Eating Words with John Sedlar

(Interview by Mark Oppenheimer/Photos by Ramsay de Give) 

In the Summer 1974, armed with the basics of French technique, which he learned at a café in Santa Fe, John Sedlar made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to undertake the rigors of learning the French kitchen by apprenticing to Chef Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage.

Eventually, John struck out on his own, opening Saint Estéphe in the South Beach area of Torrance, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Under-financed, failing and unaware of the culinary history unfolding all around him, the young chef explored an idea that not only saved his restaurant, but deemed him forever the creator of Modern Southwest Cuisine, thrusting him out of obscurity and into the burgeoning limelight of the Los Angeles restaurant landscape. This new concept was the natural ‘fusing’ of Southwest ingredients with traditional French cooking techniques, and it was received to great acclaim.

John Sedlar is a restaurant provocateur, a Renaissance man, a food visionary, a chef who unknowingly became an essential, vital part of restaurant history and food lore; he was among the first of those who later came to be known as celebrity chefs.

Four decades later, in 2015, fascinated by what is still left to learn, unafraid to fail and unwilling to copy himself, John opened Eliosa in Santa Fe, where he continues interpreting and fusing cuisines in a way only he can. Humbled by time and experience, with an infectious curiosity, John’s quest to unravel a food’s essence and serve his customers the mystery of flavors and tastes is our good fortune.

Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?

Chef John Sedlar: I have a very symbiotic relationship with my customers. My customers, as they like to say, are well fed. I’m not talking about quantity, but rather, people who are very interested in food; they’re constantly traveling the world, they’re very knowledgeable. We have a relationship where I challenge them and they challenge me—and they want to be challenged, as well as I want to be challenged.

I’ve gone to the Middle East to research ingredients and techniques and traditional foods to understand a food’s journey from there to the Santa Fe kitchen, as well as including holy foods and sacred foods found in the Holy City. Food can be very political, and there’s very powerful meaning in those foods that we’re eating. They mean a lot to people, to chefs, and they really pull people together.

Mark: You have a natural feel for the spectacle of presentation, the theatrics and the story of a meal, immersing the customer in a total experience in which you excite all five senses—sound, smell, taste, sight, touch—as well as emotions.

John: Being trained in a French kitchen, there is an immersion into everything seasonal, engaging all the senses, as well as the visual sense of what the plate is, what food vessel the food is served from, and a dramatic flourish of unique ingredients. Aromas are very important. One of my favorite meals these days is “The Essence of the Southwest,” which is a menu inspired by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and it’s designed to engage all the senses. The menu comes to the table, it’s a tasting menu, and has to be ordered by the entire table. The menu is 24-30-inches across and it opens up with vistas of Ms. O’Keeffe’s summer home in Abiquiu, and her winter home at the Ghost Ranch. It has vistas of her garden, and what she was growing there. The first page you open up is a huge picture of Ms. O’Keeffe’s eyes. Georgia O’Keeffe is considered to be one of America’s greatest women artists. The menu reflects how she saw food and the prism that she viewed and appreciated the canvas of a plate—in a very similar way to the way she saw a canvas when she would paint the desert strewn with bones of the Southwest.

The first course that comes is an aromatics course, foods that you only smell. A plate of various herbs and fruits arrive at the table that you can smell and pass around to each other. The idea is, being in Santa Fe, at the restaurant Eloisa, we transport the guests to Abiquiu. We ask, what’s the chamisa? What’s the sage? Where are the chiles from up there when they’re roasted? What does the piñon smell like when it’s toasted? So we pass these aromatics to all the guests and show them pictures of the Abiquiu region where Miss O’Keeffe lived and had her garden. So, there’s an actual picture, an engagement; it’s hard to describe, but it’s a very contemporary and modern garnishment for modern cooking. 

Mark: When I consider your life’s work as a chef and restaurateur, I think of you as not only a chef exploring and mining the world’s tastes and flavors, but as an anthropologist seeking to uncover the mysteries of a civilization by investigating its ingredients, cooking methods, presentation and growing practices, all the while preserving the rich culinary histories of cultures.

John: There are many civilizations represented in the Santa Fe kitchen—influences from many civilizations. During my recent trip to the Middle East, I was exploring some of the basic ingredients like figs, dates, pomegranates and spices like cumino and pimenton that have made their way across North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula and across the Atlantic to New Mexico into the Santa Fe kitchen.

The culinary roots of the ingredients of the Santa Fe kitchen lexicon really go much further back than we originally realized. Originally, we thought they only went as far back as Portugal and Spain, maybe even Morocco, Marrakech and North Africa, but in fact, they go back much further and are much older than we originally realized. My experience with cuisine around the world has inspired me to think about the way that food exerts a powerful effect on people, from the basic to the artistic and sublime. Looking at the way different cultures experience food is a profound examination of the human condition. To share food with people is to become acquainted with one another on a deeper level. We are beginning to realize that gastronomy is a cultural force, and an artistic force as well.

Mark: It’s been said that mathematicians and scientists do their best work in their 20s and 30s. In 1995, you were the youngest chef to ever receive the Silver Spoon Award from Food Arts magazine. Is there a similar window when a chef is at the height of their powers?

John: That’s a good question. I had extremely good success as a young chef. But now that my role is changing—I’m not a line cook anymore—I’m very very fortunate that I get to cook when I want to. I think that I’m at the zenith of my creative expression because of the knowledge that I have. The older I get, the more I understand that knowledge is layers upon layers of flavors, history, textures, color, and it’s just more fun than ever to cook and create menus. It’s quite fascinating because I understood the building blocks of the Santa Fe kitchen. With age, it’s all actually gotten better.

Mark: Fifteen years ago, you had the courage to walk away from your restaurants, and the bravery to return 15 years later. What was that experience like?

John: It’s not so much that I changed, but that the world changed. Kitchens change, and leaving the kitchen for 15 years and then coming back, the market is greatly enhanced, the people are eating very differently, and the community is always changing—and the pageantry of the dining table, the tablescape, it was very different, very stimulating and new. I challenge my customers and my customers challenge me. There’s various ways to eat that are new and stimulating. The world changes so fast that, in a blink of an eye, things are brand new.

Mark: What does the relationship between a chef and farmer look like to you? How does the chef inform the farmer and the farmer inform the chef?

John: That’s a very fundamental relationship that requires each to actually talk together on a regular basis. It’s wonderful when something is planted, grown and harvested especially for you. Animal husbandry and nose-to-tail programs are very specific now. One of the biggest problems is that as a restaurant chef buying produce, many times, there isn’t enough. You have enough for 10 or 20 specials, but when it’s something that you can put on your menu three months out of the year as it comes into season, you put it on your menu, it peaks in flavor, and as it wanes, you choose something else that is coming into season. Potentially, there’s a lot of constructive dialogue and communication that can happen between farmer and chef that will continue to inspire one another.

Mark: Does the farm-to-table philosophy or approach to cooking make sense to you—especially in a place like Santa Fe, which has a short growing season?

John: It’s a complicated question and a complicated answer. Farm-to-table speaks metaphorically as to whether it’s the freshest fish—is your meat aged, and humanely butchered? Are you near sustainable farms or does it take a lot of resources like petroleum to get the farm-fresh vegetables to you? It’s a very good concept and there is nothing that compares with locally grown, certified organic, sustainable, fresh produce. In that context, it’s the most delicious you can eat. Local and sustainable is ideal. But now, for better or worse, it’s a global market, you can buy things in any season from some place in the world, and it’s available. Does it burn a lot of environmental calories in order to ship it? Yes, it does. You have to weigh the benefits against the environmental and quality downsides.

One of the problems chefs have today is that there are too many ingredients available, too many premium ingredients that are peak flavor of the season and peak ripeness. It’s a global market, and we have many choices of such wonderful, deep-flavored ingredients.

Mark: What do you think of the workshop at the International Association of Culinary Professionals on Instagram food photography?

