Story by Kate Gerwin
Photos by Joy Godfrey
“Spare time” is not a term tossed around casually by most restaurant industry professionals. A typical day for a chef begins with checking on orders, morning prep work and kitchen set-up to get ready. Then, of course, there is lunch and dinner service—that’s a given. But then don’t forget about the aftermath: wrapping up all the stations, cleaning the kitchen, getting prep lists for the next day. And that’s not all. There is still probably an order that needs to be placed, a schedule that needs to be written or (if, heaven forbid, it’s the end of the month) an entire kitchen that needs to be inventoried. Twelve-hour days are normal, weekends off are not an option, and holidays off? Well, they are few and far between. The life of a chef doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep, let alone “spare time.” Juggling work, personal life, family and sanity is a challenge in itself, so when you come across a chef like Phil Beltran, who on top of everything else prioritizes giving back to his community through charitable organizations, you have to stop and take notice.
Beltran is the Executive Chef of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Albuquerque and has been with the Hyatt corporation for over 20 years. He takes a lot of pride in being a mentor to young chefs, but that is not where it ends. He also works with several programs in the Albuquerque community, like the Albuquerque Public Schools Title I Homeless Project, an important safety net for homeless children in the area. “There are 6,000-plus homeless children in the Albuquerque area,” he informs me. The APS Title I project offers many services to the homeless children and their families, including enrollment assistance, school supplies and uniforms, after-school tutoring programs, summer programs and even parental support assistance. “We put together back-to-school backpacks for the students in need,” Beltran explains, “and we have put together Easter baskets, too.” They have even used the Hyatt as a site for hosting future career programs for students who don’t have the opportunities that others may take for granted. Beltran takes significant pride in assisting youth without the means to make better futures for themselves.
The Dia de los Muertos Celebration is an annual event hosted at the Hyatt benefitting the Central New Mexico Community College Culinary Arts Scholarship. It’s an evening of mouth-watering creations prepared by the Hyatt staff and CNM culinary students, along with entertainment, face painting, sugar skulls and a silent auction—all of which support CNM students in need of financial assistance for tuition or the purchase of books and tools required for their courses. Hyatt donates all of the proceeds from the event to the scholarship fund for the culinary program. Beltran says he is “very fond of the CNM Culinary program, Chef Scott Clapp and Chef Carmine and what they are doing for young culinarians.” Seventy percent of his Hyatt kitchen staff are culinary graduates or students from CNM. “That to me is very important, because those young people have to carry on the craft. Hotels and restaurants are a big contributor to the economy, and we need young talent like those students to keep our kitchens operational and bringing great food and dining experiences to guest who travel and dine out.” Beltran also runs an internship program for CNM culinary students, which he says is just as rewarding to him as it is to the students.
I was sure that someone so dedicated to mentoring new chefs and helping young adults find career paths would have some sizzling talent under his realm at the Hyatt Regency. I knew a former chef there, Jeremy Peterson and remember him as being one of the more gifted and respected chefs in the area. But alas, I have never been to feast on the cuisine at Forque; and since I consider myself to be quite the foodie and fairly well educated on the Albuquerque dining scene, it seemed almost a crime not to head there immediately and check out the talent in the kitchen. I mean, for the sake of research, of course.
I decide to sit at the kitchen bar so I can watch all the action. I love open kitchens. There is something about the action, the smells and the heat of the kitchen that has me mesmerized the instant I sit. I start with the Confit Pork Belly Salad. (It had me with “confit,” but followed by “pork belly,” it’s a no brainer.) The pork belly is smoked for two hours and cooked confit for ten, but the spotlight of the dish is stolen by the cherries. They are rich, succulent and full of flavor, and I can’t help but ask how they were prepared. Now, I have had cherries on a salad before. But these cherries, which were tossed with spinach, feta cheese and pecans, had a unique flavor. Turns out, they were dried and then rehydrated with maple syrup and a bit of brandy. The maple flavor danced with the pork belly, but not a tap dance routine—a slow and seductive tango.
I asked the chef across the bar what I should have for dinner. He smiled a very proud grin and suggested the salmon. Flawlessly cooked moist salmon dressed with a coconut curry sauce arrived delivered by Chef Ernesto Duran, the lead chef of Forque restaurant. The two-time Albuquerque Chef Knockout champion (yet another charity event the Hyatt participates in benefiting the Storehouse, an organization that annually feeds two million meals to Albuquerque’s working poor) has poured his heart into Forque for years, and by the look on his face I can tell this is one of his dishes. “We are very fortunate to have a guy with his talents,” brags Beltran. “Someday I want to get inside his head and find out where he comes up with all that creative stuff he does.” My salmon is escorted by a crisp salad of apples and sunflower sprouts, and I devour every bite.
I am curious about local foods on the menu, and seeing Beltran’s care for community, I am sure there has to be some New Mexican treats. And, of course, as a supporter of Delicious New Mexico, a newly found organization that brings together farmers and ranchers and connects them to grocery stores and restaurants, Forque suffers no lack of available neighboring nutrients. “We’re working with La Montañita for organics, cheese from Old Windmill in Estancia, harvested beef and Agricultura Network, a group of local farmers.” The osso bucco is not only locally sourced but served with pico de gallo, avocado, cilantro black bean stew, cabbage and, of course, corn tortillas to make your own little tacos table-side. The meat falls off the bone, and the whole experience is a refreshing take on the “fine dining” concept. Not stuffy or pretentious, just good fresh food.
Whether it’s filling hundreds of lunch bags in their ballroom or doing food distribution for the Storehouse, Beltran and the Hyatt are certainly reaching out to the community to do their part. “At least once a month, we as a hotel group of associates participate in APS Title I, the Spring Fling for Easter, Adopt a Family, Fill a Backpack, Coats for the Winter and much more to come that we will continue to do,” proclaims Beltran.
I ask the East L.A.–born USC Trojans fan what he loves most about this crazy industry. His answer? “The people I share my every day with here at the hotel—everyone from the GM to the dishwashers. There’s the good days and the bad ones, but we all share the same purpose. We do this thing of taking care of a guest in the hotel and making the experience for them an excellent one.”
It seems to me that Beltran is not just taking care of his guests; he is enriching the experience of his community.
Forque is situated in the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque at 330 Tijeras Ave NW. 505.843.2700. albuquerque.hyatt.com.