Why I Cook

(Story by Mark Oppenheimer)
Asking “Why?” is both a personal and philosophical question. In the asking, there’s an innocence, a sense of wonder, an encounter with the mystery. Sometimes, to question “Why?” is simply enough; it’s part of the endless search for who we are. Twelve chefs, 12 whys. We got to talking.

Mark Oppenheimer: Why do you cook?

Chef and Writer Cheryl Alters-Jamison: I cook because I have to. It’s what I love, it’s what I do. It’s what I do when I’m happy and sad, when I need to think, or when I don’t want to think, how I express who I am, and it’s how I make use of my creativity. It’s just really everything to me, absolutely central to my existence, and it has been that way since I was a little kid. My parents weren’t adventuresome cooks––they were very much Midwestern, straight-meat-and-potatoes style of cooking, and actually that’s part of what inspired me to cook. I felt like there was a lot more out there, and through cooking different cuisines you’d learn about what they were eating in other parts of the world.

Chef Joel Coleman of Fire and Hops: It didn’t start off as a love for it. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. My first love was music. When I started cooking, I was still serious about pursuing a career as a music producer. My Mom always reminds me, I was just born with it: “You’ve had it from the beginning; I’ve know for a long time this is just what you’re supposed to do.” I feel like there’s the emotional side that’s really meaningful, knowing your work has touched people deeply, and it creates a memory that they’ll have forever. It warms my heart to have that effect on people.

Photo by Richard K White

Photo by Richard K White

Chef Ahmed Obo of Jambo Café: In our culture, men don’t cook. With my dad, we would go to work, to cook lunch, we would bring corn meal, water, salt and dried fish. We called that Ugali. We’d collect firewood, boil water, mix it up and grill the dried fish. We would eat, and that was the day. Sometimes, the tide would be low and we just put a pile of wood and make a fire and the tide would rise and come right through the fire while we were making the Ugali. So those are memories.

I also remember hunting for small crab, and right there, we would grill and eat them with Ugali. My dad taught me how to work hard. You got to go for it––be tough. He doesn’t tell you to be tough, but he made me carry that heavy load, pulling the boat, bailing the water. He taught me how to manage, controlling the flow. Here in Santa Fe, being a chef, I don’t do that kind of thing, but still you have to manage people, food, creativity, what it takes to get it done. Cooking gives me joy. I’ve created those things, so now I am comfortable that I can cook. I can feed people and they appreciate that. I love that I can jump into the kitchen, create something out of nothing, and then I feel like, Wow! It feels good, and what it gives me is that it drives me to the next stage. I am seeing it. I am grateful for the journey, all that it guided me to be.

Chef Jose Kiko Rodriguez of Izanami: I cook because cooking together was always a big part of our family tradition. I wanted to give people something that I created and share my cooking with them. I also like to show them the good things that cooking creates such as the bonds that are made while working together. I love to watch people enjoy my food and see my love and passion for cooking in my dishes. When they compliment my food, it helps me to build more passion and love for what I do.

Chef Joseph Wrede of Josephs of Santa Fe: I cook to please others. I cook to bring honor to my house and the house shall honor you. I cook because I can. The discipline suits me like a chef’s coat. It’s very reassuring to have place and purpose to bump cult and culture.

Chef James Campbell Caruso of La Boca: Food matters, hospitality matters, the social aspects of dining out and sharing food and drink are an important part of how we interact with each other as a community. Making sure, when people come in, they are going to have a good time is an intimate relationship I take very seriously. That’s why I cook. It’s a real, ancient, primitive act to say, “Come to my house, I’m cooking something, please join me.” That’s what we do [as chefs]––it’s a way we continually engage with each other as a community. One of the ways I have a conversation is everything I do—every decision I make before our guests arrive is inextricably fused with that goal. That’s the big thing as a chef and a restaurateur––people are coming to the house, [and] I want to treat them very well. So I cook.

Chef/Baker Annamaria OBrien of Dolina: I simply cook because I love the process. Great connections and conversations usually happen around the table with friends over sharing a wonderful meal, and I love that I am able to provide that and share pieces of myself and my Slovakian culture. I’m doing what I love to do. Baking is very fulfilling and gives me an outlet to be creative in a way that I love, and it’s very rewarding to see people eating food and being thankful for the experience. It’s an instant satisfaction to see someone eating food that you put your love and energy into.

Chef Mark Connell of State Capital Kitchen: Sometimes, I wonder why. It’s just one of those things. When I was 7 or 8 years old, living in Montana, we ran out of peanut butter and we wanted to make some PBJs. I looked at my friends: “I got this!” I put a bunch of peanuts in a plastic bag and ran over them with my bike a bunch of times [laughs]. It didn’t work. But I had the idea.

I think there’s always been a real interest in cooking, it comes naturally, and I really like making people happy, and I’ll bend over backwards for vegetarians and vegans, anybody with dietary issues––because that’s what I’m trying to do is make people happy. I’m not making this dish for myself. It’s not for myself, it’s for other people, and I’m hoping to leave them with a memorable experience.

Chef David Sellers of the Street Food Institute: I really started cooking after I cooked my way through every page of all three of the Chez Panisse Café Cookbooks. That is what lit my fire, and from that point on, I started cooking more and more seriously. To me, the basis for my cooking became this existential awareness––the authenticity of the craft.