John: I think it’s fantastic. I’m actually hosting a social-media photography workshop in the Eloisa kitchen with local photographer Gabriella Marks. As a chef, I think it’s fantastic [that] people [are] shooting photos of food, every single thing they eat. Sometimes, the food is so interesting and is so good that they think that everybody else needs to know about it. I know that in Los Angeles, Twitter and social media have been a huge, important factor in the success of many restaurants. From a restaurateur-chef standpoint, it’s a lot of fun. And I’m glad IACP is teaching this. They have their pulse on communication.

Mark: Your food has a musical quality, tone, texture, high and low notes. Many chefs simply print up dishes on a menu, but you don’t. Do you compose your meals with an accompanied soundtrack?

John: I think less in terms of dishes, even though the dishes can be considered notes and the tone and tempo that support the orchestra. I think in terms of cuisines. I think in terms of cuisines and regionality. People right now are more than ever interested in the story of a meal than really in an ingredient-by-ingredient analysis. They love the support and relationship of each ingredient to the big story. It’s really the cuisines, these tectonic stories that ask, “What was going on on that continent? Where did it come from? How did it get there, and where did it go?”

Mark: In your blending of traditional French technique with Southwestern ingredients, what do you think you came to understand about each individual cuisine that you wouldn’t have if you’d only given your attention to each one separately?

John: For the European kitchen, flavor is so important, whether it’s from combining many ingredients or if it’s from a single ingredient. New Mexican food is very intense, especially the red and the green chile. To focus and isolate all the great characteristics of this food without diminishing the color, flavor, spiciness, it took the French discipline to do that. The discipline of the two cuisines together and the vibrant bright flavors of Southwest food is a wonderful exercise to go through to understand that. But I think as I named that book and coined those words in the early ’80s, Modern Southwest Cuisine, I now think there’s a new Santa Fe cuisine, it’s a different Santa Fe cuisine than Modern Southwest would be. And it has to do with global influences. It’s very technical, complex and very delicious, really leaning on the high notes of the Santa Fe foundations ingredients. It’s international; it’s on a different solar system.

Mark: How has globalism changed menus around the world?

John: Chefs are first responders to different eating styles and to different and new ingredients. They definitely impact the global market. Part of my goal is as I monitor global, local and regional food trends is I see it’s all in flux and moving very fast. A few years ago, I went to Paris to touch base and check in with the French kitchen. I went to most of the Michelin-starred and the leading gastronomic restaurants. I did some research and exploration, looking into what have the French done in the last 20 years. Where have they come to? I ate and ate and ate, and I realized they haven’t gone anywhere.[laughs]. There’s been more advancement in American kitchens than there have been in the French kitchens. The French developed an incredible foundation, yet their cuisine is fatigued. There’s some very interesting American chefs working in Paris, some of them [are] producing some of the most interesting foods. So that’s just one little region, a very important gastronomic region.

The South American [food scene] is exploding; it’s incredible what raw ingredients are coming out of Brazil. Peru is happening, too, from the ancient ingredients to what’s happening with ceviche. There’s so many layers, variations and kinds of ceviche.

Mark: What’s the most important quality in a chef?

John: I think the full focus of a restaurant is many things. But to a chef, flavor and taste is everything. I’ll answer it like this, as I happen to be in the midst of training the cooks: I’m training them in the foundations—good quality salt, white pepper, black pepper, pink pepper berries, green pepper corns. I train them to understand and know good seasonings—good cooking oil, good salad dressings, fundamental, basic foundations, and we cook at 7,000 feet. We cook very high style, very ambitious, very aggressive, hyper-creative. Sometimes, it’s all teetering on not working. Some of the dishes we make are created and they just don’t work and that’s OK. Then, it’s a matter of tasting everything as they’re cooking—when it’s the final ‘à la minute’—the pulling together of a dish when you have three sauté pans for one dish and you have to taste it, have your supply of spoons at the ready—you gotta give it love, cook slowly, stir it, taste it again, then again. One of my cooks de cuisine would tell his cooks, “Give it love, give it love.” It sounds kind of hokey, but it’s very, very true and it makes such a big difference in every dish that peaks flavor as it goes through the window to the customer. So for me, it’s really taste, making sure it’s balanced, delicious and fresh. You can taste history by eating history.

Mark: How would you like to be remembered? How do you consider your legacy?

John: New Mexico is my home. My family are from here; our family ranch is here, and I love the ingredients and the flavors of New Mexico. I was very lucky that in the ’80s and ’90s, I was literally invited around the world, to bring these foods with me so people could see and taste what Southwestern food really is. It’s a very grand cuisine and the chefs are being extremely creative here in the Rio Grande Valley, and I think that in that area [where] Native American food has come to the forefront very fast, as it’s at once both the oldest cuisine of the Americas and it’s going to be the newest interesting cuisine of the Americas. It will be both the oldest and the newest—and what the ingredients are, how they’re prepared, how they’re being interpreted, prepared and filtered through the eyes and hands of young men and women chefs, probably Native, in the kitchens and the pueblos of the Southwest—it’s going to be very exciting.

I’d like to be remembered for helping evolve Modern Southwest Cuisine.

Eloisa restaurant is at 228 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. 505.982.0883. eloisasantafe.com.

New Wow Factor at the Anasazi

(Story by Amy Morton / Photographs by Douglas Merriam)

“You ready for the ride?” Chef Peter O’Brien asks, introducing himself simply as Peter. “Because there won’t be any oxygen dropping down to help you!” he says gleefully, as my partner Kevin and I arrive for a lavish, multi-course tasting of some of his favorite spring dishes.

As the new executive chef at Santa Fe’s renowned Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, an award-winning, small luxury hotel just steps off the Plaza, Chef Peter has quickly established himself as the lively face of the refined yet relaxed 40-seat Anasazi Restaurant.

“It’s really all about having a good time, and making sure you feel so welcome here,” Peter says. “The service—and this is a chef talking here—is 80 percent of it. It’s about the experience and creating a connection and creating trust. When you’ve done that, you’ve gone to a whole new level.” Indeed, the chef’s ebullient personality, thoughtful food and relationship-oriented service philosophy have already made waves among guests, locals and staff since he came on board in December 2018.

“I’ve never worked with a chef that engages the tables like he does,” says Restaurant Supervisor Raymond Mendez, who has worked at Coyote Café, Geronimo and The Compound Restaurant, among others. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, he’s out here.” In addition to greeting and sending off diners, Chef Peter delivers dishes, checks in for feedback, chats up shy kids and their parents, takes photos with admiring fans, gives recommendations for other great places to eat in Santa Fe, and generally leaves a trail of laughter and smiles across the dining room, which is tastefully decorated with beige, gray and stone accents, and highlighted by the gorgeous viga-and-latilla ceilings found throughout the Inn.

Between visits to other tables––which the extroverted chef calls doses of “battery juice”­­­–Chef Peter brings an endless array of delights for us, starting with an amuse-bouche at the Inn’s signature “tequila table,” a large wooden high-top with eight bar seats that can be reserved for tequila and mezcal tastings. “We always have a little gift,” he says of the amuse-bouche, designed to be the first of many “wows” for guests. Tonight, it’s a plump, ever-so-lightly fried shrimp that gets polished with embarrassing speed. “We use togarashi, which is like Chinese five-spice with sesame and some chiles,” Peter explains. “Then we make a beer batter and just tempura the shrimp. And underneath it is our salsa verde, some pico de gallo and a little bit of microgreens from Santa Fe’s Urban Rebel Farms.”

Next up is a trio of house-made moles along with accompanying tequilas. Kevin and I exchange wide-eyed looks, as clearly we are going to need to pace ourselves. Between the sweet and earthy manchamantel mole, piquant mole verde, and dark and traditional mole negra, there are myriad complex flavors to dissect, but for me, the mole verde stands out, especially when washed down by the Inn’s own private-barrel, oak-aged tequila, the Código 1530 Añejo, with its remarkable smoothness and vanishing finish. “For the verde mole, we use all fresh chiles,” Chef Peter shares as we swish it around. “We use jalapeño, poblano and Hatch, and we stew those with onions, tomatillos, cilantro and lime. Then we finish it with white chocolate and almonds, giving it a little lushness.”

