Morning Dispatch: Santa Fe 8 a.m.

(Story by Mark Oppenheimer / Photographs by Jane Phillips)

I wake each morning with little variation on the same routine: I get out of bed, wash my face with cold water, brush my teeth and sit down to meditate. All before coffee. My mind is a very busy place, and just like the ears that hear or eyes that see, the mind, especially mine, is already chattering away, endlessly thinking. There are a few favorite thinking habits it likes to exhaustively indulge in. Memories, the failings of the past, preparing or making future plans, cooking, recipe writing, plotting revenge and sex. When I catch myself being absorbed in any of these or other rogue thoughts, I return to the breath and the cycle starts all over again. This morning, I noticed a mind relentlessly focused on food, continually going over possible breakfast choices.

Years ago, while visiting a friend who was housesitting on Canyon Road, I wandered into breakfast at Cafe Pasqual’s. I had crispy fried polenta with butter and maple syrup. Thirty-five years later, that breakfast still has a great impact on my culinary life. Breakfast can do that. While warmed up, day-old pizza and a fried egg will forever be a favorite breakfast option, today, I decide to investigate the Santa Fe breakfast scene with a non-exhaustive, but fun, experiment and try three places I haven’t had breakfast at yet. My criteria: they must serve breakfast all day, not serve dinner, and basically close by mid-afternoon. And mind you, all this planning happened while meditating.

Ever since I was 7 years old and first attempted to make my mom scrambled eggs, I’ve been in search of the perfect easy scramble or delicate tender omelet. Travel and experience has taught me the French make great omelets, and so, I decide eggs and something French will be the focus this morning.

Madame Matisse
The first place I go is one of the newest arrivals to the Santa Fe food scene, Madame Matisse, located in the rebuilt half of the old Bodega Prime space. Madame Matisse was started by Los Angeles, California Chef Eric De Margerie—once Michel Richard’s pastry chef—who went on to open Clafoutis on Sunset Boulevard in LA before turning his sights to Santa Fe. His artistry is on full display here. Walking in, I feel immediately at home. The space is perfectly cozy, and the smell of freshly baked croissants hangs deliciously in the air. Much like a cafe in Paris, there’s a welcoming, intimate neighborhood feel where strangers meet and new friendships are forged at the community table. In the display case are all the baked-fresh-daily, classic, breakfast pastries you’d ever want: croissants, pain au chocolat, Swiss brioche, various fruit Danish, spinach and mushroom croissant, and more. Crispy, flaky and buttery, they look and taste exactly like the best of anything I’ve had in France. (You know it’s perfect when a small flake of croissant clings lazily on your lips after each bite.) Perfection, indulging, but eating only one. Laugh at me, I don’t care; I had a crispy and delectable almond croissant that fully embraced my habit of dunking each bite in my latte. The omelet was gently cooked, with the goat cheese and salmon all melted wonderfully together, tasting of France.

Throughout my 20s, I was a devotee of the breakfast of champions—fresh-squeezed orange juice, black coffee and a cigarette with the New York Times. But like many of us back in the early ’80s, I learned one could heal their body by eating according to the “flow of the universe,” or, as they called it, Macrobiotic. Since that time, I’ve developed a great enthusiasm and desire for this clean style of eating, only occasionally returning to the less healthful diet of my youth. For breakfast No. 2, I decide to eat at the newly opened Terra Verde Organic on San Mateo Road. It’s in a contemporary, clean and modern space, where for a moment, I lose the sense that I’m in Santa Fe.