If you don’t love cooking, you can’t do it in a professional manner. You have to be able to live it. During the time I had my restaurant, I lived the restaurant. It was literally part of my being, I lived it 24/7. That’s what it was. That’s what my family’s life was. For the first three years, it was the most unbelievable thing I’d ever done. Because what happened was, there was nothing like that feeling––as the Chef, when you walk out from the kitchen into a full dining room and people are having such a good time and it’s vibrant energy that’s simply unexplainable. It was a soul-feeding moment.

Whatever it is you’re making, make it the best you possibly can. I’ve been a chef now for 25 years, and still every single time I make a dish, I try to make it better than I did the last time. The authenticity of craft has been there the entire time––even when I cook for the kids or that steak on the grill at home––that thought is always present. How perfect can I make this steak? How much better can it be? Every single time. That’s the idea that always drives me.

Chef Olive Tyrrell of The Kitchen: It’s simply to give pleasure. It’s my way of making the world a little bit better one meal at a time and leave the world a better place. That’s what we should be doing, and food to me is doing that. It’s imparting a little bit of happiness to somebody, even for an hour, and hopefully they’ll take that happiness out to the world.

A huge part of it for me is that I get to support local farmers. I get to be part of that whole game. There’s some young people who started farming last year, I buy their produce and that’s awesome, as well as growing our own food at the nursery. Every morning, I’m out there harvesting the freshness––people eat it and they’re jazzed about it. In my little restaurant, I get to be a part of that conversation, and that makes me really happy because it’s real.

 Private Chef and Writer Mark Oppenheimer: There were times in my life when I remember saying to myself, “I wish I were as fearless in life as I am in the kitchen.” I am an amateur. From the beginning, I made it all up, with no idea of what I was doing. I wandered there because the idea of cooking anything kept the memories of my grandmother close to my heart. I’ve never had a cooking lesson, unless you consider reading cookbooks, cooking magazines and inadvertently watching others. When I was 12, on a Boy Scout overnighter in the middle of winter, completely happy in a frozen landscape, while sitting alone on a log, I made fried chicken on an open fire for the troop. I figured I knew how after watching Mary Gaffney, our housekeeper, make it for my brothers and I: 1/2 Crisco, 1/2 bacon fat, flour, salt, pepper, garlic salt and a paper shaking bag was the basic recipe. I quickly learned that cooking pleased others––but it also taught me that at some basic level I would always be able to take good care of myself. Later, after college, I’d seek out local ethnic dives. I became good at reverse engineering any meal––I’d break down the components then try to imitate it at home. My friends continually tease me that every story I tell would not be complete unless it includes what meal I might have cooked. Few meals ever go by without my planning the next one.

Photo by Gabriella Marks

Photo by Gabriella Marks

Chef Cristian Pontiggia of El Nido: First of all, I like to eat. Second, it is a more complete form of art. In cooking you have everything. Think about [how] an artist makes a painting. You have the color, the paints, the frame, the picture in their mind. And with the food there are similar things: the plate is a frame, we don’t paint just with the color and the presentation, but we incorporate every sense––smell, taste, visualization, everything. The process is unique. Everything is on the plate; you can see it with your eyes, you can smell it, taste it. Sometimes, you can hear it, too. For me, it’s the most complete form of art ever. It satisfies my creative and artistic intentions, but in a more complex and amazing way. I can create something and destroy it right away by eating it. For me, it is pure poetry. You can buy a painting and everybody can see it forever. With the plate, we can recreate the same dish, but it’s never going to be exactly the same. It’s just for you.

Trattoria A Mano

Photo by Douglas Merriam

Photo by Douglas Merriam

(Story by Ashley M. Biggers / Photos by Douglas Merriam)
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once proclaimed, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” That quote­­—along with several others from fellow bon vivants—hangs in Trattoria A Mano’s entryway, setting the stage for a restaurant that seeks to capture the gaiety that arises over shared food and conversation, whether in a small Italian village or just off the Plaza in Santa Fe. Open since late 2017, the restaurant’s name captures its creed: handmade food executed by professionals who pride themselves on their cuisine’s authenticity.

That team includes Chef Charles Dale, executive director of the New Mexico Fine Dining restaurant group whose flagship is his restaurant, Bouche French Bistro. Along with partners Jim and Jennifer Day, the group has since opened two additional restaurants, Maize and Trattoria A Mano; the reopening of Bobcat Bite is slated for the spring of 2019 at the earliest, Chef Charles says.

Jennifer Day, an interior designer, created the restaurant’s ambiance, giving the intimate space (formerly home to Galisteo Bistro) a lived-in feel with wine bottles lassoed in the front window, rolling pins dangling over the open kitchen, and Tuscan-style ironwork—pulled from the Days’ own San Antonio home. Through the ironwork, Jennifer has hung pictures of Italian street scenes and film stars, as though to transport diners to that countryside.

Photo by Douglas Merriam

Photo by Douglas Merriam

Charles’s upbringing near that landscape inspires the menu. Born in Nice and raised in Monaco, his childhood meals had plenty of Italian influence. The chef’s taste memories lay the groundwork—and his taste buds execute veto power over a dish’s final iteration. The restaurant adheres closely to the canon of Italian recipes, departing only in a few dishes, such as the fettuccine carbonara, where—to Chef Charles’s taste—the traditional milk/egg sauce is deconstructed with a white wine and cream sauce, with a 63-degree egg served on top.

