Flying Star Comes Full Circle

(Story by Ashley M. Biggers/Photographs by Joy Godfrey)

To call what’s happening inside the walls of Flying Star Cafe’s location in Nob Hill a “renovation” falls short. “Remodel” doesn’t do it justice either. Contractors are taking the World War II-era building, which was the first Flying Star (nee Double Rainbow) down to its original brick walls, installing new, well, everything, from sewer pipes to seating. The rebooted restaurant is slated to reopen the week of October 21, just in time for the Albuquerque chain to celebrate 32 years as a local, independent business.

In many ways, Flying Star is going back to its roots. More than three decades after founding the business, Jean and Mark Bernstein are doubling down on the location where the journey began, and they’re back at the helm of day-to-day operations.

Investing almost a million dollars in the flagship location was an act of cognitive dissonance, Mark says. The cafe was no longer a sales leader among the Bernsteins’ six Flying Star locations. (They also own six—soon to be seven—Satellite Coffee locations and the bakery that serves their restaurants.) They say construction along the Central Avenue/Route 66 corridor during the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project had hobbled the Nob Hill location’s business. “It redirected casual traffic and took the business out of people’s temporary memory,” Mark says. They weren’t the only business that felt the squeeze. As they looked around the neighborhood, they saw empty shop windows and several shuttered restaurants, including Elaine’s, Scalo and Zacatecas.

They considered whether keeping Flying Star in Nob Hill was a sound long-term decision. An evening walk through the neighborhood one Friday changed their thinking. They strolled the neighborhood in which they had lived and worked for decades. When they arrived at the restaurant, they found it hopping. Friends sat laughing in window booths; couples toasted date nights. It remained a neighborhood gathering place—just as it had been from the start. “We’ve served millions of people at that location. Many of them over and over again. And they’re still there,” Mark says.

And upon reflection, the Bernsteins acknowledged that the neighborhood’s current status felt familiar. In 1987 when they launched their business, Nob Hill was in a similar slump. The neighborhood recovered in the 1990s, and the Bernsteins see it poised for a similar growth cycle now thanks to the addition of several luxury condo apartments and long-term housing under construction from east of I-25 to Washington. “It’s still one of the only funky urban areas in the city. It’s the only place among malls and out-of-state corporate developments that we Albuquerqueans can call our own,” Jean says. So, the Bernsteins went all in—again.

The Bernsteins’ vision for the rebuilt restaurant reflects how their guests use space: as a place to congregate and linger. The front door will open into a room with a long communal table. Booths will still line the windows looking out onto old Route 66. A new wine and beer bar, which the restaurant had when it first opened, will offer similar views. The restaurant will also have lounge areas, with couches and low coffee tables, encouraging customers to hang out for a while. Exposed brick walls will play backdrop to seating upholstered in warm tones. “It will be comfortable, yet sophisticated,” Jean says. The design lives up to the business’s new credo: fine cuisine in a coffee shop scene.

Flying Star Nob Hill isn’t the only thing that’s new again. “We’re a completely different company than we were a few years ago,” Mark says.

On January 30, 2015, Flying Star filed for bankruptcy. The filing seems overdetermined considering all the factors that were stacked against them. “She points to the Great Recession, from which New Mexico was slow to recover, as a key factor in the business’s downturn and the steady dribble of people and families that left the Metro area during this time. She cites the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, the third-longest shutdown in U.S. history, as the final straw leading to the bankruptcy. During that period, furloughed employees from Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Labs, and small government contractors, which make up a large portion of the Duke City’s workforce, stayed home—turning Flying Star’s otherwise bustling restaurants into ghost towns.

And if that didn’t urge some soul-searching, the specter of a hostile takeover gave the Bernsteins laser focus. “It helped us see our own worth,” Mark says. But persisting meant the Bernsteins had to invest their own life savings to recover the company. “We believed in it and felt we were the only ones that could resurrect it,” Mark says.

The Bernsteins resumed daily operations, which they’d previously handed off to a management team. They let their top-level managers go. “The great news was that our customers stayed and our best employees stayed. Through the whole thing, all the best people stayed,” Jean says.

