After two generations have poured themselves into a family restaurant for 70 years, a question inevitably arises. What’s next? For the Razatoses, of Santa Fe institution Plaza Café, the answer is Café Sonder.
With a zest for contemporary American cuisine, Café Sonder is the latest installment in the Razatos family’s trilogy. Three restaurants and three generations have grown from the original Plaza Café, with its heritage recipes and Mexican oilcloth tablecloths: Plaza Café Southside has a fresh though equally diner feel; and now, Café Sonder represents both legacy and departure, with made-from-scratch food at affordable prices, great service and a third generation of chefs and restaurateurs building something of their own from the kitchen to the table.
When the Zia Diner, another integral part of Santa Fe’s zeitgeist, vacated its prime spot between the Plaza and the Railyard in February 2016, Daniel Razatos, the second generation to steer Plaza Café, seized the space. He set the vision, bringing in stepson Justin Salazar, 30, to make it happen. Son Nick Razatos, 26, has since become executive chef.
“Dad’s focus was on being inclusive,” Justin says. “Ultimately, he decides everything when it comes to the business, the road we’re traveling on. But he ensures everyone has a voice in the process.” Just as family matriarch Beneranda Razatos is where the buck stops at Plaza Café, Daniel is where the buck stops at Café Sonder. Both set a high bar of professionalism—even among family. “It’s strange when you’re here though. It’s not like you’re here with family. We don’t refer to our dad as ‘Dad’ when we’re on the floor; it’s always Daniel. When I talk to my brother, it’s ‘Chef,’” Justin says. Continue reading
Sazón: a Spanish word that defies concise translation, and to try demands the expanse of a paragraph. Sazón is the indescribable, distinct quality, the signature a chef imparts to his work, a singularity. It is said to embody perfection, grace and inspiration. Fernando Olea, an imposing figure with a warm and generous spirit, is both grace and inspiration. Barely knowing me, he welcomed me into his kitchen with open arms. He had no idea what he’d gotten himself into. We sat down and got to talking––without hesitation, he spoke fearlessly and generously from his heart.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Fernando Olea: What feeds me is the feedback that I get from my guests and friends when they eat my food. That’s what feeds me. You know, it’s amazing to see how much people can be touched by food, even though there’s a transaction. The way that they leave the restaurant, talking about the food, about the experience they have when they dine with me, that’s what feeds me. I remember the experience I once had with three ladies who had lunch at my place. One of them, when they finished the lunch, she was so thankful, so appreciative of the meal; she hugged me, kissed me and says that I touch all her senses. I was very touched by that moment, and when I found out a few weeks later that she passed away––that is when I understood what she meant by touching all her senses. I cannot have any idea how somebody can be when they know they are close to depart. That really, really touched me. That’s one of my biggest experiences, influences and motivation.
Walking uninvited through the swinging doors into a chef’s kitchen is like wandering into someone’s walk-in closet. Either you’re curiously welcomed, or unceremoniously tossed out. That’s how I first met Joe, breaching the swinging doors of Joseph’s of Santa Fe in the middle of service, and strangely asking to meet and shake the hand of the chef. Crazy, I know.
But slowly over the last few years, we’ve gotten to know each other––talking about food, life and, of course, baseball. My Cubs won it all this year, while his Big Red Machine floundered.
In preparation to interview Joe, I proposed I work in the kitchen for a few nights. He agreed. So one night, I showed up with my knives and got to work. Afterward, we got to talking. Continue reading
In early January, Modern General, the store and eatery in Santa Fe owned by chef/farmer/innovator Erin Wade, sent out an enticingly cryptic announcement stating they were launching “a new wellness concept…sweet and savory…a twist on everyone’s favorite childhood breakfast.” As one might guess, considering the kind of playfully fundamental cuisine Erin brings to salads at Vinaigrette, her latest tantalizing concoctions are thoroughly Modern General.