New Mexico Fine Dining’s Andrew MacLauchlan also helped refine the dishes. As NMFD’s culinary director, he shuffles between restaurants, ensuring each executes its vision. Currently, the pastry specialist is preparing the breads and desserts at A Mano. Chef Andrew has been in kitchens since he was 17, washing pots and helping with prep at a farm-to-table restaurant, “before that was a thing,” he says. Early on, he saw that, as pastry was treated as the kitchen’s stepchild, it was also his chance to climb the kitchen ladder if he could succeed in that realm.

He eschewed a classroom culinary education and opted to study on his own and learn from mentors like local-food maven Alice Waters, bread and Italian dessert master Chef Nancy Silverton, and Chicago restaurateur and Chef Charles Trotter, whose kitchen Andrew joined before he was the Charlie Trotter. In that high-pressure environment, Andrew was called upon to show up with passion and drive every day. Although he was the pastry chef, he helped at every station. His ability to switch focus served him as he moved to New Mexico to work with Mark Miller at Coyote Café and later as chef de cuisine for John Sedlar at Eloisa Restaurant.

Andrew’s familiarity with sweet and savory inform his pastry philosophy. “Sugar is not the defining flavor. There should be acidity, sweetness and a little salt. It’s not just about indulgence,” he says. “There should be integrity to what the dish wants to be. You should be able to eat the whole thing and still want another bite.”

Make no mistake though; the desserts at A Mano are indeed indulgent. The chefs called up the all-stars of Italian desserts for the menu, which includes a tiramisu and a ricotta cheesecake. In another dessert, almond panna cotta is stacked upon a bed of chocolate cake and amaretto cookie crumbles. A standard opera cake gets a dash of drama with tableside presentation. The dessert starts with a simple slice of hazelnut/chocolate mousse with a few bits of crunchy hazelnut lending texture. A chocolate dome, reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon, lies over top. At the table, the server pours warm chocolate sauce to slice the dome in half and reveal the rich cake below.

Chef Andrew says, “We’ve had tunnel vision and adhered to solid, classical Italian cooking.” That stands true to for the dinner menu, too.

Chef Steven Haskell is behind the stove every day. Hailing from the East Coast, Steve grew up in a mill town just outside Portland, Maine, and was introduced to the culinary world assisting a chef in preparing lavish meals for a small corporate guesthouse. She soon taught Steve not to hold too tightly to recipes—the availability of ingredients or guests’ tastes might change on a daily basis. Rather, he should feel the food.

Steve carried the lesson with him through his time at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, and Italian and Mediterranean-style restaurant kitchens for the past 30 years. He has a particular knack for handmade pasta, the mastery of which calls for feeling rather than following a prescribed path. Following his girlfriend, a traveling nurse, to New Mexico in 2016, he found himself in the kitchens at Bouche and, with his delicate touch for fresh pasta, at the helm of Trattoria A Mano.

Photo by Douglas Merriam

Photo by Douglas Merriam

No matter whom you ask, the restaurant’s aim is to have authentic Italian cuisine. “Authentic” is a term that’s bandied about enough it can become deprived of its meaning. Here, though, authenticity is practiced, as—befitting the restaurant’s name—Steve makes the pasta himself, every day. He has an “obsession over the entire process,” he says. While he says some chefs skip soaking the meat for the Bolognese sauce, he ensures it rests in the liquid for a day before its tenderized. The spaghetti Bolognese with beef and veal ragu has become one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, with a thicker-than-usual noodle that holds up to the sauce’s meat-forward flavors. In another pasta dish—the fusilli with artichokes—porcini mushrooms lend the dish earthy flavors that balance the acidic brightness of white truffle oil, leek and the bite of gran cru pecorino. Both are hearty, comfort dishes you could eat every day of the week and never tire of.

Although most dishes are rendered traditionally, the Maine-native couldn’t resist giving the calamari fritti his region’s twist, tossing it in pepperoncini and arugula. He serves it fresh-from-the-fryer with a swirl of spicy lemon aioli around the edge of the plate so diners can drag a crackling bite through the sauce.

While Steve hopes the restaurant is already “respected by anyone who likes good food,” there’s more the chef would like to do, like serving handmade biscotti alongside cappuccinos. As summer heats up, the menu will lighten to feature more preserved meats and fish as they transition from primarily Northern Italian cuisine to that of the southern and coastal regions. The bread basket, which is currently filled with ciabatta and herbaceous bread sticks, will overflow with focaccia instead.

As diners break bread and the wine flows in the Trattoria, the open-kitchen allows Andrew and Steven to be part of the magic of life—and, of course, well-crafted pasta.

 Trattoria A Mano is located at 227 Galisteo St. in Santa Fe, 505.982.3700; trattoriaamano.com.

Ah, An After Dinner Drink

cognacbackweb(Story by Caitlin Richards)
romance: noun
a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.

Step aside, hipster cocktails; take the empty wine bottles away, it’s time to make space on the table for an after dinner drink (or digestif). Why? you ask?  Because there is nothing more enjoyable, more romantic, more of a remoteness from everyday life, than extending the intimacy. In these times of fast food, meals on the fly with electronics in hand (remember in the 1970s when Amy Carter made headlines for bringing a book to the dinner table?), and skipping mealtime altogether, sometimes, we need a reminder to slow down, to stop and smell the cognac. To allow ourselves to linger.