Unburdened by money-draining downtown Albuquerque and Santa Fe Railyard’s leases, the Bernsteins were able to emerge from the bankruptcy proceedings two years after filing. “It’s truly one of the greatest turn-around stories you’ll ever hear,” Mark says. Resuming the operations has been, “just as exhausting as I thought it would be,” Jean laughs. “We’re very involved, and the pace is relentless.”

“But seeing the customer response keeps us going,” Mark adds.  “And the people,” Jean counters. “We like who we work with and our customers. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t be in the restaurant business.”

Pulling Flying Star out of the red has meant getting back to basics: good food. They chased dishes customers craved. They traced recipes back to their beginnings and followed them to the plate, eliminating food waste and improving execution along the way. They grew their in-house bakery operation, including providing a chef’s line of desserts to hotels and food service. Jean says it’s now one of the largest homegrown bakeries in the state.

Jean reminds that the menu starts with high-quality ingredients, like humanely raised meats that are free of antibiotics and hormones; eggs from cage-free hens; wild-caught Atlantic cod; and organic whole grains. Products are also made in house, from the pickles and strawberry jam, to salad dressings, the flexitarian veggie burger and of course, all the cakes and pastries. They source and roast organic coffee beans from a women’s cooperative and other certified origin sources. They partner with Rishi Tea and Botanicals, a fair-trade importer that sources from ecologically sustainable gardens. “After 32 years, what we do gets taken for granted,” Jean says. “We still want to be the best at what we do.”

Their efforts are paying dividends. Mark says Flying Star’s business is setting new sales records. In fact, “it’s better than any time in our 32-year history,” Mark says.

Flying Star has gone back to its roots, from rebuilding its original location to placing its founders at the helm. Choosing to root in Albuquerque—yet again—is a tenacious choice when so many pull up those roots instead. It reflects the spirit of Nob Hill, which stands as a vestige of the Duke City’s independent and eclectic entrepreneurs. And it reflects a belief and pride in Albuquerque—and her people.

Flying Star is located at 3416 Central SE in Albuquerque, flyingstarcafe.com505.255.6633.

Under the Influence of Chaco

(Story by Melyssa Holik / Photographs courtesy of Heritage Hotels & Resorts)

Nothing quite compares to a warm summer night, looking out over the city from a chic rooftop soirée. If you’re not the lucky owner of a suitable rooftop, head out to Level 5 bar at Hotel Chaco, where you can soak up its swanky vibes and take in the spectacular panorama—truly one of the best views in the city. As Albuquerque glitters below, locals and visitors alike can mingle around outdoor fireplaces, relax and sip sophisticated cocktails in style.

-As the name suggests, Level 5 sits five floors up atop the Heritage Hotel & Resort property in Old Town. The height of the fifth-floor location is a tribute the Chaco Culture National Historical Park that informed the hotel’s architecture and design. Chaco Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the center of Pueblo culture in this region until 1250 A.D. To pay homage to this culturally relevant site, Hotel Chaco fuses traditional New Mexico heritage with a contemporary aesthetic. It influences every aspect of Level 5, from the decor to the food menu and even the cocktails. As a result, Level 5 feels cosmopolitan and yet authentic, modern but still at home in the Land of Enchantment. The architectural firm of Gensler and local design firm Kris Lajeskie Design were responsible for this stunning feat.

As Shawn Buckley, director of social media and communications for Hotel Chaco explains, “As special and important as Chaco Canyon is to New Mexican culture, we sought to create a space for not only our guests but for the community that was just as important and celebratory.” For example, the hotel architects and designers used sandstone from the Colorado-New Mexico border to reflect the palette and character of New Mexico landscapes. They used materials native to the area whenever possible, and highlighted Southwestern design elements like vigas and latillas. Circular spaces, a prominent feature of Chaco Culture National Historical Park are incorporated throughout the building, and the hotel itself is oriented to celebrate alignments with the sun and moon. On the rooftop balcony, desert succulents create contemporary looking gardens next to long, natural wood tables. Traditional materials like ceramic bowls are given a modern-day upgrade with their minimalist simplicity.

The interior design includes commissioned work from contemporary Native artisans throughout the hotel, including Navajo rugs, sculptures from Roxanne Swentzell, paintings by Tony Abeyta, and doors and lights sculpted by Santa Clara Pueblo artist Tammy Garcia. Staff uniforms were created by Patricia Michaels of Taos Pueblo, and Ira Lujan from Taos/Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos created glass work throughout the property, including a hand-blown glass antler cloud in the lobby.