Behind us, guitarist Jesus Bas, who wears black from head to toe, including black shades, is now beginning the soft, acoustic Saturday night music. We move to a table with a full view of the restaurant’s striking wall murals, and Chef Peter jumps in to rotate the table, so that we “lovebirds” can sit together on the cushioned banco.

Having now affirmed Chef’s extraordinarily high standards, as well as his irrepressible humor, we pivot to a selection of starters with European influences and locally grown ingredients. “I’ve worked in French restaurants, Italian restaurants, at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, which is a Southwestern restaurant,” he says of his formative fine-dining experiences in Texas, where he worked for not one but two James Beard-winning chefs, the legendary Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles. “I use my background to create dishes that reflect the Southwest but use Old World techniques,” the Dallas native says. “We are a melting pot of goodness, so I take what I can get that looks great from here.”

One upstart New Mexico product that has Chef Peter particularly galvanized is a rather surprising one. Albuquerque-based Perle de Blanc, founded by wine industry veteran Lori Anne McBride, is now cultivating escargot­—the exact same species of snails prized in France. As a result, Chef Peter has introduced an escargot pasta starter to showcase this rare local ingredient. “The difference between fresh snails and canned snails is huge,” he says. “Normally, you just have them basting in garlic butter. But to honor the snail, we use just a pinch of fresh garlic, leeks, champignons, a little bit of cayenne––and pan fry it in butter tossed with our housemade tagliatelle.” Impressed, we take our first curious bites of the silky snails, which the chef has paired with a citrusy, medium-bodied 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Merry Edwards, the acclaimed female vintner in the Russian River area of Sonoma.

As for seasonal produce, the beet terrine starter is an eye-catching example, with its split-level layers of golden and red beets from Silver Leaf Farms in Corrales. Flavorful on its own, the terrine gets a boost from an unusual pistachio pesto and a satisfying arugula side salad dotted with Old Windmill Dairy’s “Virga blue” goat cheese, the closest thing to Humboldt Fog that you’ll find made in New Mexico. Yet perhaps the most comforting appetizer we try is the classic endive and frisee salad, with succulent pork belly, Old Windmill Dairy chèvre, local greens, and a warm aged sherry dressing made by deglazing the pan used to crisp up the pork belly. It’s a salad that demands a little bread to sop up the rich dressing, and fortunately, the Anasazi’s bread basket––filled with buttery Parker and onion rolls––is at hand.

“This is the most beautiful salad because it’s so simple,” Chef Peter says. Yet a lot of preparation goes into getting the pork belly––which comes from New Mexico-raised Duroc and Berkshire breeds that are sourced through La Montañita Co-op––so very perfect. “We cure it in a Cryovac bag, then we have a combi oven that cooks it with steam and convection,” he says. “We cook it with like 80-percent humidity in the bag at like 95 degrees––slowly, slowly, slowly––until it’s ready to fall apart. Then we dice it and get a real hot pan with extra virgin olive oil and fry it with a little salt and pepper.”

With two entrees and dessert still to go, Chef takes us on a seventh-inning stretch around the intimate, three-story Inn, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. We check out the library, a chic and inviting space for unwinding, as well as one of the 58 well-appointed guest rooms. Along the way, he regales us with stories about cooking for oil tycoons and country music stars, skiing for 63 days straight in Telluride (where he and his family lived for several years), and taking a midlife sabbatical last summer to figure out what he wanted to do next. As he and his wife Cara face becoming empty nesters––the younger of their two kids is about to graduate high school––Peter is starting to embrace the next chapter. “Quite honestly, I’m ready to tiny home it!” he says with a laugh.

After recent stints doing consulting and operations, it’s clear he’s also thrilled to be back in the kitchen, as well as out on the floor. “I feel completely rejuvenated,” he says. “I’m 52, and I’ve got this whole new energy. I’ve also got the most talented kitchen in the world. These guys are so much fun to work with. Things came together perfectly, and I couldn’t be more blessed.” Indeed, with an average tenure of 13 years, and a number of staff members at more than 20 years, the Inn of the Anasazi staff is extremely seasoned, which allows Chef Peter more time to interact with guests and brainstorm new ideas for “wows.” Recent additions include warm cookies dropped off with every lunch check (the white-chocolate green-chile cranberry is his favorite, but it changes daily) and helium-filled balloons that hold a floating basket of chocolate truffles for hotel guests who’ve booked the ballooning package. “It’s changed the whole dynamic of the place,” Peter says of his mission to double the number of “wows.”

Yet even when he’s developing memorable new experiences or hobnobbing, he’s still keeping tabs. Case in point: Chef Peter communicates nonstop with his team via text, email and WhatsApp to resolve service issues and share success stories. “You just can’t over-communicate,” he says. This three-platform approach to seamless service is something he also implemented at The Club at Las Campanas, Santa Fe’s exclusive private country club, where he was the director of food and beverage from 2013 to 2017. And it must have worked pretty well given that many of the nearly 400 Las Campanas members have followed the affable chef to his new establishment. Christmas Eve saw 46 members dine at the Inn, in fact. “They’re like, ‘The Anasazi is back on the map!’” Chef Peter says. “That’s important to me because you only have so much time to make your credibility.”

Back in the dining room, it’s time to “loosen those belts!” Chef Peter cracks. We dive into two entrees that are both a visual and gastronomic feast, thanks to a multitude of flavors, colors and textures. Even though winter is still rattling around, the chef says these dishes are his way of hinting at the promise of spring. The first is the Sea Bass Posole, a riot of pink and green hues enveloping a filet of sea bass from Santa Fe’s Above Sea Level, which sources it from the Sea of Cortez. “What we’ve done is a really rich green-chile shellfish broth,” Chef Peter says. “We’ve added shrimp to fatten it up, and then there’s pink posole. It’s heirloom, a beautiful pink, and it puffs right up. Then the sea bass is pan-fried and basted in olive oil, and on top, watermelon radish to garnish.” Both the pastel-pink posole and bright fuchsia radishes are sourced from Squash Blossom Local Food, a Santa Fe-based local food distributor.

Next is the Bison Short Rib, an architecturally dazzling dish centered around a massive cut of grass-fed, humanely raised buffalo from Santa Fe’s Beck & Bulow. “We have a Brussels sprout, kabocha squash and redskin potato hash underneath,” Chef Peter says. “All around, we have some cured tomatoes. We take rosemary, salt and pepper, and heirloom roma tomatoes, and we dehydrate them lightly, slightly. And on top, we have a pickled cucumber, onion and jicama salad, just to give it a cool crunch.” While unexpected, the fresh, tangy topping delivers a palate-pleasing burst of contrasting temperatures and textures. Adding to the copacetic situation, Raymond has reappeared with another fitting wine pairing: a ripe, jammy 2014 Malbec from the Mendel winery in Mendoza, Argentina.

It’s now a little after 9 p.m., and as the dining room begins to quiet down, Chef Peter, still at full wattage, sits down with us to enjoy a tequila espresso. He says the dishes we’ve tried will be on the menu through May, but he’ll be changing the menu at least five times a year. Currently, he’s getting excited about the products about to come in: New Mexico stone fruits, foraged bolete and chanterelle mushrooms from Colorado, and Perle de Blanc’s flagship product Caviar d’Escargot, or snail eggs, which resemble white pearls and have a neutral flavor. For the latter, he’s thinking of using this “over the top” caviar with blue corn blini or a chocolate cake. “We’re playing around with it,” he says.

Speaking of dessert, an enormous sampler tray arrives, and our eyes nearly pop out of our heads. Chef Peter insists we try a few accompanied by the Inn’s house champagne, the Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. “This is one of the most elegant champagnes,” he says of France’s longest-running family-owned champagne producer (established 1729), and it is indeed sublime. We can’t resist a flute as we begin digging into the decadent desserts, despite our fullness. Favorites for creative presentation include the Rice Pudding Tamale with caramelized bananas in a cornhusk “boat” and the Cheesecake Basilica, a rounded homage to Santa Fe’s iconic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi with a New Mexican wedding cookie crust and a shimmering crown of sugared cranberries set in crystallized sugar. “We tried to make it as Roman Catholic as we could!” Chef Peter jokes.