The digestif was created to be taken at the end of a hearty meal in order to aid digestion. To simply look at it that way, one might just take an Alka-Seltzer and call it a night, but where is the romance in that? Just as there’s a language to flowers, there’s a language to dining. Everything from where you dine to what you wear to dine sets a mood. So when you’ve had the perfect meal, the table set with linen, flowers and candles, Louis Armstrong in the background singing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and the evening is drawing to a close, (Too soon, too soon!) what do you do? This is the time to look into someone’s eyes and suggest an after dinner drink, and to have that suggestion means, “I am here with you now, and there is nowhere I’d rather be.” And to accept that offer is to say, “Nor am I ready for this night to end. Let us linger on.”

But as everything romantic is at once simple and impossibly hard, so, for the novice, is this choice. What do I choose? Bitters and herbals are traditionally known for their ability to aid in digestion (bitters is often called “the bartender’s Alka-Seltzer”). Our ancestors used to eat bark and bitter herbs as a regular part of their diet. Later, the herbs were made into a liquid and put in a bottle, and were known as restorative tonics; now, they are gaining popularity as something to sip rather than an ingredient in a drink which is mixed to mask their bitter taste. On the other hand, dessert wines are often thought of as too sweet, and people can shy away from pairing them with a sweet dessert thinking it might be too much. (Not so.) Then, of course, there is Cognac, steeped in romanticism, bringing to mind Downton Abbey with women draped in pearls, men in dinner suits, secret liaisons all around and evenings that lasted late into the night.Camus_XOweb

Time for a few suggestions from some experts. Mark Spradling and Karen Easton of Kokoman Fine Wines tell us they have a huge amount of digestifs to offer, many unusual and hard to find. A few of their favorites are Jan Becher Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur, with its own romantic story that includes princes and pirates; Sibona Amaro, Amaro is Italian for bitter—though there are similar products made throughout Europe, only those from Italy can be called Amaros; and a Mexican herbal liqueur, Fernet-Vallet created by Henri Vallet who emigrated to Mexico from France. They like Gaston Rivière Pineau des Charentes as a dessert wine, “not too sweet, it has some tart as well!” And they suggest Nocello, a walnut liqueur, which the better-known Frangelico aspires to be. For Cognac, Mark says Camus Borderies XO is “absolutely incredible, why drink any of the others after trying this.” (It’s $175.00 a bottle, that’s why.)  They also make a VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and VS (Very Special) at a lower price. (The other Cognacs and digestifs mentioned are in the $25 to $40 range.)

Jasper Jackson-Gleich and Aline Brandauer of Susan’s Fine Wines and Spirits also had some suggestions: Green Chartreuse, which is “syrupy and herby” (and made by monks, who seem to know their alcohol); Amaro Montenegro, which Jasper describes as a “beginner’s approach” to Amaro.  Fernet Branca from Italy; and Noble Dame Calvados (France). Calvados is an apple brandy that can trace its roots back to Charlemagne in the 8th century. Their Cognac pick is Delamain, which Aline describes as “light and refined’” ($117.99) Delemain is one of the oldest Cognac producers.

Back to our evening around the table (it doesn’t have to be a table for two): Louis Armstrong is singing “Cheek to Cheek” in the background, the candles are getting shorter, the dinner plates are gone, the wine is empty, it’s getting late but we don’t notice because the company is good, the conversation is flowing, the evening is not ready to be over, yet it doesn’t feel right to open another bottle of wine. Or let’s imagine ourselves dining al fresco in Tuscany on a warm summer night, or at a tapas bar in Madrid. Or in fancy dress at Downton Abbey. Our phones are put away because the only people we want to share our evening with are at the table with us, and everything else can wait for the moment. Or let’s go further back, to our ancestors who have just discovered fire, to the first man who handed a piece of bark and some herbs to his dining companion. Let’s embrace the feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life, because that is romance. Let’s linger. And back at the table for two, which one of us will look the other in the eye when the wine is gone and the plates are cleared, when what remains is the yearning to linger, and wonder, as did T.S. Eliot in his “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Jose Antonio Ponce

Jose Antonio Ponce Photo by Joy Godfrey

Jose Antonio Ponce
Photo by Joy Godfrey

(Story by Frances Madeson / Photos by Joy Godfrey)
Jose Antonio Ponce in partnership with his wife Kathleen has been producing the New Mexico Music Awards, now in their 30th year, since 2005. The awards are a way of recognizing excellence for recorded music, building community across musical genres and cooperation among recording studios. Jose Antonio, who plays the six-string and 12-string guitar as well as the acoustic bass, and who still aspires to compose that one hit song upon which to triumphantly retire and spread a little largesse to his family, met me at the New Mexico Jazz Workshop in Albuquerque for a delightful afternoon of conversation and an impromptu (at my urging) one-man hootenanny.

Frances Madeson: It is a mystery how a musician comes to play this instrument or that, how lyrics arrive in the form that they do with their specific messages and rhyming thoughts. How did you begin your love affair with the guitar and also, how did you find and come to trust the muse within?

Jose Antonio Ponce: Every musician I know became a musician to meet girls. A girl who wouldn’t give me the time of day on Monday but saw me in a club on a Friday, well suddenly she’d want to hang out with me. I started playing and writing when I was 13. I look back and cringe at my first attempts at poetry, so full of teenage angst.

Remember man that you are dust, Ive given to you all my trust[laughs].