Terra Verde Organic
Terra Verde now occupies the space that Verde Juice was in. (Never fear, though, the cooler still carries the Verde juices.) In the center of the room, there’s a beautiful display of dried lavender and various aromatherapy oils, jams and treats from Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. Terra Verde was started by Kevin and Mariana Ivens, whose understanding of how food can heal began while helping Kevin’s mother during a severe illness. The menu at Terra Verde reflects an informed and growing understanding of our expanding nutritional needs. I’m thankful for the balance and vision Terra Verde offers those of us who want to live a healthy wholesome lifestyle, knowing that we perform optimally when we replenish our body’s resources with superfoods. Terra Verde’s superfood selections includes certified-organic smoothies, bowls and bites prepared with items like bee pollen, matcha, spirulina, antioxidant-rich fruits and nutritious veggies like kale, as well as blueberries, nut milks and freshly pressed or squeezed juices. This particular morning, I enjoy the avocado toast with feta, roasted red peppers, lemon zest and chia seeds. As an accompaniment to round out the meal, how could I pass up the Blue Abyss Smoothie with mango, banana, blue spirulina and almond butter? I love the taste, texture and consistency of this drink, and promise myself I’ll return for the Blue Abyss or one of their other superfood beverages at least once a week.

Dolina
Santa Fe has a wonderfully diverse, culinarily literate populace and is considered to be a very sophisticated, inclusive inland coastal city. So I walk over to Dolina, Santa Fe’s own Eastern European breakfast and lunch spot in the former home of Clafoutis on Guadalupe Street. Dolina was started by Annamaria O’Brien, whose many Slavic recipes come from her mother’s handwritten cookbook, and her own inventive and guiding spirit. In the display case, I’m greeted by an inviting, extensive assortment of Eastern Europe’s finest morning pastries and desserts: Makos Dios, a gluten-free cake with ground poppy seeds, walnuts and raspberry preserves, strudel and dobos torte, a Hungarian sponge cake layered with bittersweet chocolate buttercream, and my favorite pie of all time: banana cream. It’s cold this morning, so I opt for the cushy comfort of Organic Chicken Dumpling Soup with chicken bone broth and crispy soft dumplings (also known as halushky). And because old habits die hard, I also order a handheld breakfast burrito with crispy bacon, easy scrambled eggs, asadero cheese and hash browns, with a side of red chile to dunk and slather on each bite. On another day, I also try the waffles with fried chicken—a waffle that’s one the most delicious and inviting, crispy, light textures I’ve ever experienced.

Breakfast brings us home. It is the most intimate of meals. Before breakfast, we’re un-caffeinated, our day mask is just forming, and our defenses and shields are partially down. We’re hungry and want to be cared for just right to meet the day with a smile and feel good about ourselves. What does breakfast mean to you? Go have a great breakfast and let us know.

Rosemary

(Story by Ashley M. Biggers/Photos by Liz Lopez)

“Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce,” Michael Pollan says in an interview abut his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. The seminal garden and culinary writer boiled down years of research and life experience to this essential rule. It’s one Bryan Thompson, co-owner of Albuquerque’s Rosemary, adopted—but only after a quarter-century slinging big-box foods in corporate restaurant sales.

“After 23 years of that, there needed to be something more. I was tired of the whole thing. I was tired of selling food out of a box to restaurants that don’t care. What if we bought actual ingredients and cooked?” he asks. “There’s more than cooking frozen chicken tenders in a vat of grease.”

The antidote to his—and his customers’—disenchantment with the food industry is Rosemary. Bryan designed the menu to be as clean, fresh and vibrant as the evergreen herb he named the eatery after. The 48-seat, bistro-style restaurant in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights is plant-forward, with multiple vegan and vegetarian dishes that also tempt omnivores. Healthy ingredients are the menu’s centerpiece. Meats are free of growth hormones and antibiotics. And diners won’t discover a drop of high-fructose corn syrup here—a choice that’s particular to Thompson and meaningful for his fellow health-conscious business partner Linda Zamora.

Bryan has been in the restaurant business since he was 16, waiting tables, bartending and selling products. In the final years of his corporate career, he began tending a 500-square-foot garden on nights and weekends. In 2015, the mission to grow and cook wholesome foods became personal.

