As a longtime fan of Chef Joel Coleman’s cooking, I remember my disappointment when I heard he was leaving town after running into owner problems at his downtown venture Koi. Prior to that, Coleman had made a splash with Mauka in the Guadalupe district, serving his unique spin on Japanese and Asian inspired cooking. His frustration is one that many talented chefs feel; finding your culinary footing in this fickle industry can be tricky. I was glad to hear he was back in town and eager to check out his new gastro pub, an idea he had been playing with in his head for years. As I wrote in my round-up in the September issue of Local Flavor, when I visit a restaurant three times in a week, you know I’m intrigued. Fire & Hops has become my new “local favorite” so I was curious to hear from the chef himself, and partner Josh Johns, just how this new gamble is panning out … and to talk Spam.
John Vollertsen: With your other two restaurants, Mauka and Koi, you enjoyed measured success but still closed them sooner than you had hoped to. Do you feel that with Fire and Hops third time’s a charm?
Joel Coleman: I feel like it’s all about everything falling into place at the right time. A lot of people don’t realize that Koi wasn’t actually mine, and I became very unhappy with the owner and overall situation there. After I quit, they closed the restaurant. With that said, everything feels right with Fire and Hops. Josh and I have put a lot of work into this place and I think people really recognize and appreciate that.
JV: What have you been doing in the past three years? How have you changed and how has your cooking changed?
JC: Koi closed in April of 2011 and I was frustrated with that situation and I needed a change, so I moved back to the Bay Area. It was an interesting few years out there and I learned a lot. I spent a few months in southeast Asia and came back with a different perspective on things. I also had a brief stint as a personal chef, and I had stages at some amazing restaurants. I think all of those things helped me to become more diverse with my cooking.
JV: Do you think Santa Fe has changed since you were in San Francisco?
JC: I have definitely noticed some changes since I’ve been gone and they all seem to be very positive. I feel like there are a lot of good things happening in Santa Fe as far as the culinary scene goes, and on top of that it just seems as if there are a lot of people trying to help with moving things forward here.
JV: What person, chef or otherwise, do you feel has taught you the most about the business?
JC: One person is definitely my best friend Matt Tinder, whom I’ve known for over 20 years. He is one of the best pastry chefs in the country and he has always helped me to stay driven and has taught me so much over the years. I would also have to say that Mu from Mu Du Noodles has taught me a lot. I’ve worked for her a few times now, she’s been going strong for 16, 17 years now, and I’ve learned a lot from her about the business.
JV: How did your partnership with Josh Johns come about? What roles do you each play within the business?
JC: I met Josh back in 2010, when Koi was open and the crew would go into Second Street Brewery quite a bit. Josh was the bartender and manager there and he always created a great environment there. He was also very easy to get along with. We always joked about opening a gastro pub one day and when I moved back to Santa Fe at the end of 2013, the idea came up again and everything came together very organically.
Josh Johns corroborates: I had just helped open the Railyard location and was bartending and then managing. Joel and his crew from Koi would come in in the evening and a friendship was struck up with him. When Joel moved back to town we reconnected and everything just lined up nicely for opening a place—financials, timing, finding a location, etc. And here we are! Joel is the head chef and kitchen manager and I’m the manager for the front of the house. We collaborate on beer, wine and cider and what is best for the season and pairs well with the food. I give him feedback on what customers think of the food but I basically told him when we first got together that he is one of the few chefs in town I’d want to work with and that I believe 100 percent in his cooking and menu choices. We agreed that we will be changing the menu seasonally.
JV: What are your signature dishes on the Fire and Hops menu?
JC: I think the most consistently popular dish would have to be the poutine. Aside from that, the pork belly has also been very popular, as well as the fish and chip fritters and the Chiang Mai sausage. The salt and vinegar potatoes are a snack that has also become quite popular. These are all things that will probably stay on the menu going into fall.
JV: How would you describe your niche market at Fire and Hops? Is it the crowd you were hoping to reach? Is it different from your fans at your previous restaurants?
JC: We were really hoping for a pretty diverse crowd and I think we got that. I have a following from past restaurants and Josh has quite the following himself. We really want anyone and everyone to feel comfortable here. We have people who just come in for a beer, others that have a burger or a snack, and then there are the guests who come in and sit for hours and have several courses. On top of the well thought out beer list, we also have a very nice wine list and a nice selection of ciders as well.
JV: Have you had to rethink the way you plan a menu to serve it alongside a beer-centric rather than wine oriented menu?
JC: It doesn’t really change the way I write a menu, although I do try and think of ways to incorporate beer. We use it to brine the pork for Cubanos, braise the pork belly in and I’ve even made a sorbet with it, which people seem to love. We plan on hosting some beer dinners soon and although we are very beer focused, I want people to know that we put a lot of thought into the wine list as well. It’s small, but it has a nice balance and should please most palates.
JJ: I’ve worked at Second Street Brewery, Wolf Canyon Brewery, Blue Corn Brewery, Brown’s Brewery in Troy, N.Y., and the Barrington Brewery in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, so you could say I’ve gotten my feet wet with beer. With beer I feel I know the basics pretty well but it’s an ever growing field that’s always changing. We just try to stay aware of new styles and trends and if it tastes good to us we feel like others will like it as well. In addition, I just love people and conversing with them. It’s great to watch folks come together in a casual environment to relax and enjoy a quality beverage with great food. The fact that we built it ourselves makes it all the better!
JV: Any dishes we can look forward to you adding to the menu this fall?
JC: I love the summer season for all of the bright and fresh ingredients, but I’m really looking forward to the fall menu as well. I plan on doing a shepherd’s pie with Shepherd’s Lamb from Tierra Amarilla. We’re also going to be adding a cassoulet, an heirloom hubbard squash soup, braised short ribs and some other hearty dishes that will be appropriate for the fall and winter seasons. I think it’s very important to follow the seasons and I always hate to see tomatoes being served in January. Ingredients taste best at their peak, during the season, and we try to focus on that.
JV: Any underappreciated ingredient you love to cook with that doesn’t show up anywhere on Santa Fe menus?
JC: I have an appreciation for Spam. I spent 14 years in Hawaii and I love it. I think it will make an appearance on the menu, or maybe as a special at some point. I think Spam musubi (Spam sushi) would make a great snack at the restaurant/bar.
JV: Care to admit to a food you love to eat that would surprise our readers?
JC: I do my best to eat well and support local farms and ranchers as much as possible, but once in a while I get a craving for Wendy’s. I can’t help it.
Interview by John Vollertsen; photos by Stephen Lang
Fire and Hops is located at 222 North Guadalupe in Santa Fe. 505.954.1635. fireandhopsgastropub.com.