My older brother taught me some chords—E, A, G and B—primarily because he wanted someone to accompany him. But when he went to the service, he took his guitars with him. So I saved my money picking alfalfa and stacking the bales, or picking watermelons on a farm down the road for 50 cents a day, until I had enough to go down to Mays Music where they had a guitar for $25. But by the time I got there, it was $40. The owner told me the $25 price was from a special sale last month. I didn’t want to cry in front of him so I ran out the door. He followed and asked me how much money I had. I emptied my pockets and showed him a little over $26. He said, “I’ll sell you the guitar.” I spent everything including my bus fare, and had to walk back 7 or 8 miles, but I had my first guitar.

And he threw in a Bob Dylan songbook!

Frances: That’s quite a trajectory—from backbreaking agricultural work to tending the diverse garden of New Mexico’s talented musicians. How did that come to be?

Jose Antonio: I was involved with the Music Awards as a volunteer from the very beginning. Eric Larson, its founder, was my producer and the producer for a lot of other people. He was a man who gave more than he took—money, technology, knowledge, experience. He helped me out a great deal.

Thirty years ago, the studios were exclusive. If you played for more than one, you’d get in trouble, you’d lose your job. He had the idea that the best way to collaborate would be to compete, to show off what each of the studios was doing and see who was best. He put it together, made it special and grew it into something people want to be a part of it.

To participate, musicians have to have recorded here in the state, in professional or home studios. For our awards program, you have to have some good product. For many, it’s a teachable moment—people will enter thinking they have a good product and then come back four or five years later and finally win because they figured out there’s more to recording than hanging a mic up.

Frances: Have you personally ever had a similar teachable moment?

Jose Antonio: Oh yeah! When I was 25 or 26 I sat in front of a producer, playing 10 songs for him. He’d stop me soon into each one and say—next one. Finally he said—these songs mean a lot to you, but they don’t mean anything to anyone else. He was right. Then for a time, I kept trying to write things I thought would sell. Finally, when I was 53, I became a good writer, a flood of stuff came out of me.

My wife thinks my best song is “These Are Not My Stars” [available to view on Vimeo]. It came from an encounter in one of the PTSD songwriting workshops we have with veterans. I was paired with a veteran who told me about his tour overseas. He said, “I can get past being 4,000 miles away from home, cold in the mountains or hot in the desert, the sand blowing, people shooting at me. But when I looked into the sky, it was tilted sideways.”

Photo by Joy Godfrey

Photo by Joy Godfrey

As a boy scout, astronomy was one of his main interests. He could always count on the stars being where they’re supposed to be. But in Afghanistan, they weren’t, and that made everything awful.

These are not my stars

this is not my sky

Im so far away

from you and I

Its turned upside down

all out of place

Its as if my whole world

has been erased

These are not my stars

Frances: Thank you, Jose Antonio. It’s an achingly beautiful song.

Jose Antonio: Thank you. But it’s not commercial. We don’t like depressing songs in pop music.

Frances: Take us from Afghanistan to the Albuquerque scene. What’s going on here—the good, the bad, and the…you know…

Jose Antonio: The bad and the ugly is that too many people are willing to play for free, and the rest of us go underpaid. If someone’s gonna play for $50, I can’t charge $300.

But the good is that it’s one of the most incredibly diverse scenes. We have standard stuff— country, pop, rock and jazz—but we also have instrumentalists, new age, world music, great Latin jazz and salsa scenes, a huge Americana scene.

Frances: Have you added awards in the dozen years you’ve been at the helm?

Jose Antonio: Yes, a singer/songwriter category, and we split the rock category further into indie and metal. When the awards started in 1987, there were 16 categories and 69 entrants; now there are 42 categories, and 600 entrants a year.

With the national awards like the Grammys or CMAs [Country Music Awards], it’s almost totally based on record sales and airplay, but none of that really happens here. We don’t know how many CDs a band has sold and we don’t want it to be a popularity contest. Judging is based on how well it’s recorded, if it’s performed well, a good composition, produced well with clarity of instruments and the vocals. After the preliminary local judging, we send the finalists out of state to artists, producers, managers and agents and engineers who have already made their mark and ask them to judge. It’s all done on a volunteer basis.

The $25 entry fees we collect help pay for the awards banquet, especially the sound production for the evening, which I often tell our performers may be the best sound you’ll ever have in your career—these are the people who do sound for Taylor Swift or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The fees also go toward paying our instructors for our workshops, like the PTSD songwriting workshop with vets. We also offer a scholarship—the Eric Larson Endowment—which is $1,000 in unrestricted money to a college junior or senior with a 3.0 average, majoring in music or recording. Eventually, we’d like to give a four-year scholarship.

Frances: Why have you devoted the bulk of your life to music?

Jose Antonio: Music is as important as anything else in life. The Sun City musicians helped end South African apartheid in 1985. We’ve had Band Aid, Farm Aid, We Are the World. Music heals, gives people hope. In almost every single instance when there’s something horrible going on, whether its 9/11 or natural disasters, when people start recovering you hear music. It’s resistance and hope and change, in fact all change comes with some sort of music attached to it. Where would the civil rights or AIDS movements have been without music?

Frances: What one change would you most like to effect?

Jose Antonio: Bring every soldier home. End war altogether, bring them all home and never send them out again. Instead, everyone should have a year abroad to learn that the rest of the world is just like us, but somehow more interesting.

Frances: After that lofty sentiment, I hate to be crass, but are musicians in New Mexico making it financially?