Bryan was diagnosed with adult-onset type 1 diabetes. Without a family history of the disease or an individual history of poor eating, the diagnosis shook him. “I didn’t live on gas station Slurpee’s and Slim Jims,” Bryan says. The sea-change moment in his health led him to re-analyze everything he ate. By his measure, high-fructose corn syrup was a culprit in his diagnosis and in the diagnoses of many others, too. Its prevalence tracks with the rise of obesity and diabetes. His solution became a Michael Pollan-esque approach to ingredients focused on whole foods and items he can pronounce. As he cooked this way for himself, Bryan began to share with friends, including Linda.

Retired Major Linda Zamora, who concluded her 28-year military career as executive officer of the 372nd Quartermaster Battalion on Kirtland Air Force Base this month, ate clean for her profession, in which fitness was a requirement. She’s also completed 15 marathons, including the Bataan Memorial Death March marathon 13 times. Long story short: Linda’s always training for something. And Bryan’s meals were far from the bland boiled chicken and steamed vegetables many athletes consume. “When people take it to the extreme and focus too much on ‘food as fuel,’ they lose the joy of eating,” Linda says, and Bryan’s dishes, along with those served at Rosemary, are plated and seasoned beautifully. “It’s good for your body, but it’s zero guilt. I can eat everything on the menu and not feel like I’ve ruined my eating plan.”

Linda encouraged Bryan to open a restaurant—and kept doing so for years. Eventually, Bryan came around and formulated the concept for Rosemary in June 2016. His plan became their plan, with Linda contributing her human resources and organizational experience from decades in the military. But she leaves the recipes to Bryan. “The only thing I know about food is where it goes and how it tastes,” Linda laughs. The restaurant opened in June 2018.

While the two figured Albuquerque’s demographics didn’t yet support another vegetarian-only restaurant in the city, they agreed on a plant-forward approach. Linda recalls the difficulty of finding restaurants friendly to her vegetarian roommate when they returned to the states on leave from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. “I’m proud that my roommate could find more than a bit of lettuce or French fries fried in the same oil as meat here,” Linda says. Vegans and vegetarians choose among items in every menu category, from starters to entrees to dessert. The restaurant accommodates most dietary needs. “We’re friendly to most kinds of diners,” Bryan says. “We don’t want to say no. As a rule, we want to say yes.”

Although neither Linda nor Bryan likes eggplant, the eggplant adovada has quickly become a customer favorite. They cook cubed eggplant, crisp it in the fryer, then simmer it in red chile until it resembles the texture of its meat-based inspiration. It’s topped with guacamole and jicama chips for a crunchy appetizer. For an entree, the farro risotto with roasted mushroom medley is a standout that can be prepared vegan. The ancient grain offers a nice bite to the creamy risotto throughout dinner service.

Bryan doesn’t feel the need to call out vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu—he hopes diners will find them naturally. He also hopes omnivores will order plant-forward dishes and have epiphanies that these options can be delicious, too. The chocolate mousse, with a vegan avocado and coconut-milk base, often leads to such breakthrough moments. Although Bryan says it wouldn’t stand up in a side-by-side taste test with the dairy-based version (the vegan one has a different mouth feel), Rosemary’s chocolate mousse regularly opens carnivores’ eyes to the delights of plant-based eating.

Meat-eaters can also savor classics like the rosemary chicken. Bryan’s signature recipe involves a half-chicken prepared with honey, lemon and rosemary, and finished with pan jus. The diablo shrimp, a new menu addition, features bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp based in a spicy diablo sauce. Agave-ginger-glazed salmon, a green chile and white-cheddar pork chop, and balsamic brown sugar lamb shank fill out the menu’s meaty side.

The intimate restaurant fills up quickly and delivery drivers from Grubhub and Uber Eats regularly swing in to pick up meals. “I think people recognize we’re doing good things,” Bryan says. And that’s even without serving alcohol, which hasn’t yet been a priority for the budding business. Instead of paying for a license and outfitting the restaurant for beer and wine service, the managing partners are focused on paying off start-up costs and the eatery’s financial stability. Some diners have been turned off by the lack of liquor, but Bryan shrugs this off knowing diners in search of Rosemary’s brand of food will find it.

