When a new restaurant opens in town, there is always much foodie chatter and media attention. But as the hubbub dies down, the real test of success kicks in. Is the early acclaim warranted? Will the eatery be around for a while and survive the foibles of competition? There’s so many restaurants and so much culinary talent in our food-crazed city, and I’m always excited not only to check out the latest and hottest but also to delight in seeing how the well-established and time-honored guys are doing. I caught up with Roland Richter, from Joe’s Dining, the week of his 26th wedding anniversary with wife and business partner, Sheila. The answers he gave to my questions proved him to be quite eloquent—I suggested he take up writing as a side career!
Photo by Gaelen Casey
Johnny Vee: You have always been such a big supporter of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. How much do you think this support has to do with your success and longevity in the Santa Fe restaurant scene?
Roland Richter: To be honest, until the last few years, it had no influence on our success. It was just our personal choice. In 1996, we started purchasing from the farmers for our first restaurant, Pizza Etc. simply because it was in alignment with our food values. The problem has been that in general, the U.S. populace eats for entertainment; palates have become accustomed to what we call “inflated taste sensations.” That’s come about in recent decades due to a whole new industry of chemical food enhancers that are integrated into cheap industrial “food-like products.”So these food-like substances become tasty and addictive. But here’s the good news: The local foods movement has exploded in the last three to five years, hitting critical mass. We in the food industry are witnessing a heartwarming and massive demand for the real, clean taste and multi-faceted value of locally grown food. So, at long last, we do see a positive impact on our business.
JV: What changes in your business and clientele have you noticed since you opened?
RR: When we first opened Joe’s in 2002—I guess because we called it a diner—people expected cheap greasy-spoon food. There was a serious mismatch. But we just kept doing what we do, and gradually we have attracted a loyal following that understands what we’re doing, that understands the broad benefits of eating good local food—not to mention the yummy factor! Also we see people spending a higher percentage of their budget on food. In Europe, this has always been the case; good quality food has never been cheap, and that expenditure is treated as a priority. I believe I see a shift in spending priorities here, too.
JV: I love your newsletter “Dija Know,” which is available on your website, joesdining.com. Who handles the writing and content for it, and how do you find the time to keep it up? And just exactly who is Joe?
RR: Who is Joe? Sheila wrote this shortly after we opened to try to define the ambience we wanted to set—casual and unpretentious but quality-oriented: “Joe is everyman. He is you, he is me, he is the guy next door, the gal next door. He is José, Giuseppe, Joseph and all female renditions of the name. Joe is the common thread among us, and yet he is one-of-a-kind. He is friendly, unpretentious, straightforward, with quietly discriminating tastes. Joe has a robust sense of humor—he loves to laugh, even at himself. He loves good food, good drink and good company. Welcome to Joe’s!”
Photo by Kate Russell
My wife writes the newsletter/blog. It springs from her deep interest in health. She had a healing practice for several years. It started with horses and eventually [expanded to] all species. In her eyes, health and food are inseparable, so she simply enjoys sharing her current research. I never know where she will go next!
JV: If you had to eat one dish every day for the rest of your life what would it be?
RR: That’s tough when you love food. But I guess Joe’s grass-fed and -finished mesquite-grilled burger, with a nice thick slice of local heirloom tomato on a Fano bun, perhaps with some nice sautéed veggies or crisp salad.
JV: What ingredients will never appear in a Joe’s Dining dish and why?
RR: We try like crazy to avoid GMO foods and ingredients, [which is] harder than you think [because there are] no labeling laws. Corn, for instance, we try not to use until we can get local corn that is verifiable non-GMO. Most corn and soy and, unfortunately, a lot of wheat are GMO. [We avoid] obvious neurotoxins like aspartame/Splenda/sucralose, and HFCS is something else we try to avoid. It, of course, comes from GM corn.
JV: What are a few of the life lessons you feel you have learned in your years as a chef? Do you feel differently about things relating to hospitality than you did when you first started out in the industry?
RR: That old saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”—it’s really true. We remind ourselves frequently to really enjoy the moment, the unfolding of life. Otherwise, if it’s all about work and achieving and striving to attain goals, the daily joys of life can just pass unnoticed. Wherever you find yourself is where you should be. Slow down and enjoy it. With that being said, the devil is still in the details! Also, as one passes the 50 mark, it’s not just about doing a job anymore. There’s got to be more to it. The restaurant is a context we have created, a vehicle through which we express who we are and why we’re here. And that context has formed and solidified our mission at Joe’s.
JV: Many people think it would be difficult to work with their spouse. What is the secret to working with your wife, Sheila? Does it ever get explosive?
RR: Only between the sheets! But seriously, it’s all about the pearl. We’ve been creating a magnificent pearl for many lifetimes together. As you may know the oyster creates a pearl only when irritated—in the oyster’s case, with a grain of sand. We don’t always agree on business decisions, but most of the time we come to the same conclusions. It’s almost boring how much we think alike.
JV: What’s your favorite dish on the Joe’s menu? And your least favorite?
RR: Joe’s Benedict—poached eggs on our house-made smoked salmon, resting on potato latkes, smothered with Hollandaise and [accompanied by] a nice crisp salad. Of course a nice glass of Gruet Sparkling Rosé Brut or a mimosa with that.
Least favorite? Johnny, really, I created the menu—there’s nothing on it I don’t like and eat!
JV: What’s the hardest part of being a chef/owner?
RR: Wearing two hats: balancing the conflicting demands of being a free-spending creative artist (the chef) and those of being the tight-ass accountant (the business owner).
JV: And the most rewarding part of your career as a chef and restaurant owner?
RR: When a guest leaves with a smile and heartfelt comment like, “This is my second home; see you tomorrow,” that makes it all worthwhile.
Joe’s Dining is located at 2801 Rodeo Road in Santa Fe. 505.471.3800. joesdining.com.