Jose Antonio: hONEyhoUSe is probably on their fifth CD, they tour pretty regularly, are extremely popular and regularly sell out their shows when they play New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.

Nosotros has been around for 23 years; they do very well, as does Son Como Son, the salsa band.

We have no statistics, but in general, very few are making a living as musicians. To make a living, you have to learn to say no, because if you play for free or for a reduced fee, then you’ve set your prices. You have to be diverse—compose for TV, movies, play corporate gigs that will pay for your recording sessions, copyright fees, equipment, your manager and taxes.

Frances: What do you say about musicians who play solely for their own pleasure?

Jose Antonio: That’s the best music of all. It’s the music that’s spirit, your connection to God and the universe.

Frances: Will there be music in heaven?

Jose Antonio: Yes, and it will be jazz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Live and on Stage at the Railyard

Elise and Eric Gent / Photo by Gabriella Marks

Elise and Eric Gent / Photo by Gabriella Marks

(Story by Lynn Cline / Photos by Gabriella Marks)
Stroll through the downtown Santa Fe Railyard and you’ll hear a joyful noise. It might be the sounds of dancers and drummers performing West African and Haitian music and dance. Or you might rather sense the silence drifting from a yoga or Qigong class. In any case, follow the sounds and you’ll be led right to the Railyard Performance Center, a longtime local gem and the heart of a vibrant performing arts community.

“The drums call people,” Elise Gent says, with a knowing smile. Her husband Eric Gent nods in agreement. And they both should know. For more than 20 years, as co-owners of the Railyard Performance Center, the Gents have not only curated the programming, they’ve actively participated themselves. Elise’s West African and Haitian dance class, drums and all, is arguably the city’s most popular dance class. And Eric’s played the drums in her class for years.

With classes devoted to international yoga styles, seminars such as “Heartmind Warrior” and “Mayan Wisdom,” and events like the Roots Rock Bellydance Showcase, this performing arts center is anything but ordinary. And that is only fitting for a city that embraces its moniker, The City Different.

The Railyard Performance Center also partners with Santa Fe groups and individuals, offering tickets and rental fees at a lower cost than other venues might charge. “It’s making the performing arts affordable, which I think is so huge,” Elise says. Local schools, for example, use the center for recitals, and the New Mexico Dance Coalition holds its choreographer’s showcase there. International Storydancer, performer and educator Zuleikha uses the center for her classes and as a practice space.

“I love dancing in the Railyard Performance Center,” Zuleikha says. “Elise and Eric have made such a beautiful space for movement. It is my Santa Fe ‘dance home’ and I have been dancing here for a long time. I love working on this floor. Floors are important for dancers, and Elise and Eric take such care with the space. I have done many performances and taught workshops, all in a safe and spacious feeling.”

railyardposter2webBut the Railyard Performance Center offers something beyond a rich blend of dance, drama and music. “I think the performing arts is part of our focus, but I think a really large part of our focus is supporting the local community in their daily practice,” Elise says. “As adults, if we haven’t done something as a child, we feel like we can’t do it. What we offer at the Railyard is the opportunity to try something new. There is no end goal. It’s the opportunity to be with other people and continue your practice, whether it’s yoga or dance. All the classes are open to anyone to try. It’s really the opportunity to find out what you want.”

Eric views the venue as a place where people can connect and let down their guards, too. “It’s more like participatory arts,” he says. “It’s not so much performing, but it’s more about practice and integration of movement and music. It’s a way for people to participate. I have always liked having a good time. I love having parties, and I like when people are having a good time in our space. I feel like people can be safe and express themselves. People can come there and cry and laugh. They create, they deconstruct. Whatever they need to do, I want them to be comfortable enough to do it.”

The center is “a very egalitarian thing,” he says. “I’ve always believed that the music and dance that we’ve done is just a metaphor for this larger structure for everyone. I think it’s a lot about giving people the opportunity to express themselves but in the context of a whole bunch of other people. A musician can practice their skills, but when they play with others, they have to be integrated with everyone else. And when that really happens, it’s amazing. I’ve experienced it many times when I’m playing, when enough of the people in the room are together in their intention and movement. It’s amazing. It’s a powerful thing.”

It’s not surprising to learn that it was music and dance that brought Eric and Elise together. The couple met in Santa Fe in 1983, after each had made their way here separately. Elise, who grew up in New York City and graduated from Bennington College in Vermont with a Bachelor of Arts in dance, drove her red Karmann Ghia halfway across the country, arriving in January on the heels of her best friend. “I had a degree in dance, so I knew there was no way I could afford to live in New York City, where I grew up,” she says.

Eric arrived that fall, inspired to make the move after seeing Mimbres pottery from southwest New Mexico while working as a studio assistant for a ceramic artist in upstate New York. “A friend of mine pointed out that the work that I was doing then was reminiscent of the work that these ancient Indian people were doing, with polychrome surfaces and geometric lines,” he says.

On New Year’s Day, Eric and Elise danced into each other’s lives, meeting at a party where guests played music and danced. Once the samba dance broke out, fate showed up, almost as if to ensure that Santa Fe’s music and dance scene would be vibrant.

In 1992, they rented space for their African dance and drumming class in a performing arts venue in the Gross, Kelly Warehouse. When the director stepped down and the venue became available, they took over as owners, hosting their inaugural event on Jan. 1, 1996, with a concert by popular local dance band, Mobius Trip. The Railyard Performance Center became known for all kinds of classes, but Elise’s class was a main draw. Dancers dressed themselves in colorful saris, pants and other traditional West African clothing, often sold by Africans who visited the class and even relocated to Santa Fe. Talk about performance art in action.