Rosemary fulfills the promise of whole ingredients. “I don’t want anyone to have to worry about what they’re eating,” Bryan says. He harvested tomatoes from his own garden in the restaurant’s first months, but the garden has gone fallow. He works “what feels like nine days a week” in the restaurant, and hasn’t had much time for planting.

With 23 years of corporate sales in his background, Bryan says he still leans on the peace of mind that comes from well-documented food sourcing and handling. Until now, that’s kept him from leaning into local. This summer, he’s baby stepping into local food. He’s started to visit local farms to see how the ingredients are harvested, washed and transported. And with this knowledge in mind, he’s now eyeing seasonal specials that highlight fresh tomatoes and artichokes. He also plans to introduce a weekend brunch menu this summer.

“We’re not where I want to be ingredient-wise yet,” Bryan says. “I’m trying to source better today than yesterday, and more local today than yesterday.”

Rosemary is located at 4564 San Mateo Blvd. Ste. A in Albuquerque, 505.361.1842, rosemaryabq.com.

On the Line

(Story by Mark C. Johnson/Photos by Stephen Lang) 

Do you ever wonder, as you sit at your table and watch the chef/owner going from chair to chair, shaking hands and welcoming guests, “Who’s actually cooking my food?” Seriously, who is turning steaks, tossing salads and plating plates––who indeed? While we can argue the pros and cons, rights and the wrongs of immigration, one thing is for certain, we all eat much better for it. The late Chef Anthony Bourdain often featured on No Reservations the real cooks in the kitchen. Even his own cooks often hailed from Latin America, making some of the finest duck fat fries, sashimi or dahi vada. Many started at the bottom, rising up from the ranks of dishwasher and bus boy. They all began their climb up the ladder we affectionately call “the line” mastering each station as they go. Ultimately, they reach the top rung, calling out the orders, inspecting the final presentation and calling for the runners.

Rony Gutierez grew up in Abraham, Mexico, a little village just outside of Gonzalas in the state of Chihuahua. His parents were small-town farmers who raised everything from corn to cucumbers, often taking their young son along to sell produce door to door. During a trip to Santa Fe to visit his older sister who was already living here in the United States, Rony’s family decided 16-year-old Rony should remain in New Mexico to attend Santa Fe High School. But Rony, already a bit of a demon in other ways, didn’t last six months before he dropped out.

Not in school and having very limited English, Rony knew he would still be expected to contribute to the family coffers. He happened on an entry-level job at the Inn at the Anasazi and it was, of course, as a dishwasher scrubbing away. The restaurant, at that time, was under the leadership of Chef Tom Kerpon (currently executive chef at La Posada de Santa Fe) who has mentored hundreds of cooks who now work across New Mexico and beyond.

Rony had a view across the kitchen and noticed the other guys and gals appeared to be having a lot more fun at their respective positions. As he sweated over scrubbing sauté pans, he spied on the salad station closest to him, watching how each dish was prepared. After a few months in the dish pit, he saw his chance when the cold station cook came in “drunk as f,” as Rony puts it, and had to be sent home to sober up. With a busy lunch approaching, Chef Tom was backed into a corner and Rony saw his opportunity.

“I told him, ‘I can help. I’ve been watching. I know how to do his job,’” Rony says. Chef threw Rony into the fray and at the end of the day asked him if he would like to move up to cook. “So, I started making salads and nachos. I was fast, but I quickly found it was not as fun as I thought it would be.”

He was just beginning to feel settled into his new position when Chef Tom came in and threw a plate back at him for the first time. “’Would you eat this f’n crap? It looks horrible. People pay good money and get this?’ He told me,” Rony says. “’Do you want to be a cook or not be a cook? Because really fast, you can go back down to dishwasher!’” Rony remembers, “This is where I started taking things really, really seriously.”