Beyond mere aesthetics, the food and drink are also influenced by Indigenous cultures. Ingredients are regionally and responsibly sourced, in part because Hotel Chaco acknowledges that “The cultures celebrated at Chaco understand humanity’s role as Earth’s stewards and we strive to maintain that in our restaurant.”

One way they achieve this stewardship is through The Garden at Chaco, which is where many ingredients served at Level 5 begin their journey to the plate. The garden grows turnips, fennel, eggplant, tomato, herbs and other seasonal ingredients, which then inform upcoming menus. The garden, Buckley explains, “allows us to use the freshest possible ingredients and to also have a functioning garden to provide seasonal offerings to our guests. The soil-to-soul concept is an important one that is a key part of Level 5’s ethos. Our menus showcase not only local but regionally significant ingredients.”

The menu is created by French Chef Christian Monchatre, who was selected for his ability to weave classic and modern techniques with those locally sourced ingredients. The menus are constantly evolving, depending upon the season and the availability of the best products. Chef Monchâtre then tailors the menus to create unique dishes that are representations of Hotel Chaco and its story. Like Albuquerque itself, Level 5 draws on many influences and backgrounds, using the best parts of each to create something unique and special.

For the cocktails, Level 5 strives to make as many items as possible inhouse. Again, the flavors are a bridge back to the history of New Mexico and Chaco Canyon. Hotel Chaco makes its own kombucha, ginger beer, grenadine, tonic and over a dozen other products used in the custom cocktail menu. Once more, the ingredients are just as important as the technique.

Level 5 is probably best known for The Sun Dagger, their twist on a margarita. It includes the classics, like lemon, lime, agave and tequila, but also gets a kick of bourbon and a spicy red-chile rim. Or, if bourbon’s not your thing, the Guayabera, aka “summertime in a glass,” gets its refreshing blast from house-made watermelon syrup, lemongrass tequila, lime and topo chico. The watermelon syrup also makes an appearance in Sandia Sunset, where it blends with fresh-squeezed orange juice and El Tesoro Reposado tequila. But it’s not all agave-based spirits and watermelons: other seasonal and house-made ingredients like creme de bai, fresh blackberries and lavender from the Chaco Garden also currently have a place on the always-fresh cocktail menu.

During the day, Level 5 provides a serene refuge to eat and have a quiet drink, but once the sun goes down, it gets much more lively as the bar transforms into a special-occasion spot, perfect for a night out on the town. The Bubble Bar is open Thursday through Saturday, and showcases New Mexico’s own Gruet sparkling wines, which make any occasion feel more festive. On Friday and Saturday nights in particular, guests can experience the sounds of the Southwest from Hotel Chaco’s resident DJ, DJ Cloudface. His unique musical style compliments the property; he is known for blending Native sounds with modern artists and music, and he sets the tone for a casual evening out with friends in a refined setting.

Whether you’re looking for a scenic locale to celebrate an important event, or a relaxing place to unwind after work, Level 5 will definitely level-up your evening revelry.

Level 5 at Hotel Chaco is located at 2000 Bellamah Ave. NW in Albuquerque, hotelchaco.com, 505.246.9989. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

santacafé

(Story by Cullen Curtiss/Photographs by Ramsay de Give and Douglas Merriam)

Poco a poco, some say, but Quinn Stephenson has adopted and lives the term kaizen, Japanese for incremental change (kai) for the better (zen). What could be better for Pojoaque-born-and-bred Quinn, three-year owner of the recently renovated Coyote Cafe?

Now, also owning the venerable 35-year-old santacafé, a beloved staple in the realm of local fine dining. “This is a once-in-a-career opportunity! Iconic restaurants like Coyote Cafe and santacafé only come available every couple of decades, if that, so it was a strategic move to make an offer when I did. I feel humbled and honored to inherit santacafé as a brand. I know the work that came before me and the countless sacrifices others have made. My mission is to be the best steward I can be, as well as consider kaizen philosophy every day,” Quinn says.