In 1999, the warehouse was sold, forcing the Gents to find a new home for their center. They didn’t have far to look. Just down the track, a building was available that they bought and renovated from top to bottom. A few years later, when the city contested their ownership of the building, the community came out in force to support their efforts to stay. “It was four years of painful mediation and there were days when we thought we were going to have to walk away because the city was going to take the building back because they owned it,” Elise says. But I began to understand that we could do it somewhere else. The energy of the people who teach and participate in the classes, that was what the Railyard was. It wasn’t the four walls.” Eric adds that ultimately, “We stayed and ended up with a 90-year-lease.”

railyardposterwebThe relocation only reinforced the center’s popularity with the community. Classes are often filled to the brim and some of the attendees include their grandchildren, whose parents grew up dancing and drumming in class with their parents. “Right now, one of my greatest joys is taking my granddaughters to see the dance performances at the Railyard,” Elise says. “They are mesmerized, whether it’s modern dance, belly dance or [a] children’s dance class. On Saturdays, my son Hountor is the lead drummer now. Four of our grandchildren are there and lots of other little kids are there and it’s contained chaos…I am the happiest person because I get to do what I love to do, and I’m supported to do it by the whole community.”

New Mexico Wild

Photo by Mark Allison

Photo by Mark Allison

(Story by Gail Snyder / Photos by Mark Allison and Stephen Lang)
The summer I was 11, my parents, my four brothers and I drove up the spine of California to Sequoia National Park for a week. Evidence of otherworldly giant trees was everywhere; even the air was palpably clean, crisp, redwood-scented. That week stands out for my brothers and me as an odd, magical reprieve from our usual bickering. We were still rowdy but it was a happy, calm and sated rowdiness. Keeping company with the Sequoias undeniably inspired in us this desire to be better, kinder. It would’ve seemed wrong somehow, offensive to the trees, to do otherwise. It turns out our experience wasn’t an anomaly; scientific studies confirm that being in the presence of trees improves our mental and physical health, in large part because the wood emits its essential oils into the air. Called “forest bathing,” it’s been added to Japan’s national health program, and it’s just one among an enormous array of gifts bestowed on us by wilderness.

Ironically, as appreciation for wilderness benefits has risen, the areas have become especially vulnerable. Mark Allison, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says, “We’re facing one of the most hostile environments for public lands” in recent memory. His organization is gearing up “to play a lot of defense.” Rather than getting depressed or helpless as we watch TV news, Mark says, don’t abandon hope; “get involved in something bigger than yourself!”

The original founders of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, as it is popularly referred to now, in response to threats, came from all over the state, says Mark, beginning in the ’70s, “especially from the labs, bringing a background of scientific training, as well as folks doing battle with the oil and gas companies and other organizations with deep pockets.” In 1997, New Mexico Wild formally established itself as the  statewide grassroots voice for our wildlands, kicking off what became their first victory in the mid-2000s: the protection of the Ojito Wilderness Area, in a collaborative effort with Zia Pueblo, New Mexico Governor Bruce King and other statewide elected government officials. Their bill was unanimously passed through both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; George W. Bush signed the Ojito Wilderness Act into law in 2005. It was an impressive debut.

Bernard Tibbetts, Mark Allison, and Zack Bumgarner / Photo by Stephen Lang

Bernard Tibbetts, Mark Allison, and Zack Bumgarner / Photo by Stephen Lang

In the 21 years since it formed, the nonprofit has never stopped working for New Mexico’s wildlands, helping to establish the Sabinoso Wilderness Act in 2008; the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009; followed by the establishment of our two recent National Monuments, the Rio Grande del Norte in 2013, and the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks in 2014, both monuments designated by Obama. Just last June, in tandem with Wild Earth Guardians, New Mexico Wild won their case in federal court challenging the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy stating anyone killing animals on the Endangered Species Act list were only prosecuted if it were proven that the killer knew the exact biological identity of the species harmed.  (DOJ has appealed this case.)

With offices spanning the state, New Mexico Wild is connected to the pulse of our diverse population, including ranchers, sports enthusiasts, land grant heirs, acequia communities, tribal and religious leaders, scientists, elementary school students, youth and community leaders. “We are the largest, independent, homegrown, grassroots advocacy organization focused exclusively on land conservation and wilderness in New Mexico,” Mark says. Bringing so many disparate people together “couldn’t be done but for groups like us.” With the issue of public lands becoming more and more politicized, he says, the current atmosphere is one of high polarization. “But communities are so often ahead of our elected leaders—most people care about our public lands.”

Passing legislation is the main part of New Mexico Wild’s job. “And in order to do that, we have to listen, persuade and find common ground. All the richness of New Mexico’s people—we want everyone at the table. We’re the organizers, the mediators in all and any difficult conversations, including opposition. We want people to feel heard. Sure, we have setbacks all the time! We have to take the long view. We don’t quit, we just keep coming back! If it takes 10 years, it takes 10 years.” Also, “it makes our job much easier having such champions as [Sen. Tom] Udall and [Sen. Martin] Heinrich in our corner. We’re very fortunate in that respect.” And, he acknowledges, “we’re standing on the shoulders of significant tribal leaders. To have them out front, it’s very moving, an honor to be working at their sides.” Last year, at  All Pueblo Council of Governor’s Meeting  of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos, the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation joined in for the first time; New Mexico Wild was also there. The driving force behind this historic summit was the need to protect the greater Chaco Canyon area from effects of fracking by gas and oil corporations and the attendant health problems of Native communities close by. “It was very humbling,” Mark says, “to be a part of that discussion.” Everything New Mexico Wild does is with partners.