After just eight months, Rony was moved to the sauté station on the breakfast line, cooking a lot of eggs. He learned the other positions behind the line by helping other cooks set up their stations until finally, he took over the A.M. shift, which he ran for eight years.

Rony worked under several chefs at the Inn at the Anasazi, learning something from all of them, but in 2008, the Inn hired a chef who wanted to clean house, as some chefs do. Rony knew it was time to move on. He landed at the restaurant Terra inside Rancho Encantado when it was under the auspices of Auberge Resorts. Here, Rony found the chef he considered to be his next great mentor, Chef Charles Dale.

Charles had Rony running the line two days in the morning and the grill at night. “He was always really tough and all about perfection,” Rony says. “I learned to be perfect before he yelled at me was the best way to deal with Chef Dale. Perfection came out of survival.” Another important lesson he gleaned from Chef Charles was that most chefs create plates they believe the guests should want to eat. Here, Rony learned to deal with customer requests—not getting frustrated, but putting in every effort to make the diner happy.

Ultimately, after a few years, Chef Charles decided it was time to move on. But before going, he gave Rony a poignant and touching bit of advice. “He told me, ‘Should I leave, you just keep doing what you’re doing because you are great at it.’” Rony remembers swelling with pride.

As Terra and Rancho Encantado transitioned from Auberge Resorts to Four Seasons, Rony enjoyed working with both Chef Andrew Cooper and Chef Kai Autenrieth—and Rony says both chefs have shaped him into the cook he is today. But his next great influence came while he was looking for a second job to help provide for his now growing family. He heard the small family owned Dinner for Two (or D42 for short) was looking for some part-time help at nights with the cold line. And that’s how he came to join forces with Chef Andy Barnes. “I just popped my head in and asked if he was hiring, ’Cause I’m looking for a job,’” Rony recalls. “He just told me to put on an apron, and let’s go. If I like it, I can come back, and if I don’t, not to worry about it.” Things certainly clicked, and Rony’s been there ever since. “I must have taken a lot of weight off of Chef Andy. He finally took his first vacation since they had opened seven years earlier, trusting me with his kitchen.”

After working three meals a day for years, Rony began to burn out. “I tried to quit, but Chef Andy told me no, and that he didn’t want me to go.” Andy told Rony he was making changes and was going to buy the whole place. “You want my job?” Andy asked. The answer must have been a yes, because you can still find Rony at Dinner For Two five to six nights a week as the Chef de Cuisine.

D42 is known for its tableside presentation of classic dishes like Caesar salad, Chateaubriand and Bananas Foster. Rony works collaboratively with Chef Andy on the menu and the nightly specials. Side by side, Rony and Andy bring out offerings like smoked prime rib or diver scallops over fried tempura shishitos. “I can come up with a dish, and Rony makes it come out delicious,” Andy says.

“I bring all the great chefs I’ve ever worked with to each plate,” Rony muses—and they’re still in Rony’s life, quite literally, too. When D42 closed for three months early last year to renovate, Chef Charles Dale asked Rony to help out in the kitchen at Maize to keep him working. And D42’s open kitchen overlooks the bar where you can often find Chef Tom Kerpon enjoying a cocktail and a plate or two of Andy and Rony’s bar snacks (Tom loves the chicken fried ribs). You’re welcome to join them there; just remember that while the food is seasoned perfectly, the language can be a bit salty, and in true kitchen fashion, the witty banter is sometimes the kind that makes an HR director nervous.

However, in the dining room, Chef Rony’s plates are generous, thoughtful and most important, sumptuous.

My Grandma and Her Impeccable Palate

(Story by Erin Wade / Photos courtesy of Erin Wade) 

In the 1980s, my grandma drove a Plymouth Champ. It was one of those tiny two-doors with good gas mileage—like a Gremlin or a Pacer—that was churned out in the aftermath of the oil embargo. Hers was brownish yellow, the color of good Dijon. One spring afternoon, my mom and grandma were cleaning the house for garden club when my mom realized she was short coffee mugs. These were the early, heady days of Martha Stewart—paper cups freshly shunned—so Grandma took off for her apartment to get the good mugs.

