Richard Pelz of We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort

We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort property executive chef Richard Pelz is in his second go-around at the property.

He worked as its acting chef, moved on to the Four Seasons and returned to We-Ko-Pa because he felt he had “unfinished business.”

“We’re relatively new, in terms of the new building, with the new restaurants and new casino,” he says.

“It’s not a new property. We’ve been rebranded, and we have a different vision. The culinary department has stepped up, and we’re offering a lot more than the original casino had to offer. It’s refined.”

In his leadership role, he oversees the culinary operations and stewarding departments for the award-winning resort’s six dining outlets (Ember, the Buffet, Ahnala, WKP Sports & Entertainment, the Market and Daubs) as well as for the banquet kitchen, in-room dining, poolside food service and special events at Fort McDowell Adventures, another Enterprise of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.

When Pelz joined the We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort in March 2020 as Ember’s chef de cuisine, he was charged with conceptualizing the restaurant’s vision; creating innovative menus; and hiring, training and mentoring its talented and customer-centric staff. 

Under his guidance, Ember introduced modern cooking techniques, a variety of seasonal menus, and a series of popular wine-themed dinners — all of which contributed to the fine-dining establishment’s receiving Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence” and OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the past two years. 

Pelz, who worked in some of the world’s top restaurants, says when he opened Ember in 2020, he had not cooked in a casino, resort or steakhouse. However, he embraced it.

“I brought my knowledge here to elevate our food and beverage department,” he says. “We’re so far out from everything that we have to create a destination.

“We’re not in Scottsdale. All the action’s in Scottsdale. We really have to push the envelope and give people a reason to drive out here.”

Pelz’s passion for cooking was ignited at an early age by his parents, who dabbled in winemaking and had a discerning palate for fine cuisine.  

When the Santa Cruz, California, native enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park’s hospitality management program, he quickly discovered his preference for the back of the house, and proceeded to further hone his culinary talents.

“My mother was a Francophile,” he says.

“She used to make beef bourguignon. She had a respect for the French culture and French cooking. She even drove a Citroen, a French car. She had pate, the caviar, the cheese, the fruits. It never dawned on me that it would be something I’d pursue.”

The family frequently dined out, so he watched the front-of-house activity. Upon high school graduation, he played college football but wasn’t sure what career to pursue. So, he dropped out and went to culinary school. 

For his first job out of culinary school, he showed up wearing a suit and tie.

“Being naïve, I thought they played classical music and passed ground Grey Poupon with white gloves,” he says with a laugh.

Since then, he has worked at restaurants around the world, many of which boasted Michelin stars, including La Grenouille and La Caravelle (New York City); Le Louis XV – Alain Ducasse (Monte Carlo, Monaco); Restaurante Martin Berasategui (Spain); Alinea (Chicago); and California establishments including Citrine (Hollywood), Bottega and Redd (Napa Valley), Wally’s Desert Turtle (Rancho Mirage) and Cork Tree California Cuisine, Augusta Modern and Cuistot (Palm Desert).  

He also owned Goblin Market in New York City, which was nominated for best new restaurant in its first year of operations.

“Chef Richard’s vision, passion and culinary expertise have made Ember one of the top dining destinations in Arizona,” says Zac Gallo, executive director of food and beverage for the We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort.  

“These attributes will position him well to take our property dining outlets to the highest level, ensuring our guests have a delicious dining experience no matter which option they choose.”

We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort

10438 Wekopa Way, Fort McDowell