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Benson, Arizona, is about as far away from the White House as any chef can get. Figuratively and literally. Nevertheless, that's the distance Robert Michel traveled to feed the masses at Bobby Joe's Irish Pub.
By Noah Austin
Benson Any day can be a busy day at Bobby Joe’s Irish Pub, but usually, Elly McFadden and Robert Michel (pictured) get advance notice when a big group is stopping by for lunch. On this particular Wednesday, that didn’t happen, and McFadden, Michel and server Stephany Michel (she’s Robert’s wife) are scrambling to get burgers, sandwiches and drinks to the large party that just wandered in.
The unexpected lunch rush means waiting awhile to talk to the Benson pub’s co-proprietors. But it also allows time to savor the Sonoran Burger, which, like all the burgers at Bobby Joe’s, is handcrafted with Michel’s own spice blend and served on a seasoned bun. The Sonoran is topped with thick, crispy bacon and a spicy chipotle sauce. Actually, it’s hard to savor it, since the inclination is to eat it very quickly.
Later, on the pub’s quiet back patio, Michel talks about what he intended when he leased the Bobby Joe’s restaurant operation from McFadden in 2011. “I’d done high-dollar, $75-a-plate restaurants,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be able to make good food at an affordable price. And that’s what we try to do here.”
McFadden, meanwhile, is a Netherlands native, and although she’s been stateside since 1965, she maintains an unmistakable Dutch accent. She and her husband, Bobby Joe McFadden — an actor who had small roles in Tombstone, Red Rock West and other movies filmed nearby — opened Bobby Joe’s in 1992. The business grew, and when Bobby Joe died in 2002, “Elly Mae,” as she’s known, kept it going.
In 2010, McFadden expanded the pub’s tiny kitchen. The next year, she partnered with Michel, a Milwaukee native whose background couldn’t be farther removed from the Benson area: He spent nearly eight years as a White House chef, preparing meals for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
In Milwaukee, Michel was serving in the National Guard and working at a diner. One day, he says, he was called into his commander’s office. From there, men in black suits drove him to the diner, where Clinton was waiting. The president asked Michel to make his locally re-
nowned specialty: maple-glazed salmon with a wasabi-sake sauce. Clinton loved it, and after Michel filled out “a mountain of paperwork” and waited months for security clearance, he was making state dinners in Washington, D.C.
After Clinton left office, Michel got a
2 a.m. phone call asking him to prepare a steak. Afterward, he learned the ribeye he’d made was for Bush, who called it the best steak he’d ever had. He asked Michel to become the first family’s chef, and Michel agreed, staying on until late 2001. The Michels then headed to Arizona because Stephany, who had fallen ill, had family in Benson. Doctors told the Michels that Stephany had a terminal case of viral encephalitis. “As you can see, the doctors were wrong,” Michel says with a laugh.
Michel maintained Bobby Joe’s “pub food” menu, including the popular burgers, and he’s added to it with daily specials. Prime rib, Salisbury steak and meatloaf are staples of “Comfort Food Wednesdays,” but Michel also serves more exotic choices, such as baked walleye. “I’m trying to expand tastes in this region,” he says. “This is pretty much a meat-and-potatoes kind of town.”
The unlikely pair has made Bobby Joe’s a local hot spot. On weekends, bands play on the bar’s outdoor stage. On football Sundays, Green Bay Packers fans crowd the pub. And karaoke nights are always popular.
McFadden is 70 now, and she anticipates selling the pub to Michel once she’s ready to retire. Actually, she’s sold Bobby Joe’s multiple times in the past 22 years, but she’s always found her way back to owning it again.
“None of the other owners could make it work like I do,” she says. “Anybody can sell beer or food. Customer service, friendliness and a good atmosphere are what make the difference. We’ve created a real neighborhood atmosphere here.”