A mile into her journey, Grandma and the Champ were broadsided by a carload of teenage drivers who ran a stop sign. The Champ was totaled. Undeterred, my whiplashed grandma unfolded herself, spoke to the police, and hitched a ride from the nice gentleman who witnessed the accident—first to her apartment for the coffee cups, then back across town to our house, just in time for the party.

The fact that I share genes with someone who managed to get the damn party mugs even after she was T-boned in a tin can, is perhaps why I have survived, thus far, in the restaurant industry.

But I’ll never be as tough as my grandma. She was from that generation that was born into war, came of age in the Great Depression—when people saved bits of string and patched their underwear—and entered adulthood just in time for another war. On top of this, my grandma’s husband—the love of her life—died of cancer not long after they had moved away from her closest friends and family.

Despite it all, I never heard her complain. But she wasn’t particularly fawning or lovey-dovey. What we think of as nurturing, nowadays, usually involves talking about our feelings, working them over like bread dough. Grandma didn’t go there: She rubbed your feet and made you a good meal—fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and chocolate cake, if you were really broken-hearted.

A lot of people bandy about the expression “food is love,” but they don’t exactly mean it. My grandma would never have said something namby-pamby like that, but cooking was how she loved. Mealtimes during the holidays, with my mom and aunt and grandma crowded together in the kitchen, squawking about what they were making and would make, peppering one another with cooking questions they already knew the answers to, was when she was happiest.

Nowadays, we might say she had an impeccable palate—and she did—but it was more than that. It was more a matter of ethics. She had a quirky, stubborn sense of right and wrong in all matters pertaining to food. You could always tell how much she liked something just by looking at her face.

A few of the things that turned up her nose: potatoes cut in large or sloppy chunks, mostly in soup but also in potato salad; too-thick soups, which were dubbed “wallpaper paste;” the dubious spice, mace; floury or pale gravy; under-seasoned anything; the liberal use of cinnamon; overly sweet desserts; fussy food; funky liqueurs; muddled flavors.

Some things she loved: pan-frizzled pork chops with a salty crust; Manhattan clam chowder; a bowl of posole at La Fonda; platters of tomatoes and scallions sliced open and simply salted; kolaches with California apricots; slightly tart fruit pie with a flaky crust; sauerkraut; mayonnaise; chocolate.

But she didn’t fetishize food or put cooking on a pedestal. She cut onions in the palm of her hand, and apples for her pies with her thumb as a backstop. Cooking was an everyday affair meant for everyone—unpretentious and real.  “If you like to eat, and you can read, you can cook,” she used to say.

Of the staple dishes she made hundreds or perhaps thousands of times in her life, she expected near-monastic purity and straightforwardness. She didn’t like any “guff.” But as Marcella Hazan says, “Simple is not the same as easy.” Which is why she never stopped critiquing her cooking—usually aloud and while you were eating it.  It was, occasionally, exhausting. Sometimes, you just wanted to enjoy the pie, not hear about how it needed more lemon juice or a few minutes longer in the oven.

My grandma died before I opened my first restaurant, Vinaigrette, in Santa Fe, but I like to think I’ve inherited her palate and good food sense (all of the ladies in my family have), and that they’ve kept me out of trouble. But in the years since I opened my first restaurant, the food world has gotten harder to navigate. There is a relentless hunger for whatever is new and exotic, even if it’s ridiculous. The other day, I caught myself considering offering a Wheatgrass Latte for the cafe at Modern General, until Grandma’s face flashed before my eyes, with an expression that would have curdled nut milk.

And while working on the menu for the wine bar and bistro we were opening on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, I felt my clarity faltering. Everything I came up with was, in my grandma’s words, a bunch of malarkey. It had no soul. Trying to root out the one undone thing in the ever-expanding cosmos of food feels a fool’s errand, like riding a treadmill of trying-to-be-cool. I needed to get back to solid ground.