As I speak with Quinn in the shade of an old apricot tree that flourishes (perhaps in part due to his family’s Champagne toast and prayers) in the newly landscaped courtyard of the historic 160-year-old Padre Gallegos House, I get the sense that all of his moves have led methodically and strategically to this moment of owning two top fine-dining establishments in Santa Fe.

“I’d like to think one would not talk about the city’s best spots without considering either,” Quinn says. I ask him if he feels like a restaurateur now. “It’s a natural progression for someone who loves this industry to grow,” he demurs. “I am definitely stepping into a new role. What you would call it, I don’t know, because at the end of the day, I will still buss a table, shake a signature cocktail, suggest a Premier Cru Burgundy and take the trash out.”

You name the role and Quinn is proud to say he’s held it at one restaurant or another since he was 15: dishwasher, busser, food runner, barback, bartender, sommelier, mixologist, manager, partner. “As a local, you start working in restaurants as a summer job. My first was at a concession stand at the Flea Market washing dishes. After that, El Nido, Pranzo, Geronimo, Coyote, a few places in Albuquerque, Radish & Rye….” He’d run out of fingers if he listed all of them. “I’ve never worked or made a dollar outside of the restaurant industry.”

Midway through his third year at the University of New Mexico studying business, Quinn was honest with himself about what he really wanted to do. “I remember the class I walked out of. It was Philosophy. It was one those logic formulas—A plus B equals D minus…—I’m outta here. I remember the classroom, where I parked my car. But I do think everyone should take a business class, because you can apply [the principles] to everything.”

Perhaps the right recipe of blackboard, books and long, busy nights inside the adobe walls of some fine restaurants led to his confidence to become sole owner of Coyote Café when his friend and partner Chef Eric DiStefano died unexpectedly. “I said I need to pool all of my resources to get the shares at Coyote. I had been there since I was 19; I loved Coyote. It was my baby. It was what I believed in.” At the time, Quinn was a minority partner in Geronimo, Radish & Rye, and Coyote Cafe. “Those guys understood what I was trying to accomplish. Chris Harvey had Geronimo. Camille and Dru got Radish & Rye. It was perfect. All really beautiful, actually.”

Still, what was at the core of Quinn’s passion for running restaurants? “I genuinely love visiting and enjoying restaurants in my personal life. Eating and drinking is so personal at times, and then you add great company, food and service in a beautiful establishment,” he says. “It brings me joy and inspiration. I then try to facilitate that feeling for our guests because I know what a pleasure it is to experience it first-hand.”

The day we talk in the courtyard, which seats 100 (the interior seats 75), on chairs, lightly fringed with drywall dust, we’re gently interrupted by a stream of inquisitive folks—a representative for the landlord’s family and a roofer who hint at a tour of the renovation; a Sotheby’s realtor, who occupies an office space off the courtyard and jokes about wanting Quinn to move the pop-up Champagne and oyster bar in front of his office window; his mother Valerie, whose immediate warmth is confirmed by a genuine hug when we part; and Quinn’s fiancé Nicole, whom Quinn said I needed to meet to truly understand everything that the restaurant would become.

“Nicole is a huge inspiration. It’s been fun to do this together,” Quinn says. “Her smile, her laughter, her energy is just so awesome.” And indeed, her depth and warmth are very guiding. She confirms their shared love of food and hospitality. “We are super sensitive, emotional people,” she says. “We cry over food all the time, the beauty of it, because we understand the creative process, the hard work. We feel on a constant basis so fortunate to have the means to eat whatever we want. It’s a luxury.” Hunger and animal welfare are two big concerns for the couple, and Nicole hopes to do more benefits like the one they did for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society.

The couple met at Geronimo after Nicole returned home to Santa Fe from Los Angeles, Calif., to take care of her dying grandmother. Together, they’re rebirthing santacafé, which is a beautiful collaboration involving many other players. They’ve enhanced the minimalist approach that former owners Bobby Morean and Judy Ebbinghaus fostered and have incorporated some key grounding pieces from Coyote Cafe’s neighbor gallery Sequoia Santa Fe—a tree-trunk bartop, back-lit onyx wall panels from Mexico, a white granite host stand, and a commanding lychee tree-root wall-hanging from Thailand. These bold accents complement the clean, contemporary beige-cream-white-ivory hues that are clearly a sweeping signature style. In the courtyard, four sets of hand-crafted, gold-painted metal lounge tables and couches extend the bar atmosphere through the open windows; Ella Fitzgerald and that school of music wafts from the new speaker system; lights bedazzle the trees and pattern the flagstone.