Sated, wowed and utterly pampered, we say goodbye to our exuberant new friend Chef Peter. Undoubtedly, like many diners before and after us, the question soon becomes: how long before we can get another hit of this infectious charmer and his spectacular food?

Anasazi Restaurant at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi is located at 113 Washington Ave. in Santa Fe, 505.988.3236, rosewoodhotels.com/en/inn-of-the-anasazi-santa-fe/dining/anasazi-restaurant.

Chefs of Chacaltianguis

Story by Lynn Cline/Photographs by Jane Phillips

Meet the chefs of Chacaltianguis, a group of talented and passionate hard workers who grew up together in a small Mexican town in southern Veracruz. Brothers, cousins, spouses and friends, these restaurant owners, managers, chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks and others have been serving delicious food to Santa Fe for more than two decades, using traditions and techniques they learned from their mothers and grandmothers.

Santa Fe has long been celebrated for its tri-cultural blend of Native Americans, Hispanos and Anglos, but these chefs from Chacaltianguis bring a unique richness to our cultural landscape, enhancing our culinary scene as well as our entire community. In America’s current political climate, it’s critical that we recognize just how much these chefs contribute to our community on a daily basis. They each set a higher work standard, and in most cases, have stayed with the same establishment for years. Some own restaurants and food trucks. Others are renowned chefs or manage some of the city’s finest restaurants. Many have donated their time and talent to charitable causes and are raising their families in Santa Fe, becoming an inextricable part of the fabric of life here.

We sat down with a dozen of these chefs from Chacaltianguis at a table at the Santa Fe School of Cooking to discover what drew this impressive group to Santa Fe and to learn about their traditional foods, how they’ve adapted these foods to Santa Fe’s cuisine, how they are changing lives in the city and much more. The very idea of an interview like this is at the heart of what Local Flavor does best, bringing community together to celebrate our stories. The stories shared by these chefs are inspiring, and we’re excited to share them with you. 

In the tropical climate of southern Mexico lies picturesque Chacaltianguis, surrounded by abundant rivers and streams. Seafood is plentiful but maize and beans are what the town mainly produces. The annual mango festival, held in mid-May, when mangos are in season, is the biggest event of the year. The town is even named for a food, as Chacaltianguis—a Nahuatl word of the Aztec language—means “Shrimp Market.” That’s because for centuries, this has been a popular place to catch shrimp and other fish, including the prized and flavorful bobo, which migrates only in the fall to spawn in the river’s headwaters.

“Chacaltianguis is on a path followed years and years ago by the Aztecs, who would come from Mexico City to capture slaves and bring them back to help build the pyramids,” explains Hugo Sena, who grew up in Chacaltianguis, came to Santa Fe in the 1990s, and now co-owns Tres Colores with his brother, Chef Arturo Sena. A third brother, Francisco, works in the kitchen.

At Tres Colores, the Senas serve the distinctive cuisine of southern Mexico, including the traditional ingredients and dishes of Chacaltianguis. “We work a lot with oregano in our marinade for our proteins, vegetables and soups, like posole,” Hugo says. “We also use guajillo chile in our sauces and soups. These are ingredients that our grandmothers used. Our mole is very popular. A lot of people come here just for our mole, made with 32 ingredients. It’s our grandmother’s mole.” And while bobo is not on the menu, you will find blue corn-crusted tilapia and a shrimp cocktail special, which more closely resembles what we think of as gazpacho. “We use blue corn because we don’t use a lot of flour,” Hugo says. “I didn’t know flour existed until I crossed the border.”

Chacaltianguis has a long and colorful history with food, one that is not forgotten by those who leave their hometown for a far-off place. Yet most of the chefs we spoke with had little or no experience in the kitchen before arriving in Santa Fe, though many of them quickly secured restaurant jobs and rapidly rose through the ranks. For these reasons, it’s easy to believe Chacaltianguis possesses a special ingredient that inspires culinary artistry.

For instance, when Noé Cano came to Santa Fe from Chacaltianguis more than 20 years ago, he was simply following in the footsteps of his cousin David Ramirez. “In the ’90s, when I moved here along with most of the guys who are here today, we learned to cook by doing it, and we were trying to make a better life,” Noé says. “We were learning a different culture.” After working at La Casa Sena and other restaurants, he joined the Santa Fe School of Cooking some 20 years ago. Today, he is the school’s chef de cuisine, overseeing food purchasing and prepping and assisting with classes. And when the Food Network came to Santa Fe to shoot an episode of Dinner Impossible on traditional New Mexico foods, Noé played a major role in the production.

Kiko Rodriguez—acclaimed executive chef at Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves—was 18 when he left Chacaltianguis for Santa Fe. “In my hometown, I didn’t even know how to cook an egg,” he says. “But I grew up around the cuisine of Chacaltianguis, and I watched my mom and grandmom, but never got involved. When I started cooking in a restaurant here, I had to call my mom to ask how she did this and did that. My sister, who got married and moved to Santa Fe, brought me here, and I ended up staying because I liked the town so much. It was different from our life in Mexico. There were better opportunities. You didn’t have to go to school to be a chef, you just had to have a love and passion for what you do.”

It’s not just love and passion that fuel these chefs in what they do. They also share an extraordinarily strong work ethic. “Mexicans are hard workers,” says Francisco Portuguez—who came to Santa Fe at age 13 and today, manages Sazon. Around the table, all heads nodded in agreement. And their reputation for hard work proceeds them. “When people come here from our hometown, they know there are other people from Chacaltianguis working in restaurants already,” says Kiko, who has worked at La Boca and at the Anasazi Restaurant with Martín Rios. “For us, getting a job in Santa Fe is about people referring you in work. It’s why 80 percent of our people are working in kitchens.”

The kitchen where Marco and Maria Isabel Peña work might be the smallest space that any of these Chacaltianguis chefs work in, for they are cooking in their food truck, Mi Lindo Chacaltianguis, serving authentic food from their hometown. “A lot of people think that food trucks are all about the same kind of food but when people go to our food truck, they enjoy our traditional cuisine,” Marco says. His wife, who goes by Isabel, chimes in:  “My cuisine is different than that in Santa Fe,” she says. “It’s traditional food from Veracruz, with tacos, burritos and seafood that you cannot find in any restaurants here, made with recipes from my mother and grandmother. Dishes like mole, langostines al mojo de ajo (prawns with garlic) and corn tamales that no one else is making here.”

Their Chacaltianguis colleagues appreciate having traditional foods from back home in Santa Fe. “Most people believe Mexican cuisine is tacos, enchiladas and tortas, but we have way more to offer than just those,” Kiko says. “Isabel is doing those kind of recipes. Her food is unique.”

While the cuisine of Chacaltianguis is beloved by those who’ve left their hometown, these chefs have, in turn,  fallen for authentic New Mexican cuisine. “I love the enchiladas,” says Raphael Prats, who works at the San Francisco Street Bar & Grill. “They’re spicy.” Fernando Muñoz, who works at the Anasazi Restaurant and Izanami, enjoys the variety of green chile sauces. And Arturo Sena savors the many different salsas. He was surprised by the flavors of New Mexico, red and green chile, when he first tasted them. Now, he incorporates them into the food at Tres Colores. “We make a roasted tomatillo and mix it with green chile,” Arturo says. “I think it elevates the flavor. And with the red chile, we can mix it with guajillo and roasted tomato to combine the cuisines of Chacaltianguis and New Mexico.”

Blending the two cuisines as well as learning new techniques have become part of the repertoire for these Chacaltianguis chefs. “In Mexico, we grew up with our family recipes,” Hugo says. “We have been taught for generations that this is the way Grandma makes things and that’s the way we are going to do it. But here, we have to mix what we know with new foods and techniques that other chefs show us.”