I about-faced to the dishes my mom and grandma made when I was growing up: Chicken Chasseur, Spare Ribs with Sauerkraut, Deviled Stew. I craved the way that food made me feel: cared for, safe, part of something.

We named the bistro The Feel Good. Copies of old, battle-tested recipes, splotched with oil and sauce, yellowed with years and crammed full of my grandma’s slanted, baroque cursive, hang in the hallways and behind the bar. This tidbit about Stuffed Green Peppers came from a letter to my aunt:

I take the tops from pepper and take out seeds.  You can either leave whole or cut in half. I usually buy large peppers and cut in half. I used to always put in large pan and par boil, but have almost quitthe only advantage is it makes the peppers not quite so strong tasting. For my meat mixture I just dump. I usually make a big batch so I usually use about 1 ½ lbs of meat, cracker crumbs (about 15-20 single) (depends on how much you want to stretch the meat)

It goes on—confusing and ambiguous the whole way through, regaling my poor Aunt Judy with every detail of her endless tinkering. For my grandma, a recipe was a living thing, always evolving, but also tethered to its beginnings.

Maybe looking backward is just nostalgia—that rosy perspective on the past that buffs away its harsh edges. Or maybe it’s a kind of acknowledgment that we are here on the shoulders of a whole lot of folks, many of them women, who have quietly held us all together, making now possible.

It feels good to honor that.

Erin Wade is the owner of Vinaigrette and Modern General in Santa Fe; Vinaigrette, Modern General and Feel Good in Albuquerque and Vinaigrette in Austin, Texas. As her website states, “Much of the produce for Santa Fe and Albuquerque is grown on Erin’s 10-acre farm in Nambe, New Mexico. A farm in Gastrop, Texas supports the Austin restaurant. Sustainability is a top priority. Food waste from the restaurants returns to the farm to feed the animals, and also gets composted back to the land to feed the healthy soil.”

The Making of a Chocolate Champion

(Story by Lynn Cline / Photos by Jane Phillips)

For Ruben Terrazas and his team of talented chefs, this is a year to remember. The executive chef of Kingston Residence of Santa Fe, Ruben collaborated with his colleagues Pastry Chef Margarita Chaparro and chefs Hector Gaytan and Eric Ceda, to create a stunning dessert. Their Raspberry Chocolate Bombs took first place at the Sixth Annual Divine Decadence Chocolate Challenge, held March 23 at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa. The host of the event is Santa Fe’s cherished La Familia Medical Center.

The competition was fierce, with vying chocolatiers from Jambo Cafe, The Art of Chocolate Cacao Santa Fe, Drift & Porter, Danielle’s Donuts, Eldorado Hotel & Spa, La Casa Sena, and Social Kitchen + Bar. But the Kingston quartet’s Raspberry Cheesecake Bombs—made entirely from scratch—took the cake. The delectable dessert featured rounded cheesecake bites filled with raspberry jam, set in a hazelnut cookie and covered with glistening liquid chocolate. A regal chocolate flourish carefully poised on top provided an elegant touch, and a fresh raspberry nestled in each “bomb,” its color beautifully contrasting the dark, shining chocolate.

“Margarita and I created the dessert together,” Ruben says, relaxing in his office just off the Kingston Residence kitchen, joined by two members of his team, Margarita and Hector. “We checked different recipes and chose this one. I never tried to make the dessert before and it turned out great. It has an amazing flavor, with the raspberry, the hazelnut cookie and the cheesecake.”

Executing this impressive dessert required multiple steps and first-time experiences. Margarita for instance, had never before made raspberry jam. She also worked to perfect the liquid chocolate that covered the Raspberry Chocolate Bombs and to create the decorative chocolate piece on top. “I was so happy when they said Kingston won first place,” says Margarita, who started working at Kingston 13 years ago as a server and became pastry chef two years ago. “ I was really, really crying, I was so happy.”

