. It’s no wonder this dish is the most popular, and no surprise it’s a foodie must-try!

Pee-Posh Garden

A very colorful, vibrant, and unique array of veggies. The range of flavors does not disappoint and covers various profile bases from sweet, bitter, savory, and more. There are grounded-up nuts, fresh local morel mushroom, radish, and various drops of some delectable pungent tasting sauces, one of which was a wonderfully sweet raspberry-like sauce. A nice light and simple dish to start off the dinner journey!

The Pee Posh Garden plate at Kai.
The Pee Posh Garden plate at Kai.(Jeff Popovich)

Kai Lobster Roll

A Chef Swanson crafted special, pieced together on a whim one day! The richness of the cornbread blends exquisitely with the medley of garnishes. Using local ingredients from Ramona Farms, Swanson’s cornbread has a phenomenal smokey mesquite roast to it, giving it depth and a nice crumble. The lobster is fresh and has a fun hot and cold take. The cherry pepper gives it that bite, adding to the unique flavor bomb that erupts in your mouth. An appeasing-looking dish to inhale for seafood enthusiasts that like to step outside the cuisine box!

From start to finish, in terms of the preparation and execution of the dishes being created in Swanson’s kitchen, one must simply respect the amount of perfection his team has achieved in their journey. The meticulous detail, selection of ingredients, and processes result in remarkable food, all while enjoying a new experience through food rich with history and culture. Swanson and his crew’s dedication and strive to perfect their method make a trip to Kai an experience to remember regardless of the occasion or frequency of visit. If you visit, enjoy!


5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd

Phoenix, AZ 85048

This is the third segment in a breakout series on chefs in the Phoenix metro. Arizona’s Family Foodie is sitting down with chefs around the Valley to tell their stories of triumphs, perseverance, and dedication to their crafts. There is a sizeable amount of work, research, and experimentation that culminates into what gets placed in front of you on a plate or in a drink. These are the stories of the creative minds behind those delicious meals or cocktails, and how their passions for food and beverage bring us joy and closer together.