The Chacaltianguis influence on Santa Fe cuisine and culture might never have happened without the arrival of Noé’s cousin, David Ramirez. “David initiated that wave of bringing people to Santa Fe, and we started bringing our brothers and sisters and now there are 50 people or more from Veracruz in Santa Fe,” Hugo says. “There are some people here I haven’t met from our hometown…This interview is a great opportunity to show Santa Fe that we are the good men, we are the good hombres. We cross the border to come here, to work hard, to build a family and to have a better life. And like us, there are tons of people in this country who are doing the same thing. We pay our taxes, and we participate, and we are also donating our labor and our food and telling Santa Fe we are part of you.”

Noé, for instance, donates his time and skills to multiple causes, including the annual Tamales Fundraiser for the Mandela International Magnet School, in which tamales made at the Santa Fe School of Cooking are sold by parents to benefit the school. He’s also a Cooking with Kids Superchef, inspiring Santa Fe schoolchildren to eat well with healthy ingredients. “It’s something really enjoyable because to help the community is important,” he says. “I have kids and grandkids now, so I’m sure I’m going to be doing that more.”

Kiko says he’d love to introduce a new food festival celebrating Cinco de Mayo to Santa Fe. “It would be a big event like Wine & Chile,” he says. “We could create traditional dishes, sell them at the event to support the community and from that, we get to show the community who we are.”

If you haven’t yet met any of these chefs from Chacaltianguis, you’re in for a treat. It was a real privilege to sit down and get to know each of them during our interview. Getting a taste of their hometown and traditional cuisine inspired me to want to visit Chacaltianguis. And hearing about their deep appreciation for living and working in Santa Fe reminded me how grateful I am to live in this wonderful, multicultural city of ours.

What’s on Your Plate for 2019?

Plate_Kristina-Hayden-Bustamante_nocredit(Story by Mark Oppenheimer)

Here we are once again at year’s end. It’s the point when, if we choose to, we can (re)consider what we want to let go of, what didn’t work and how we want to invest our time and energy going forward into a hopeful yet uncertain future. Of course, the seasons change; what was once cold, dark and fallow will soon be warming with the budding of tender shoots fiercely pushing through the soil, meeting another new spring. We needn’t wait until a year’s end to assess our direction, yet, each year, as we stop and consider our successes and failures, we can ask: How have I changed? What interests me now? What matters? How can I make a difference? What can I do to contribute to our community to make it thrive? What’s needed of me?

What follows are the visions for the coming year and beyond of 11 renowned chefs, restaurateurs, and hoteliers from Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. What’s on your plate?

Mark Oppenheimer: Aside from food trends, what’s your food and/or beverage vision for the coming year? What do you want to see on your plate in 2019?

BigBuzzJohnRiveraSedlarheadshotJohn Sedlar, Chef/Owner of Eloisa at the Drury Hotel in Santa Fe

After having experienced all of the “Revolutions on the plate” in the last 30 years, I’m currently really interested in how younger chefs today approach the global ingredients available to them and how they reinvent presentations—usually layered in bowls and most of the time with ancient grains. I’m really looking at where much of the food that is coming into the Southwest kitchen originated. We all know it goes back to South and Central America, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa in the souks and spice markets. But it really goes much further back than that. I’m actually looking to possibly take an archeologist with me to go to the Middle East and help me look at the roots of the Southwestern kitchen.

Bowls are how younger people are eating these days, formality is really coming to a crushing halt as is anything that relates to formality, whether it’s linen or regular brown china plates. There’s a new dish shape I’m fascinated with—it’s called Race Track and it’s shaped like a race track, and it’s sort of like a platter-meets-a-plate kind of dish. I’m going to introduce it along with the bowls. It’s fun. It’s a different approach to ‘The Tablescape.’

Plate4Jennifer Kimball, Owner La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe

Dining should be an experience. People associate La Fonda with a feeling of comfort, warm memories and authenticity. We are truly a neighborhood restaurant and are frequented by many locals. Some might mistakenly, unknowingly consider our restaurant middle-of-the-road and not unique, just because it’s located in a hotel. We’re striving to change that misimpression about hotel restaurants with an emphasis on authenticity in our offerings and communicating that we have a proud and long history of serving great food.

We started experimenting with weekly specials that have been very successful. In particular, the game that we have featured does extremely well. We’re looking at adding more game to our menu—we’re in a region where elk and buffalo and venison thrive, and our guests are always looking for that regional fare. In our bar, you’ll see our beverages with more cutting-edge offerings that appeal to a younger crowd and a more experimental client…more unique mixology, and an upcycling of local ingredients in the cocktails.

Inspiration, action in the new year—more healthy options, more creative vegetable dishes, offering alternative meats (turkey sausage, veggie sausage). There’s also an emphasis at La Fonda on more plant-based foods, so it will be fun to explore those options that are unique to New Mexico.

Plate_Kristina-Hayden-Bustamante_nocreditKristina Hayden Bustamante, Wine Director at The Compound Restaurant in Santa Fe

It’s been a rough, really tense year for all of us. I want to see something on my plate that makes me happy, that makes me feel good. Whether it’s comfort food, which we have so much of here at The Compound, or when I want to go out and have a really nice meal, fine dining, great service, I just want food and wine that make me think, make me happy. I’m not particularly interested in food trends. I just want something I can share with other people. Not only do I want something great on my plate that’s just easy, I want to be surrounded by friends and family, and I want to share that.

As far as my vision for the restaurant, what I love about The Compound is that there have been standards on the menu for 18 years, things that I remember when I worked here in the early 2000s that haven’t changed. The food here is beautiful, it’s easy, comforting and seasonal. That’s what I want to see on my plate—just something that makes me happy, makes me think, dishes that inspire me to pair with wine, and something I can share with my friends and family.

Now, I’m with somebody who is a fantastic cook, so I’m eating really good home-cooking more than I’ve ever eaten in my life, and it’s just amazing. That’s what I want to see continue throughout the year—I want to have friends and family sit around my table and eat home cooking.

Plate2Josh Baum, Owner/Chef at The Ranch House in Santa Fe

When people come to The Ranch House, they want comfort food, and we’ve had to stay true to what people want here. It’s a restaurant that half the people already know what they want before they walk through the door. So the way that we can grow is always trying to improve our ingredients and the quality of what we serve. If we find something better than what we’re using, we bring that in. That’s our philosophy here.

We weren’t really looking to do another restaurant, but when the space opened up right across the street from us, we kinda felt that an Italian restaurant would work really well there. It will be affordable—with a full bar. The front end will be a gelato and espresso counter area like an Italian market and in the back part of the building will be a full-service restaurant. When you open a restaurant that is cuisine-specific, you really get to just dive in to it and learn things and grow your skills in that area. As a chef, that’s always so much fun—it re-invigorates you.

Plate3Joseph Wrede, Chef/Owner of Joseph’s of Santa Fe

The plate actually is becoming a big deal for me. This next year, I will have replaced all of the plates that we’re using that resemble hotel-style plates with ceramic fire-kiln-roasted plates. For me, that’s a symbol of trying to find one-offs that uniquely define the restaurant. It’s an example of how a potter throws your pots for your food that you believe to be unique and unusual.

So, that’s what the goal is for this year and next year. I think we’re making some progress, too, because soon enough, we’ll no longer have any mass-produced white hotel flatware. Because in mass production, you lose yourself, you lose authenticity, period. You are really sculpting a dinner for the anonymous diner and giving it your all.

 

 

Plate1

DeVere Jones, Executive Director of Food and Beverage at Tesuque Casino

I want to find love and tradition on my plate. I train my team to cook from their hearts. We put Grandma’s recipes on index cards, and that’s the recipe we use. Regardless of what’s on the menu, as long as it’s cooked with love and tradition, as if we’re cooking for our families at home, then the guest is going to come back. My team is not a group of recipe readers. If I don’t see them tasting or chewing when I come to the kitchen, that means they’re not trying the food. Therefore, we don’t know if it’s right.

