Story by Erin Brooks
Photos by Gabriella Marks
I make my living from food. As a server at a local restaurant, I spend several nights a week talking to customers about particular dishes, making recommendations and bringing food from the kitchen to the table. As a freelance food and wine writer, I spend lots of time writing about food and eating at restaurants. You, as a reader of this magazine, are probably also part of the food industry in some way, or perhaps you’re simply passionate about cuisine. Santa Fe is home to a thriving culinary community.
But what if you didn’t have enough to eat, or you had to choose between buying groceries and getting medical treatment?
Hunger is something that Carmen Rodriguez, executive chef of the Four Diamond award–winning Fuego at La Posada, thinks about often. His experience, if laid out in miles, would span the width of an ocean. As a poor young man growing up in Chicago, he was a gang member; nowadays he’s a successful chef who was voted New Mexico’s Chef of the Year in 2012. It goes without saying that his food is delicious. He’s created a unique “global Latin” menu with Santa Fe flair at Fuego. Carmen’s dishes are a fun mix of interesting and sometimes unexpected ingredients, like the marinated flank steak with Gochujang-avocado sauce and Napa cabbage in the Korean tacos or the yam and plantain fufu, chipotle-tamarind sauce and fresh vegetables that accompany the grilled rib eye. But Carmen wasn’t voted Chef of the Year just for his skills in the kitchen; he’s earned his status by giving back, tremendously, to our community.
Carmen tells me he’s been involved with food his whole life, and he’s not just referring to working in a restaurant. “I was born and raised in Chicago. I’m half Cuban, half Mexican. I was a migrant worker with my parents at a very young age. My mom was pregnant with me in the fields, and my grandmother used to carry me around in a makeshift carrier while she picked.” Carmen’s mother worked three jobs, and the family depended on welfare and food stamps to get by. Carmen says, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I grew up poor and I grew up hungry. Sometimes our dinner was candy from one of my mother’s jobs.” At fourteen, Carmen went to work as a dishwasher to help support his family. Because life was tough in inner-city Chicago, he also joined a gang.
Two things happened to the young Carmen that profoundly affected his life. First, he met the man who would become his mentor, Chef Giovanni of Giovanni’s in Chicago. “My true cooking ability came from my great-grandmother and grandmother,” Carmen explains. “I learned the old-fashioned way, from family recipes, like Mexican sauces and my nana’s chocolate mousse. But Giovanni taught me a lot of what I know about the business.”
Although Carmen had found a mentor, he later got in trouble with the law. A judge gave him a choice: join the Air Force or go to a correctional facility. Carmen took the first option and became a kitchen fixer, working with the civilian organizations that run military kitchens to get them back in order if they are failing. Later, he moved to California, where he became widely recognized for his cooking abilities and made a name for himself as a chef. His menu at Fuego is a result of both the influence of his family and of his travels in the Air Force, where he learned to prepare ethnic foods.
But his story doesn’t end there. Although he had found success as a chef, Carmen wasn’t happy. “Growing up in the inner city, I always had a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I was always watching my back, because there was no one else there to watch it for me.” After moving to Santa Fe, in 2000, he met Penny, who later become his wife. “When I met Penny,” he remembers fondly, “she brought the balance back to me that I needed. She rejuvenated my cooking career. She made me realize again the talent that I had. And she believed in what I did. When we started working together as a team to give back to our community, I knew it was meant to be.”
Penny, who runs a full-time medical practice, was also searching for something more. She’d worked for several nonprofits and volunteered for the Buckaroo Ball. She even considered bigger organizations like the Red Cross. “I always wanted to join the Red Cross,” she says, “but I never did. I could never find a real connection with any of the organizations I worked with.” But when she and Carmen discovered the Food Depot, she knew it was just what she’d been looking for. “Things like the Buckaroo Ball were great, but they were also glamorous and they just didn’t feel as essential as feeding people.” A week after finding out about the Food Depot, Carmen and Penny were on the board of directors.
Penny points out that people don’t always realize there is a real problem with hunger here in New Mexico. I decided to do a little research and discovered some startling facts. According to the New Mexico Association of Food Banks (NMAFB), almost 40,000 New Mexicans seek food assistance every week. Large percentages of people requiring food assistance have to choose between paying for food and paying for other necessities—like utilities, rent or mortgage, and medicine or medical care. Food banks like the Food Depot are integral in providing food for those who need it. The Food Depot collects food through collaborative relationships with the food industry, our government and the community. It then distributes it to 135 partner agencies, including food pantries, youth programs, senior centers, shelters and hot meal programs. The NMAFB also states that 83 percent of the food distributed by food pantries in New Mexico is provided by food banks like the Food Depot.
Listening to Carmen and Penny talk about their work over tea in the library room of La Posada, I can hardly keep up with the charitable organizations they’ve become involved with. Along with the Food Depot, they’ve worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters, ¡YouthWorks!, Gerard’s House and Delancey Street Foundation. This month Carmen and Penny collaborated with Chef Ahmed Obo, of Jambo Café, on a fundraiser for his new Jambo Kids Foundation, an organization that will work to raise money for new health care facilities on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, where Ahmed is from. Although Carmen cooks at many charitable events, for him it’s not about the cooking or the status of being a successful chef. “Being poor, growing up in inner city Chicago in a poor Hispanic family, we always got help from somebody, whether it was the church, a neighbor or family members,” Carmen says. “I realized that as a chef, I can do something for my community.”
Carmen points out that he is one of only a handful of Hispanic executive chefs at a resort in New Mexico. Besides engaging with a multitude of charities, he works hard to encourage Hispanic chefs in the industry. “When you put that chef’s coat on, you’re not Hispanic, you’re not Anglo, a man or a woman. You’re a chef. Period.” He believes in teaching others to believe in themselves, just as Giovanni did for him. “Thirty-one years ago Giovanni took a little snot-nosed gang member off the streets. Just because you make one mistake doesn’t mean your life is over.”
I ask Carmen what it means to him to be named New Mexico’s Chef of the Year for 2012. His answer catches me off-guard. “It means nothing—at least, the food part means nothing. Knowing my peers thought I was good enough really surprised me. And it showed me how much my community was watching me,” he says. “I didn’t know that. But I didn’t win because of my food. I won because I was giving so much back to my community.”
For Carmen, being a successful chef is just another tool for contributing to our community. “I was one judge away from the fate of some of these people I’m trying to help,” he explains solemnly. “That’s why I do it. That’s why sometimes I work seven days a week, even when I’m dead tired. I see the love of people like Ahmed of Jambo Café, who cares so much about his cause. It fuels me.” Someone once told him, “It’s our duty to take care of each other,” and Carmen and Penny believe in this with all their hearts. Smiling, Carmen reminds me that La Posada donates one turkey for each confirmed Thanksgiving Day reservation at Fuego. “I’m not trying to save the world,” he says. “I’m just trying to make it better, and happier, for a few people.”
Fuego is located in La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa at 330 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. 505.986.0000. laposadsdesantafe.com.