Feel the mood yet? Just wait until you interact with the staff and taste the food. Nicole says, “We live by a Maya Angelou quote that we have on our wall of the third floor at Coyote: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’” She explains: “We are in the business of people. Our philosophy is around creating a family. Everyone should feel happy and generally like showing up to work because it’s a professional performance every night. It takes an intuitive person, which is a high form of intelligence, to do this work well. We aim for giving an experience you’ll not forget.”

Quinn says, “We don’t light fire under staff, we light fires inside them. The culture we have created and continue to create is unmatched in my opinion. Every single employee is part of the team for a reason. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that for me to be successful, I have to surround myself with talented individuals. One of the best I’ve worked with is our general manager, Paul Montoya. I respect him, I trust him emphatically, and his reputation as a sincere professional in this community is outstanding. He was one of the first people I called when putting the deal together.”

Another person in whom Quinn has resounding confidence is santacafé Executive Chef Kelmin Rosa, who’ll continue his role after having been with the restaurant for eight years. The menu features many classics, and seafood- and vegetable-forward dishes that are driven by high-quality ingredients, such as a tower built with oysters, crab legs, mussels, shrimp and ceviche; mini lobster rolls; peas and pecorino in a mint shallot vinaigrette and summer corn with chiles, lime and local feta; potatoes with caviar and crème fraîche. Their breads, pastas and vegetable-based sauces are all house-made, and partnerships with local growers mean “quite a bit of the menu will change with the season’s bounty,” Nicole says.

Their aesthetic and flavors are influenced by food-driven travel. “Eating is my favorite thing to do,” Nicole admits freely. Los Angeles, where she spent seven years as a college student and young professional, is an inspiration for its cultural diversity and its “vibrant culinary scene.”

But home is deeply important as well. Quinn shares a story from years ago about a diner who razzed him for never living anywhere but New Mexico. “I love my life and I love it here,” he says. “Perfectly happy right where I am.” Quinn recently bought his grandfather’s house when it came up on the market. “We kept it a secret and then invited the whole family to dinner there. You should have seen my dad, walking around shaking his head. He grew up in that house. It’s just all so perfect.” Perfect also refers to the home’s ample square footage inside and out for their blue nose pitbull Spartacus, and to the location, which is within biking distance of both restaurants, which are, in turn, within walking distance of one another across the Plaza.

Though Quinn may not have needed a sign that he was making the right decision by purchasing santacafé, a divine-design coincidence sweetens the story. Before becoming a New Mexico Supreme Court justice, his grandfather, Donnan Stephenson, ran his law firm out of the building that is now santacafé. The room to the right as you walk in the front door was his office.

“The older I get and the more experiences I have, I remind myself to trust it,” Quinn says. “I do put dominos in effect to make things happen.”

Santacafé is located at 231 Washington Ave. in Santa Fe, 505.984.1788, santacafe.com.

Sassella, Shooting for the Stars

(Story by Amy Morton/Photographs by Gabriella Marks)

“Can I show you something”? Chef Cristian Pontiggia asks with a barely contained smile. “This is my baby,” he says proudly of the vintage meat slicer he’s imported from Italy for Sassella, his new fine-dining Italian restaurant in downtown Santa Fe. Stationed in the front corner of Sassella’s wood-and-brick-accented bar, the gleaming manual slicer—an all-metal Berkel model from the ’60s—will soon be in perpetual motion, with one cook tasked with doing nothing other than preparing daily charcuterie for the Affettati Misti, one of Sassella’s antipasti dishes. Some charcuterie will be house-made, others are Italian imports that take a year to age. Regardless, those in the bar will be able to watch the process. “I’d like it to be entertaining, and for people to see what’s going on behind the scenes,” Chef Cristian says.

Putting this beautiful old-school machine and the creation of the charcuterie plate on full display is just one of the many signs that the owners of Sassella, which debuted July 1, are aiming for a more elevated Italian concept than Santa Fe has previously seen. That should come as no surprise, however, given that Cristian’s three fellow co-owners—Lawrence and Suzanna Becerra and Chef Fernando Olea—comprise the team behind the acclaimed Mexican fine-dining establishment Sazón. Since its opening in 2015, Sazón has earned AAA Four Diamond status—only the third Santa Fe restaurant to do so, along with Geronimo and Terra at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado—and, most recently, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2019.