Hector, who’s been a chef at Kingston for about seven months and has 25 years of experience cooking in Santa Fe, was also delighted to be on the winning team. “The dessert is beautiful,” he said with a grin. “It’s yummy. And now, we are the best.”

Divine Decadence guests and organizers were impressed by the efforts of Ruben and his team. “On behalf of La Familia Medical Center and the Divine Decadence Committee, I wish to extend our congratulations to Chef Ruben Terrazas and his team for their exemplary chocolate dessert,” Gloria Martinez, development director of La Familia Medical Center and Divine Decadence organizer, says. “The dessert was delicious and a beautiful presentation.”

This wasn’t the first time Ruben and his chefs at Kingston Residence won a culinary competition. They also wowed the crowd last February at the Food Depot’s Souper Bowl XXV, when Ruben’s Thai Coconut Seafood Soup took home the trophy for Best Seafood Soup. “It was the first time I competed in the Souper Bowl, and the first time I won,” Ruben says, with a beaming smile.

While taking first place in these popular Santa Fe culinary competitions thrilled these Kingston Residence chefs, they were equally happy to know that their work in the kitchen makes a difference in the community. Kingston Residence, an assisted living and memory care community, provides three meals a day in three dining rooms, which keeps the kitchen staff busy. To streamline their workday, the kitchen crew works closely together. “I have a lot of support from Margarita, and I learn a lot from Margarita,” Ruben says. “She has more experience than me. She helps me with the schedules and also in the kitchen, cooking.”

Hector says, “It’s good to help people,” and Margaret and Ruben nod enthusiastically. “It’s why I’m here, at Kingston Residence,” adds Ruben, who has cooked in some of Santa Fe’s top restaurants over the last two decades, including Geronimo, the much-missed Ristra and 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar. “There are a lot of residents at Kingston who don’t have family anymore, so they’re part of the family for us, here. It’s good to take care of people here and outside of Kingston. My whole team here, they work very hard for this community…We are cooking for 93 people right now and we also make food for the employees, so that’s maybe 120 to 140 people.”

The Kingston residents, Margarita points out, will now get to enjoy Raspberry Chocolate Bombs every so often. “We’ll serve these at Easter for residents, their visiting family and staff,” she says. “On a special day, we will put this on the menu here.”

In a similar way that Ruben and his team of chefs nurture the Kingston community, La Familia Medical Center works to help the Santa Fe community by providing health care to all Santa Fe residents, regardless of ability to pay. The Divine Decadence Chocolate Challenge plays a big role in raising funds for La Famila’s mission. “La Familia Medical Center is dedicated to fostering community well-being and building partnerships with our patients by providing excellent, accessible, family centered medical, dental and behavioral health care,” Gloria says. “We are the healthcare safety-net for the community. In 2018, we served over 17,400 patients, with 86,000 patient visits between our two medical centers as well as our Dental Clinic and our Health Care for the Homeless clinic.”

La Familia’s critical patient services and programs are supported by funds from the Divine Decadence Chocolate Challenge. For example, La Familia’s patient fund provides bus money for people who need help getting to their appointments and it also helps people who need lab work. “Other funds go into our health education programs, so patients can learn about diabetes, vaccinations and other topics that are vital in our health education,” Gloria says.

The annual competition draws hundreds of people eager to taste chocolate concoctions created by some of Santa Fe’s top chocolatiers and then vote for their favorites. A panel of judges also selects their top choices. Guests can bid on silent auction items, too, from art and jewelry to vacation getaways and other items. Every ticket sale and silent auction purchase supports a medical center that is indispensable to so many Santa Fe residents.

After his first experience at Divine Decadence, handcrafting hundreds of Raspberry Chocolate Bombs and designing a display that featured fresh flowers and elegant wine glasses, Ruben is already thinking about next year, and the feat of winning trophies at two top Santa Fe culinary events has inspired him. “It was amazing, and I’m going to be there next year, for sure,” he says, smiling impishly. “And I’m going to win.”

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.