Photo by Mark Allison

Photo by Mark Allison

Also last year, partnering with the Wilderness Land Trust, New Mexico Wild helped unlock public access to the landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness Area. The Land Trust bought adjacent property, offering to donate it to the Bureau of Land Management; last November, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited the area, and accepted the gift. New Mexico Wild contributed nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer fieldwork to the effort.

One of the most gratifying—and fun—parts of New Mexico Wild’s efforts is bringing people together and helping them discover that, although their reasons for valuing public lands may differ, they all share a passion to save it from being destroyed. Encouraging kids to come into the wilderness—“That’s the best!” Mark says. He describes groups of elementary school kids visiting for the first time. “You ask, ‘Do you know who owns all this?’ They shake their heads. ‘You do!” we tell them. And they start to really get it—‘This is my heritage! This is my birthright!’” New Mexico Wild staff members take high school groups, often paired with BLM or Forest Service agency staff, on wilderness field trips.  They recently brought retired combat vets, working on fire crews with the  Southwest Conservation Corps, together with students to share time together, hike, and help clear brush. “Ultimately, this is how we cultivate the next generations of wilderness stewards.” And it works. A New Mexico Wild member, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Brett Myrick, hiked through the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument with Secretary Zinke, himself an avid outdoorsman and former military leader, during the Secretary’s visit here in August. To further drive the point home about where he and 37 other active and retired Navy SEALS stand on Zinke’s decision to remove protections for national monuments, Brett gave Sec. Zinke a letter, signed by all, reminding him the military has a strong culture of natural resources stewardship and that public lands get military families out into wilderness, an invaluable healing experience for combat vets.

As we head into 2018, New Mexico Wild’s agenda is full, and includes legislation in the Senate to designate the Gila River as a Wild and Scenic River. One of  the biggest challenge just came to light: to combat a proposal that would seriously jeopardize all of their work in the greater Gila Wilderness area. Holloman Air Force Base plans to begin conducting military training exercises on a scale that would make “the entire Gila National Forest look and sound like a war zone.” These approximately 30 overflights a day, will be low altitude jets “screaming only 500 feet above the National Forest and 2,000 feet above Wilderness, while dropping 30,000 magnesium flares and ‘defensive chaff’ a year.” The U.S. Air Force is obligated to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act’s process requiring public involvement, but “had it not been for a vigilant supporter bringing this to our attention, this preposterous plan might have gone unchallenged.” New Mexico Wild immediately wrote to Holloman AFB asking that the since-expired public scoping period be extended. They contacted partner organizations and businesses affected, securing endorsements from dozens of groups. “We also reached out to other groups that are typically hostile to our efforts. We think there is common cause on this issue.” New Mexico Wild is demanding answers to disturbing questions associated with this proposal. “I’ve never seen a community so outraged,” Mark says. “They’re rising up, letting their voices be heard. People feel desperate, like they can’t make a difference, they’re powerless, but that’s just not true. When we stand together, we have all the power in the world.”

The Gila is America’s first designated wilderness area. Mark says, “There’s no guarantee we’ll be successful, but if we don’t try, the guarantee is that we won’t be. If we do the job right, we’ll scare them off and they’ll go somewhere else.” New Mexico Wild submitted technical scoping comments, demanded that the Air Force hold public meetings in Silver City; organized a community rally and encouraged individual citizens to sign petitions, and write letters to our senators, letters to the editor, and opinion pieces.

“The 1964 Wilderness Act is the gold standard for our public lands, keeping them free from development, roads and mechanized activities,” Mark says. “It’s a place where people can get away from industry’s sights, smells and sounds, a space of solace. You can snowshoe, hike, backpack there; you can still practice traditional uses like hunting and fishing. People do sacred ceremonies, collect herbs or traditional plants.” He pauses. “And, above all, wilderness is important as an idea. Even if you never go there. We need places that are untrammeled by humans, that exist in their natural state, for wildlife, for water. The wilderness is a spiritual place. I think, for me, at its most basic, it’s where we came from. It reconnects us. When we go out and stand around a fire, we’re back to the times before cell phones, cars, jets. It’s profound to allow that space and quiet, that dark sky affect us, bring us clarity.”

New Mexico Wild will never give up this mission of protection. “Legislation protects places in perpetuity, for our children and our grandchildren. It’s a pretty heady thing!” Mark laughs. In the Winter 2017 issue of New Mexico Wild!, Mark writes of 2018 being the time in which “the sleeping bear wakes.” He imagines in an editorial “what our world could look like 10 years from now.” What follows is a joyous list of victories, laced with humor, that we—New Mexico Wild and all of us who care about wilderness—will have accomplished by 2027. In his usual never-say-die fashion, he concludes, “You’ll no doubt recall that 2017 was a particularly tough year, but instead of despairing, we rolled up our sleeves and redoubled our efforts. And, while there were certainly setbacks and heartache these last 10 years, and many challenges remain, I couldn’t be prouder to have worked with you, shoulder to shoulder.”