“We only want to do fine dining because that’s where you can really express yourself as an artist as the chef,” says Lawrence, who is half-Italian and half-Spanish and spent half his life living in Europe. Yet he acknowledges it’s an all-in proposition. “If you want to do fine dining, you really have to bring it,” he says. “Not just great food, but great ambience and great service. It’s the holy trinity. You can’t have two without the other.” Fortunately, the Becerras already had one of those fronts covered, with Suzanna applying her interior designer skills to both restaurants. Lawrence, meanwhile, handles finances and curates the wine and alcohol programs. As for service, Chef Fernando will run operations and staff training at Sazón and Sassella. “He’s an extraordinary host,” Lawrence says.

In both endeavors, the couple sought to go into business with a talented chef who was keen to demonstrate the sophisticated cuisine of his homeland, without compromise. Fernando hails from cosmopolitan Mexico City, while Cristian grew up in the mountainous Lombardy region of Northern Italy, home to ski resorts, Milan and Lake Como. His village of Sondrio was near the small wine-producing hamlet of Sassella. With only around 60 residents, Sassella is a place where you can get around by bicycle, and it’s where the chef tasted wine for the first time. “There was no traffic, and just grapes everywhere,” Chef Cristian says fondly of Sassella, which is also the name of the local wine. (While this namesake red wine made from Nebbiolo grapes is not yet available at the restaurant, Lawrence is working to get a distributor to import it to New Mexico—a feat he accomplished at Sazón when seeking to bring wines from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe to the state for the first time.)

Whereas Sazón set out to educate diners about how true upscale Mexican cuisine is entirely different from, say, Tex-Mex comfort food, Sassella is similarly designed to showcase what an authentic high-end Italian dining experience is like—not an Americanized interpretation of it. “A proper Italian meal starts with an aperitif, like a glass of Champagne,” Lawrence says. “The Italians love Champagne and their own sparkling wines. Or they have an Aperol spritz or a Gin and Tonic. You start with that to wake up your palate. Then, you always have your meal with wine. You have your soup or salad, a small amount of pasta, a small piece of meat. You eat all the right categories, and you eat them proportionately. It has balance. It’s not all starch or all protein. And then, with your coffee, you have a digestif—an Amaro or Grappa—that helps you digest. That’s a fine-dining meal in Italy, and that’s what we offer here.”

For Cristian, Sassella represents an incredible opportunity to do precisely what he wants as chef and co-owner. Having worked at two Michelin-starred restaurants in the Lake Como area early in his career (which he equates to “having a military general in the kitchen”), as well as jobs in London, Tokyo and other top food cities, he landed in New Mexico roughly a decade ago, and soon thereafter met his wife, a native New Mexican. After stints at The Stakeout in Taos, and Osteria d’Assisi in Santa Fe and El Nido in Tesuque, he’s found the perfect platform to show off his heritage. Just don’t ask him to limit himself to the food of Lombardy or even Northern Italy.

“If you think about the geographic disposition of Italy, in the north, you have more game, it’s more wintery,” Cristian says. “In the South, it’s more about the sea, it’s more summery. But everything is delicious in Italy. I don’t have a favorite region. I just like the variety of food you can find across that geography.” For him, the menu should crisscross the country, highlighting distinctive dishes that can be found in even the tiniest places. It’s an approach that stems from his travels, and particularly from a memorable road trip he took with fellow chefs. “It was me and two of my best friends,” he says. “We started from the north and traveled from small town to small town, just eating and drinking. It was one of the best vacations I ever had. You find fancy restaurants, cheap restaurants, but everybody cares about the food.” That shared passion, he says, is a saving grace. “The politics in Italy are horrible—the only reason we don’t have a revolution is because we have good food, good wine and soccer!”