These days, Erin is bi-Southwestern, splitting time between Austin, Texas, where she’s opened her third Vinaigrette in a trifecta with Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Late on a Saturday afternoon in February, it’s serendipitous to catch a glimpse of her in Modern General. Having given a lead cook a vacation during the “slow time,” she’s at the stove because the place is slammed. “It’s been like this all day,” says Robin Schoen, long-time maven and manager for Wade enterprises, referring to the line at the counter and the full tables. “So Erin jumped into the kitchen.” During a lull, Erin greets guests. Picture a young Katherine Hepburn ever so charmingly disheveled. “I don’t do the cooking regularly, but every once in a while, it’s good to check in,” Erin says, with an ebullient smile. “I didn’t expect to see people! My apron is covered in batter.”
Batter up! Erin’s hit a homerun with creations she calls “Modcakes™.” Made from several varieties of heritage flours, the cakes are topped with a variety of classic and unique ingredients, sauced and garnished in imaginative combinations, complexly textured, at once satisfying and provocative. Reasonably priced, sensibly portioned, a single serving stays the stomach, though any hiker worth her boots could easily handle a duet of dishes. “We’re super excited about savory pancakes,” Erin says. “Pancakes make any day special.” Continue reading
As tenacious as Rocky Balboa in the Rocky film franchise, Santa Fe’s own Rocky Durham keeps us coming back for more with his longevity and distinct culinary one-two punch. He has weathered a long and illustrious career that has taken him around the world and has included a few bumps in the road that might knock out an otherwise less sturdy chef. What I love about this guy is he always comes up swinging and with a big toothy grin on his face to boot. The length of his resume should make him well into his 50s, but the ever-youthful Durham is in fact only 46.
Durham’s latest gastronomic boxing ring is the beautifully re-imagined Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in nearby La Cienega. The long-standing spa-resort has been renovated and revitalized by the folks who own Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, and their move to bring Rocky onboard is a clever one. I had dined there right after they opened in September 2015, when original Chef Paul Novak, formerly of Geronimo, took a more Spartan approach to the food plan with dishes that were delicious but purposely simple and un-adorned—this flowed from the original design, in which the resort was primarily private and meals were for guests only. As the resort management got a better feel for how Sunrise Springs would fit into the hospitality and “wellness spa” community, it was decided to open the place up to locals and day visitors, allowing anyone to dine there and partake of the lovely spa attached. When Chef Paul moved on, Rocky stepped up to the ring.
A longtime colleague of Rocky’s, I’ve known him for over two decades, and after enjoying a delicious brunch at the lovely Blue Heron Restaurant where he now mans the stoves, I thought it would be interesting to chat with the local legend and see how his latest venture is settling in. I decide to spend some time in the kitchen to observe the chef in his natural habitat as it were (like watching a boxer at training).
As I arrive on a sunny morning in early January, I catch the chef putting the finishing touches on a batch of buckwheat crackers. He sets a timer and we retire to some comfy couches in the corner of the dining room overlooking one of the property’s many ponds. “I actually auditioned for the position, cooking the owners a meal,” Rocky begins. “I knew what the food had been like here, but I wanted to cook my food and not be too concerned about it being light or healthy, just my food.” We discuss how the image of what’s “healthy” in the food world has changed and is changing. “My wife is vegetarian and I have prepared both vegan and raw food,” the chef says. “So I do feel I have a strong background in food that is good and good for you.” Continue reading
Fernando Ruiz’s story is one of inspiration and hope, but this is just to know the half of it. In meeting Fernando, a barrel chested, tatted up, bald executive chef with eyes so deep and blue, he captures every bit of your attention. Even so, if you think, He’s probably just like all the other tattooed chefs, you’d be dead wrong. Nothing can ready you for meeting Fernando in person. He’s an endless beam of light.
I first came to know him as a ‘friend’ on Facebook through another local chef’s posts, while following his cooking exploits. When I ran into him at the recent Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, I could see those deep blue eyes from 25 feet away. I was immediately drawn in like a Star Trek tractor beam. I tried to greet him with an out-stretched hand, but we hugged like two old friends. We said few words and parted, but I knew a friendship had been made. It was the highlight of the event for me.
While putting this interview together, it was easy to fall in love with this most beautiful man. I hope after reading this, you’ll love him as much as I do. Continue reading