Back Stage at Restaurant Martín

RestaurantMartin_DSC2255Restaurant dinner service is usually an elegantly organized chaos, as servers and chefs prepare multiple-course meals, adapt to last-minute additions to the party, and navigate diners’ ever-growing dietary restrictions. Jennifer and Martin Rios take this orchestration to the next level during the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, presenting four events, as well as maintaining their usual restaurant hours. During the five-day event, Martin will present a demo and tasting; they’ll host a luncheon with Rick Bayless; present a wine dinner; and participate in the Grand Tasting—serving nearly 4,000 plates of food between special events and normal operations. And the owners/operators pull all this together mostly through phone calls during their respective 15-minute drives home to Tesuque after closing the restaurant at 10 p.m.—on a good night.  

Martin has been a part of the Fiesta since the first year, 27 years ago, and he’s doubled down since opening Restaurant Martín with his wife/business partner Jennifer eight years ago. The Fiesta stalwarts see the event as a way to introduce new customers to the restaurant and connect with devotees who attend their wine dinners annually. For Martin, it’s a chance to experiment—a bold move, since he’s doing so with the palates of hundreds of discerning customers—and learn from the other notable chefs who pass through his kitchen. “We like to create something different than the ordinary,” he says. “When it comes to the Wine & Chile dinners, we really do something special. I try new ideas and concepts. It’s a lot of fun for me because it takes me away from my everyday life.”

Jennifer confesses that the memories of one stressful Wine & Chile Fiesta fade before they find themselves committing to multiple events again, which they seem to do every year. “We’re type-A overachievers, or stupid, she laughs. “Pick one.”.

This year, Martin is welcoming friend Rick Bayless to his kitchen for a celebrity-chef luncheon. The two last saw each other at the after party of the James Beard Foundation awards, when Rick was celebrating an Outstanding Restaurant win and Martin marked yet another year as a finalist for Best Chef Southwest.

RestaurantMartin_DSC2353Martin is “traditional Mexican” only in the sense that he hails from Guadalajara, Jennifer jokes, and his progressive American cuisine doesn’t have much in common with Bayless’s. But Martin laughs, “We’re going to meet in the middle.”

Although it would make front-of-house planning easier for Jennifer if Martin prepared menus farther in advance, he waits until the first week of September to begin finalizing dishes for the wine dinner, cooking demo and Grand Tasting. He says he’s learned the hard way not to plan too far ahead. It’s led to last-minute scrambles to try to find in-season ingredients at the quantities he needs. He can better anticipate what’s fresh and best closer to the event.

It takes four to five days for him to prep a menu, but he tweaks up to the last minute—in some cases swapping ingredients just hours before guests arrive, all in the name of presenting a finely crafted dish. Jennifer doesn’t print menus until just before the event, allowing the chef to continue fine tuning as long as possible. “Because we’re married, there’s a little more room to lean on each other,” she says. But still, isn’t that nerve-wracking? “Oh yeah! It stresses me out for sure. … One of the best pieces I’ve gotten about parenting is only say no when you absolutely have to. It was something given to me in child rearing, but there’s some degree of husband rearing. If he tells me I have to reprint the menu an hour before, I have to consider that it’s already been placed on all the tables; I’m about to open the door; I don’t have extra staff. So I’ll say no. But if it’s two hours before, I’ll throw out that paper, pull a busser off filling water glasses, and we’ll do it,” she says.

By the time he begins planning the culinary side, the Thursday wine dinner drink menu has been long set; dishes are paired to it. Ticket prices RestaurantMartin_DSC2395are set even farther ahead, so when ordering the Caymus wine for the upcoming dinner, Jennifer backs in the prices they can pay for the 125 measured pours of each wine to decide what to order. She plans for a few extra bottles to allow for corked bottles and in the event a guest wants to pay for more of a newfound favorite vino. She also finds one special wine, either a library wine usually available only at the winery or a special vintage that’s been held back. Their guests don’t seem put off by having a blind date with the menu. “So many people book wine dinners with us because they know who we are and what we do,” she says.

Wedding planners have nothing on Jennifer as she sets the elaborate seating arrangements, uniting parties who’ve booked reservations separately and want to sit together, accommodating last-minute additions and cancelations, and knowing where vegetarian or gluten-free guests are placed.

RestaurantMartin_DSC2304Despite the extra work, Jennifer and Martin don’t generally hire extra staff. “To bring in people I don’t know, I’m just going to spend extra time to train that person,” Martin says. They find they do better with seasoned staff members who know the chef’s and Jennifer’s workflow intimately; however, they do cut their staff members’ days off from the usual two to one that week. It reflects how they run the business year round, opting for a tight, family-like environment where everyone just gives more when called upon.

This is especially true of Chef Martin himself, who stays until midnight after a busy Friday dinner service and is back in the kitchen by 4 a.m. on Saturday to prepare for the Grand Tasting. (On occasion, he’s slept over at restaurants to prepare for Wine & Chile Fiesta, though he hasn’t done that in a number of years.) With prep work complete, they pack bins and load up Martin’s truck and Jennifer’s SUV for the ride to the Santa Fe Opera. Chef and his assistants cook the 1,500 pieces on location, often contending with unexpected challenges like high winds, no electricity or missing equipment.

Although it may be tempting to prepare dishes more suited to onsite cooking or less complicated food, Martin’s not one to opt for the easy way. “I want to do something that represents who we are,” he says. With the Grand Tasting winding down by 3 p.m., while other chefs are relaxing and celebrating, Martin is zipping back to the restaurant for Saturday dinner service.

“It’s less scary than it was eight years ago,” Jennifer says of the whirlwind event. “We’ve both learned how the other side needs to work, both as a spouse and how the front runs and the back runs. I’m not going to say we never have clashes. We do. But we’ve gotten much better about leaving them at work, and taking a deep breath and seeing that the other’s point was valid.”
Before they leave the restaurant Sunday night, Jennifer, Martin and their staff make sure tables are back in place, the silverware is polished and the kitchen is spotless. The restaurant is closed on Monday, so the Rioses have the day off—unless something comes up.

Restaurant Martín, 526 Galisteo Ave. in Santa Fe, 505.820.0919,

Story by Ashley M. Biggers

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