In addition to resisting a regional label for his food, Chef Cristian also disputes that everything needs to be imported from Italy. For example, he is making his mozzarella and burrata in-house using the original recipe from Italy and milk from a local New Mexico producer, with plans to expand to ricotta and other cheeses soon. He also has a dedicated local farmer growing 80 percent of the vegetables used in the restaurant who is willing to see what specialty Italian produce can be successfully cultivated here. If it works out, he may be able to reach 100 percent.

“If it’s traveling to the U.S., it’s never going to be fresh,” he says. “Make it with the local ingredients. People say, ‘Oh, you have to have imported mozzarella or buffalo milk from Italy,’ but the best way you can have mozzarella is fresh!” (Having tried his Burrata Caprese, with a large and luscious mound of burrata, accompanied by red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and edible flowers, I certainly wouldn’t argue.)

Another decidedly fresh element is the top-to-bottom makeover that Sassella’s new home—a historic brick building at 225 Johnson St., built circa 1903 or 1904, that is adjacent to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and formerly housed the restaurants Maize and Georgia—has gone through. According to Lawrence, Suzanna strove to lighten up the formerly dark interior while honoring the building’s storied past. They’ve also transformed the outdoor courtyard by putting up a gate, extending the liquor license to the sidewalk and adding ample patio seating as well as lounge areas with sofas. The inviting new patio is one reason Sassella, unlike Sazón, is open for lunch as well as dinner, giving al fresco diners even more opportunity to try the 16—yes, 16—different varieties of “Gin Tónicos” on the extensive drink menu while taking in the atmospheric property’s metamorphosis.

“This is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Santa Fe,” Lawrence says. “It used to be the military barracks, and in fact, the bricks came from the Old Fort Marcy building. All the bricks in this building were made by prisoners at the old Santa Fe prison.” Uncannily, it was also a building that Lawrence and Suzanna had long admired since their arrival in Santa Fe in 2004.

“Our two favorite buildings to go to were where Sazón is today, which used to be Julian’s back then, and this building, which was then O’Keeffe Café. Both did reasonably good food, but they were just romantic buildings. So, it’s kind of interesting that we ended up with both.” With the Johnson Street building becoming available this past spring, and the vision for Sassella coming together “immediately” within a mere matter of months, you might go so far as to call it fate, or as the Italians would say, “destino.”

Sassella is located at 225 Johnson St. in Santa Fe, 505.982.6734, sassellasantafe.com.

On the Line August 2019

(Story by Mark Johnson/Photographs by Gabriella Marks)

One of the most crucial points in any restaurant is where the food is passed from the cooks’ hands to a final inspection and then on to the table. We call this spot on the line ‘the window ’, and a lot can be seen through it, both literally and figuratively. Now, just imagine looking through the same window for over 17 years, and what if the view from there is one of the most important kitchens in New Mexico culinary history, the seminal Coyote Cafe & Cantina? You would have seen some of the most noted chefs, worked on some of the most famous plates and helped produce some of the most epic dinners. Only one man has had the privilege to enjoy that point of view—Benjamin Esperanza.

Before Benjamin even got to the United States, he was already learning his way around the kitchen while he was attending high school in Zacatecas, Mexico. Nearby the school, his mother ran a small restaurant out of their home’s kitchen. His teachers would send him a bit early before lunch so he could help her make the flautas and torta—on the condition he returned with some lunch for his educators, too. Some of his fondest memories of his late madre were of helping her with the homemade sandwiches of bread and lomo. He was the youngest of eight children, and one of his brothers now owns a restaurant in Zacatecas.

In 1994, on the suggestion of a close friend, Benjamin decided to make his way up to Santa Fe for a season and make some money working banquets in the local hotels during the summer. So he left behind his wife and their new baby boy, Benjamin Jr., and headed to Santa Fe. Before long, he caught wind that renowned Chef Mark Miller was looking for a summer dishwasher for his seasonal outdoor restaurant Coyote Cantina. It was a part-time seasonal position that ended in the fall, so Benjamin also began working as a prep cook at the ill-fated Bobo Gonzo so he would have a place to stay busy during the winter months. The next spring, the new kitchen manager, Daniel Alvarez, brought him back and moved him up a notch from the dish pit to a knife on the cutting board. Again, the next off-season, Benjamin went to work at Pranzo under Chef Steven Lemon, working the cold station making salads and desserts. And again, when things warmed up enough for Chef Mark’s patio to open, he was brought up to the new position. Benjamin did this year after year, often working both jobs at the same time, and bringing his new skills to Coyote. Finally, he was moved to the Cafe itself, working directly with Chef Mark. Benjamin remembers the chef being very strict but never pissed. He especially enjoyed learning how to make the myriad tamales the Cafe was famous for. He also remembers a young but exceptional bus boy working there at the time, Quinn Stephenson.