In regards to failures and successes, of course we all learn from our failures, and kitchens are different these days—you can’t rule with an iron fist, you have to put in just as much love and attention into your team member as you are with the plate of food being served to a customer. I have this agreement with my team: Just say yes to the guest. So I try and do the same with our employees. The answer’s ‘yes’—what’s the question? So as long as I’m giving them love and attention, coaching, mentoring and their relationship to the food is the same, then service matches the food. The way I see it is, that it’s not just casino food, but a kitchen that happens to be inside a casino.

 

PlateTaos_ChefPatrick_DashHegemanPatrick Gharrity, Chef/Manager of 192 at The Blake in Taos

Here at 192 at The Blake, we recently became a B-Corp. As a B Corp., we are dedicated to lowering our carbon footprint, giving back to the community, contributing to help steward the environment, and for me, in the restaurant, that means looking and utilizing more locally sourced products. We’re also looking to start a whole animal, nose-to-tail program, rather than using and cooking only certain popular cuts of animals, that way, we could source those animals locally, which decreases the carbon footprint and also supports the local community.

Looking at the products that are available locally and putting the menu together around them makes a lot of sense, that way, you develop relationships with the farmers and the ranchers and eventually, if there’s a product you’d like to see them produce, especially produce or a vegetable, then they’re willing to work with you and grow that item specifically for you.

If you’re truly going to work with local products, you have to see what can actually grow here. At 192 at The Blake, it’s imperative that we use products that can be grown here, are grown here, and start with what’s available and build upon that. That way, we’re assured that reducing our carbon footprint and commitment to the local community and businesses is there while building long-lasting, quality relationships with local growers and ranchers.

PlateMichael-Wagener-from-TaoStyle.net-and-Kiki-SiebenalerMichael Wagener, Owner of Aceq and Salt + Wine in Taos

I grew up in a small farming community in Wisconsin. My grandparents are all dairy farmers. Growing up, I helped them milk the cows, so I was very much in tune with the sense of place, and understanding where our food and all the products on our plate came from. Knowing whether or not something’s been ethically and sustainably farmed or sourced is critical to me, knowing at the same time that we’re helping maintain the biodiversity of the region, all the while keeping things as local as possible, helps us all in the community. There’s a statistic, something like a dollar spent locally turns into 10 dollars. Our wine lists and beers are very craft-centric, family owned and sustainable. Our menu changes seasonally, and I think that works very well for us.

As far as proteins go, whether it be hoof or fin, that we really make sure to try and not only sustainably and ethically source them but also to use all the product that the animal or fish has sacrificed. We do things that may seem a little out of the norm, but utilizing all the parts of an animal—a snout-to-tail program. I’ve built strong relationships with tons of local farmers and ranchers that has really become a very vital part of both our restaurant’s vision going forward.

PlateRoy-Solomon_no-CreditRoy Solomon, Owner Green Jeans Farmery in Albuquerque

I’ve been a huge advocate for and part of the small restaurant community for many, many years. My goal as an advocate for small businesses is I’m creating a community of small, unique businesses and restaurants that are driven by passion and by being housed together in a family community where they can all work together, to be able to support each other and grow. Green Jeans Farmery is the first one that I’ve done on this level—and it’s all built out of shipping containers in New Mexico and has 11 different local businesses. Tin Can Alley will be the next generation of this vision and is going to be more international in flavor. We’re going to have Vietnamese, Caribbean, ramen and sake places, as well as burgers and pizza and Southwestern-style foods. My passion and my philosophy are always to show the guests that we care, and everything else works. We’re excited about the future. There’s a lot of passion and satisfaction behind our new project—I feel like I’m doing something good for the community.

 

 

PlateCherie Montoya, Owner Farm & Table:

I’ve come to recognize the importance of resiliency and trust in my vision; that’s necessary for success in this industry—it’s not really a straightforward type of business. I feel that the trust in my food-vision got me past the doubts and got me to this place where I am six-and-a-half years later. The other piece of that is making meaningful connections. Connections with farmers, ranchers and food artisans is a crucial part of my business—each connection informs the next step. My connections with the farmers informs my chefs and cooks. My chefs and cooks take that inspiration to the plate, and then that plate gets delivered to the guest, and so it’s like this cool synergistic patterning, and that’s the crux of what we do. At the end of the day, I’m a restaurant—the most crucial thing is people and the connections with the people behind the ingredients.
My goal for the coming year is to expand our kitchen and operation here into using the complete animal, from nose to tail—taking in whole animals, utilizing the whole animal, developing better relationships with local ranchers, educating our staff and guests, all while developing a more dynamic local food experience. We are dedicated to local foods, local ingredients; we’re beholden to the seasons, and so we are always making it a priority to seek out the best local ingredients.

 

Plate05_V_132432Erin Wade, Owner of Vinaigrette, Modern General and The Feel Good

Food and restaurants are incredible creators. Food is an incredible creator of community and a connector of people, and that direct connection, humans kicking around with other humans, breathing one another’s molecules is really, really important.

The Feel Good is an homage to my grandma, my mom and my aunt. Literally, all the recipes are theirs. They’re very simple and direct. I grew up surrounded by these powerful women whom I call the pickiest bitches on earth—constantly on this quest for good flavor, always in a very honest, simple, straight-forward tradition. I’ve gotten very interested in that.

At Vinaigrette, we’ve started doing this fun promotion in the winter, where we go Around the World in 40 Soups. That has gotten me really interested in just the ways that we’re linked as people and how we’ve always been linked through food. What’s a big thing for me right now, is the way that food connects us, nurtures and the love of it, but also, how the quest for flavor has linked us. I’ve always been about straightforward, simple, great food. There’s a kind of back-to-basics thing, I think that’s the zeitgeist right now, there’s sort of a nostalgia going on with the pace of life accelerating so much that I find myself just craving these simple dishes, and I feel a lot of gratitude for what I learned and received before me.

I believe that food is powerful—I see it. That’s something that I’m continuing to flush out and celebrate.

Chefs for Change

ChefAmabassadorJBFBootCamp_Fall2018-001-resized2(Story by Ashley M. Biggers)

We rely on chefs to source the finest ingredients and craft the perfect dishes. Over time, we trust them not only with a single meal, but also with some of our highest values—the food we use to nourish our bodies, and the community built between farm and table. As Eric Kessler, co-founder of Chef Action Network observes, “When it comes to health and nutrition, what’s remarkable is that second to only medical professionals, chefs are the most trusted voice in America.”

Today, chefs are becoming advocates for issues far beyond the perfect béarnaise. Through organizations including the James Beard Foundation and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, chefs like Martín Rios and Rocky Durham are advocating for farmers’ economic futures and getting nutritious ingredients on New Mexicans’ tables, especially those of children.

ChefAmbassadorJBFBootCamp_Shelburne2018-062“I do have a voice. I can use my restaurant, my reputation, my celebrity status to change the world,” Martín  says. That newfound confidence and focus comes from his participation in the James Beard Foundation’s 16th Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, held Sept. 9–11, at Shelburne Farms in Burlington, Vermont.

“We focus on teaching them how to open conversations with people and how to better tell their own story about why these policies are important to them,” says Katherine Miller, vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation. “Chefs are natural-born storytellers and our program gives them the tools to hone their message and be more effective.”

Martín, a multi-time finalist for the Best Chef Southwest award from the James Beard Foundation, was eager to parlay his standing relationship with the foundation into additional education. He had no idea, however, all that was in store. He headed east with the expectation he’d learn about farming and how to better work with farmers, and perhaps cook with the other 15 chefs in attendance. Instead, he received an encyclopedic education on the Farm Bill––an umbrella of legislation for policies that may seem like bureaucratic abstractions but have very real impacts on farmers and food-insecure Americans.