To say we restaurant folk can work extraordinarily long hours is no understatement, and Benjamin was no exception. For almost a decade, he would come to the Cantina early in the morning so he could set up the kitchen for a busy afternoon. He would feed the masses out on the patio and clean up just in time to begin putting things together for a busy dinner shift inside the Cafe. He especially enjoyed when he was on the sauté and grill. In most restaurants, those are separate stations, but Benjamin is such a badass, he could manage both. One of the most acclaimed steaks in the world of meat is the legendary Coyote Cowboy Cut ribeye. Food lovers from around the world travel to the Land of Enchantment for it. Now, just imagine the thousands of steaks Benjamin has turned over on the grill over the years, night after night. Finally, he would clean up and get home for a couple of hours of family time and some rest. If you ever wondered where the old Mexican adage, “There’s time enough to sleep when you’re dead,” comes from, now you know. It’s the work ethic.

During all that time, Benjamin saw several chefs walk through those kitchen doors, but two stick out in his mind, both as friends and mentors. He even gets a bit emotional when recalls the five years he worked with the late, great Chef Eric DiStefano. “He was a very good man when he was fun and happy or mad,” Benjamin remembers. “I liked the way his hands moved in the kitchen and his use of lots of different spices.” The other is the current Chef Eduardo Rodriguez who is running the kitchen at the Cafe. He and Benjamin have been working side by side for nine years. “Things are as good if not better than they have ever been,” he says.

Now, for the last three years, Benjamin has been running things in the Cantina kitchen. Remember that exceptional bus boy from years ago? Quinn now owns the place, and he’s renovated the Cantina dining area to be either indoor or outdoor depending on the weather, so it can be open all year long. Benjamin no longer has to work 13- to 14-hour-long days, six to seven days a week. These days, it’s only 10 to 12 hours, five or six days a week…the simple life. He loves collaborating with Quinn on the ever-changing menu. While he’ll always enjoy the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, Benjamin is especially proud of their new dish Prickly Pear Aguachiles—citrus-cured shrimp with serranos, green apple and cucumber.

He also loves his ceviche bar because it’s different every day. He likes the customers better now, too; he enjoys their understanding of food and how they appreciate his dishes and the simpler, laid-back vibe. He does kid around with Chef Eduardo, though, about picking up a couple of nights on the line in the Cafe to work on those big steaks. And there’s a Patagonian Sea Bass with potato and spinach ravioli on the menu right now that may be the best he’s ever had there. In fact, Chef Mark Miller dropped in a couple months ago to try it out.

When it’s all said and done, and Benjamin gets to relax at home, his favorite thing to do, believe it or not, is to cook for his family. Even after a 13-hour day during which he’s fed everyone but himself, he’ll whip up some carne asada and frijoles for a family meal.

Remember that son of his he left back in Mexico as a baby? And the baby’s mom? Well, after a few years, Benjamin moved them both up to Santa Fe, and Benjamin Jr. grew up as a true Santa Fean. He remembers watching his dad “coming home late nights and being all stressed out.” After attending Capitol High School here in Santa Fe, Benjamin Jr. worked a few different jobs, even washing dishes and cooking at McDonald’s. But as of spring of 2018, he has been working with his dad as a part of the Coyote family.

During a portion of the interview, Benjamin asks his son to sit down with us, and I catch a distinct look of fatherly pride when I ask, “Well, how’s he coming along?” After just a few minutes, it’s obvious this young man has definitely inherited his dad’s intensity, drive and desire to put out some great food. He’s mastered many of the stations of the kitchen already and has even been trusted with the keys so he can get an early start at prepping everything for the day. After spending an afternoon with the two of them, I have a strong hunch we’ll be hearing the name Chef Benjamin for decades to come.

Coyote Café and Rooftop Cantina is located at 132 W Water Street in Santa Fe. 505.983.1615. coyotecafe.com/cantina

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.