Congress passed the original Farm Bill, officially known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, in 1933, when farmers’ livelihoods literally and figuratively blew away in the Dust Bowl. At its base, the bill established policies that support farm income and encourage agricultural conservation and sustainability practices. Over the years, new areas have been tacked on—far beyond corn, soybean and cotton subsidies. The bill now includes policies that range from renewable energy to nutrition. In 1973, the Farm Bill also had a shotgun marriage with a food assistance program, which has been part of the program since. Today, 75 cents of every farm bill dollar are spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Program—a contentious point for negotiation when the bill came up for renewal this fall. The bill officially expired on Sept. 30, and the lame-duck Congress was expected to take up its five-year renewal after the midterm elections.

“Chefs like Martín are able to help policy makers understand the personal stories behind the programs including farmers who benefit from incentives to grow more healthy fruits and vegetables and the more than 40 million Americans including children, veterans and families who receive SNAP assistance,” Katherine says.

With so many facets to choose from, the boot camp organizers encouraged chefs to cut a slice of the Farm Bill pie for their advocacy missions. In the past, some have chosen to speak in favor of sustainable seafood, while others have opted to lobby members of Congress on the Farm Bill directly. Martín chose a cause close to home: expanding his work with Cooking with Kids, a local organization that educates and empowers children and families to make healthy food choices. He’s been involved with the nonprofit for decades.

Martín says his previous involvement has been small, and “cooking something with the kids for a couple hours.” In the future, he envisions expanding his role into a culinary advisor—helping to create recipes, working with farmers to get fresh ingredients into the classrooms for lessons and into cafeterias for meals, and instructing cafeteria employees on preparing fresh produce. His ultimate goal is for children to eat healthier meals in school. This is especially vital since many children live below the poverty line—half of all households in New Mexico fall into that category—and many children eat their only reliable meals of the day at school. “How can I help them even if they’re only having breakfast and lunch at school? If kids don’t have healthy meals, how are they going to be able to succeed?” he asks.

Rocky Durham, a fellow Cooking with Kids volunteer chef, is taking on a larger advocacy role, Chef-Ambassadors-at-the-State-Fairtoo. A long-time spokesperson for local agriculture, Rocky now has an official title as one of two New Mexico Department of Agriculture Taste the Tradition Chef Ambassadors. (Chef John C. Hartley, of Las Cruces, who is currently serving as a college assistant professor at the New Mexico State University School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, is the second ambassador.)

The chef ambassadors will conduct cooking demonstrations at the New Mexico State Fair and other events, like the recent NMSU Ag Day, and create digital promotions, like cooking videos for social media, all in the name of promoting New Mexico agriculture. “This is a role that I’ve always done off my own back,” Rocky says. “Any more, people look to chefs. Chefs get a lot of press and screen time. Being a chef is like being a minor celebrity. People want to know what you’re doing. And diners getting more savvy about wanting to know the pedigree of your products—where you source them. They want to know the farmer’s name.”

Chef-Ambassadors-2018Rocky’s always sourced from and spoken highly of local farmers, as he does currently as chef of Blue Heron Restaurant at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort. One of his key platforms is “five a week”—shifting $5 a week in items people would already buy into New Mexico-grown products. If everyone does that, he says, “we’re talking about a huge influx into the agrarian economy. That behooves everyone.” Rocky says that’s one way for people to advocate for their own health and wellness. Big box-stores, he says, are only going to stock more local products when consumers demand them. “That’s one way we can get their attention,” he says.

Rocky’s longtime work with Cooking with Kids perfectly crosses over with this new mission. “Little by little, we’re getting healthy ingredients into our public schools and our most precious resources, our children,” he says. “It’s not about additional money. It’s just refocusing where the ingredients come from.”

The tasks of Rocky and Martín as chefs are evolving into broader roles as trusted advocates for the sustainability of our farms and the nourishment of our children. “We’ve always been community oriented,” Martín says of his restaurant, “but there’s always room for a little bit more.”

 

 

 

Coming Home

Coming-Home(Story by Mark Oppenheimer and photos by Liz Lopez and Stephen Lang)

The notion of authenticity in food or cooking is not only about ingredients or techniques, it also resides in the qualities and approach to cooking expressed by the chef/cook. Chef Sean Sinclair, a native New Mexican, brings an authentic, new voice to the culinary food scene in Santa Fe as he takes the helm at the Inn and Spa at Loretto’s iconic restaurant, Luminaria Restaurant & Patio. Like many of the great chefs of the City Different, Sean has a storied past and apprenticed in the unforgiving, high-stakes environment of a two-Michelin-star restaurant. His humble and genuine approach to his craft, and his openhearted, intimate conversation was a welcome respite one recent afternoon. Here’s what Chef Sean said.

Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?

Chef Sean Sinclair: I genuinely love what I do. I’m happy to come to work every single day, sharing my experiences with the cooks and the camaraderie we have in the kitchen. I’m in love with cooking, and I have been for a very long time. I started cooking in kitchens professionally when I was 15 years old, and instantly just loved it. I wanted to make an impact, and make whatever place I was at, to create the best possible work environment I could. I wanted the people in the kitchen to feel that love, too. Sure, I feed people food, but I think what I’m really trying to feed people is a passion for this industry. The most important aspect of what I do day in and day out are the people that work with me, my employees, inspiring them to take an active role in their lives and careers to really pursue something great: This can be for your life, you could make a living off of this if you take it seriously and you apply yourself. To me, that’s what I want to feed. Am I always feeding it? Probably not, but I’m trying.

Mark: Why do you cook?

Sean: It’s about perfecting a craft. Some chefs see themselves as artists. For me, cooking is less an art form and more of a craft. What cooking is for me is perfecting a craft, honing your skills, learning from those who came before you and trying to figure out what deeply moves you.

Mark: You grew up with a gun in your hand. How has that informed your relationship to food?

Sean: I was raised hunting. Some of my earliest memories were going on a hunting trip with my dad, and I remember very clearly killing my first animal. Making ‘a good shot.’ I knew the animal was killed instantly; it fell on the spot and didn’t suffer. My dad was super proud of that. “That’s the best way to take the antelope’s life––that was the best thing you could’ve done,” he said. We cleaned, skinned and butchered it. Then we ate it. It was such a rewarding experience to consume that meal. It was my first kill. The impact it made on me as a chef, pretty early on, is that it taught me a deep respect for an animal’s life. I don’t get mad when people make mistakes––but I do get upset when a cook overcooks a piece of meat––it’s such a waste. That’s one of my pet peeves. I know what that animal went through to get to that plate. It gave its life to be here, in our restaurant, and served to our guests, and you have to treat it with respect.

Mark: How do you want to leave the world a better place than you found it?

Sean: Just today, I was talking with a friend and we were discussing the use of local ingredients, and that’s the important part to me—using as much product as I can from the people ComingHomeSL_06at Tamaya Blue Corn [at Santa Ana Pueblo], and supporting other New Mexican growers and helping them grow their business by buying products from them. Same thing with New Mexico beef or any sort of lamb that you can source locally. That’s something we’re going to be moving into more heavily as a restaurant, helping our purveyors pick up local ranchers’ products and things like that. In that way, I hope to leave the world in better shape. As far as my food directly impacting the world, that might not happen. Food becomes irrelevant, people become irrelevant. But in my small way, I’m going to do everything I can to make a difference.

Mark: How do you view home cooking vs. restaurant cooking?

Sean: At home, I’m always cooking for someone I love; it’s rarely somebody I’ve never met. It’s never somebody I don’t know. I find most, if not all of my inspiration for cooking at the restaurant comes from things I’ve done at home. Transferring that emotion into cuisine is challenging––it’s a very hard thing to do.

I find that when I’m cooking at home, there’s always a message there, there’s always something I have to say. I find that it’s easier to tap into that vein at home than at work. So a lot of the times, I end up writing things down and bringing them with me to work.

When I’m cooking for my wife and for my family, I want it to be the very best. I want to represent my self not only as a chef, but as a provider and somebody that can create something that is truly exceptional and special for somebody I love. If I can’t do that, then what the hell am I doing. It’s a great way to transfer that sort of energy, love, emotion and message into the restaurant.

Mark: After reading Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, you wanted to prove Bourdain wrong about how he saw the kitchen. Interestingly, he turned out to be an unintended mentor for you.

Sean: It’s funny, I didn’t realize he was mentoring me until he passed. I read Kitchen Confidential in culinary school and immediately shut the book–I hate this guy. I don’t agree with anything he says. I don’t like that is how this profession is portrayed to the general public. I started thinking, How many people have read this book? I really hope that’s not what my family thinks of me, this isn’t me, it’s not what I do, not who I am.

From the second I shut that book, I did everything I could to bring myself to a point where I was treated with respect and I wasn’t belittling anyone. I was treating people around me with respect, I was achieving my goals by them achieving theirs. I generally didn’t like the guy. I thought he was a talented writer. A cutthroat critic, painfully honest, I appreciated a lot of those qualities about him. Then, when he passed, I realized that a lot of the way I treat my career, the reason that I treat other people with respect, and lead with kindness, I indirectly learned from him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a chef and I can be tough on people, but that’s not my first instinct, and all of that is probably because of Anthony Bourdain. It was a weird realization to make. Thank you, Chef, that will stay with me forever.

Mark: What was the experience like to work at The Inn at the Little Washington when it went from no stars to two Michelin stars?

Sean: When we first received two stars, I was there. It was life-changing, career-changing for sure. It was amazing to be a part of something like that, to go through the whole experience of the year leading up to when we found out Michelin was coming to DC, and how things tightened, and how we instantly realized we were in a special position to really put ourselves out there to be a potential three-star restaurant.

To be part of a serious pursuit of perfection is waking up hungry everyday. It gets heated, there are moments where it’s not perfect or fun, and it makes the job a lot harder than any regular restaurant––and there’s insurmountable pressure. You just can’t understand it unless you’ve actually felt it.

Mark: Thomas Keller says there’s no perfect meal.

Coming-HomeSL_07Sean: I don’t believe in the word perfection. I use it as a target goal; that’s something that we seek. Knowing that, that’s what makes the difference between good and great, the brave and the not so brave, is reaching for something that they know they’ll never [attain].

Mark: Having cooked all over, what’s it like now cooking in a corporate setting?

Sean: I’ve been very fortunate to have opportunities present themselves to me as I’ve gone along in my career. I went to culinary school. I stayed in Portland for a number of years. I got the break to be the chef at Farm and Table, which was great doing whatever I wanted in this very small house. But I wanted to perfect it, so I went to The Inn, and that’s where I really learned to do regular, near-perfect cuisine. Then, I had a stop in Colorado at a restaurant that was very busy, because I wanted to learn a little bit more volume and have that in my repertoire, and then this opportunity came up here at Luminaria.

The reason I accepted it is: what better opportunity to showcase the skills that I’ve learned thus far in my life than a big stage? And that’s what The Inn and Spa at Loretto is for me. It’s a big venue—it’s not easy to run, so the challenge to bring the quality of cuisine that I’ve done in small houses to a very large house is what attracted me to this job and to see if I could do it. I’m very fortunate to have the trust of my employers. [Jim] Long is the CEO and has entrusted me with a lot of responsibility running this property, but also has entrusted me with a lot of freedom to run it the way that I see fit.

I’m also able to push myself as a business person and to understand realistic practices. You can be the greatest chef in the world, but if you can’t make money, you don’t have a job. I don’t think if it was another corporation I would like it. But for Heritage [Hotels and Resorts] and the trust they put in me, I really enjoy it.

Mark: What culinary disaster or failure changed the way you looked at your craft?

Sean: In Portland, I was working at a restaurant, 5 Spice. I was the sous chef, and that night, we were getting our butts kicked. I was in a rush––it was one of those nights, we were way overbooked, way too busy, all the servers sent in their tickets at the same time. I had this dish, I forget the menu name, it was a high-end seafood dish with broth, clams, shrimp, a crab claw and a lobster tail. I had one that the cook next to me had killed and I had him place it off to the side. We were in this pinch on a large table and I grabbed it, plated it and sent it out. I knew it was wrong. The guy who it was served to stood up, didn’t ask for another one, and just walked out. It was crushing. I can’t even believe I’m admitting this publicly. It changed the way I look at food. It changed the way I look at myself. I lost sleep. I had tears. I questioned my whole being. You know what I mean? I asked myself “WTF are you doing with your life?” kinda scenario. I have never done that since, and that was eight to nine years ago, and I’ll never do it again.

Mark: What advice or suggestions would you give to home cooks that would completely change their approach to cooking?

Sean: Practice seasoning your food. I can’t tell you how many times something could have been excellent, not only in people’s homes, but at restaurants, with a touch more salt, or a bit of acid, maybe even a touch of sweetness––something to really balance [those ingredients]. Seasoning your food isn’t just salt––that’s a huge part of it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s other things. Fat plays off acid, salt plays off both of those, the way that your particular kind of palate works, it’s what really makes your brain think something is delicious is derived from a pretty slim variety of factors, right!? Then, they’re applied to countless things. When it comes down to it, I think that a lot of home cooks should focus on salt and acid.

Mark: A properly roasted chicken is one of the few dishes that most chefs agree is the mark of a chef. I also think that the Roasted Chicken is one of the rare dishes that is a meal fit for both a king and a commoner.

Sean: I agree 100 percent. At The Inn when we found out Michael Ellis (the president of The North American Michelin) was coming, Chef wanted to serve him roasted chicken; that was the dish that he picked, and he had me work on it. So we brined a chicken with a beautiful herb bouquet. Then we roasted it, and he started calling me Sabine which was the name of a French country maid that he met in Paris once that roasted him a chicken, and it was one of the best things he ever had in his life. And it’s funny, one of the most talented chefs that ever lived, ever has, ever will––that’s exactly what he says, too. A roasted chicken is the cornerstone of a talented cook, he’d ask, “Can you make a chicken sing?”

Mark: John Thorne wrote, “To cook is to lay hands on the body of the world.”

Sean: I think food, by nature, is a pretty intimate experience. You’re touching things with your hands, butchering meat, chopping vegetables, and you’re cooking food, laying it into the pan, and then you’re handing that to people and they’re putting into their bodies and consuming it. Yeah, I think that’s a really beautiful way to look at food and cooking. That idea will probably stick with me a while. I think food is intimate, and that’s beautifully put.

Mark: Are you satisfied?

Sean: That’s a broad question, but yes, absolutely. By the time this interview comes out, I’ll be 30 years old and what I’ve done with my life, I’m very proud of. I’ve literally moved from coast to coast, and experienced a lot. I found the love of my life, a great job, a nice house––I mean what more can you ask for? But I’m going to continue to ask, continue to search and continue to push. I’m very satisfied with where I’m at, but man, it’s just begun. This is the beginning of my best years.

Mark: In your short experience, then, what exemplifies a life well lived?

Sean: Balance I think is the most challenging thing to achieve as a chef, to have a fruitful life, enjoy the people you love, still show up to work everyday and do a good job. I think a lot of chefs can get burned out, and you really have to have drive to push through those hard times and a commitment to hold on to your relationships. It’s not an easy thing to do. Again, this goes back to what Anthony Bourdain talked about—he made a fully lived life seem impossible. People think that it’s this pirate-like life––that you’re married to your job with no way out. To an extent, for a certain amount of time, you have to be. For years and years, I had no relationships outside of work, I lived at work, that’s all I did. I immersed myself while I gathered the skills to bring balance to my life. Now, I’m very happily married to my wife, Katie. We have a great quality of life.

Mark: Where would you like to eat your last meal?

Sean: There’s a section of the Blue River in Colorado, north of a lake called Green Mountain Reservoir, and there’s this awesome rock at this cool, beautiful spot I like to hang out on.

Mark: Jimmy V., the Villanova basketball coach, says everyday we should reflect upon our lives, laugh and be moved to tears. What do you think?

Sean: I think that last part [being moved to tears] is challenging. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful life though, if you could be moved to tears every single day?