For those of us who calibrate a day by when and what we plan on eating, there are a few archetypal dishes that manage to reach deeply into our imaginations, stir our souls and cozy themselves within our seminal memories. They become foundational to our craft. For me, one of those dishes is crispy polenta with real maple syrup. I was introduced to that dish at Cafe Pasqual’s. It’s a privilege now, 35 years later, to sit around and talk with Katharine Kagel, the charismatic and playful visionary chef/owner of Cafe Pasqual’s, someone who impacted my food world as only a few have. We got to talking.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Katharine Kagel: Opportunity and kindness feed me. Opportunity to be creative, to be healthy, to contribute, to explore, to give, to love, opportunity to work with people I adore. To have the freedom to do all the above.
Mark: Do you consider yourself a pioneer?
Katharine: In a tiny, tiny way. I think what Pasqual’s has brought to our community over three, almost four, decades are a set of values and a social consciousness that we hope is beneficial to the community: from offering organic, to pastured meats, having a program where we support food programs, and feeding people who need some help in getting their food.
There was definitely pioneering going on with ingredients, and what we offer. I think that the people who are Pasqual’s, which is our staff and our patrons, really want value. They want value in their food, and in their experiences. We have tried to offer that from the beginning. It’s a gestalt, a lifestyle, it’s bringing spirit and love into food, you can taste the difference.
Mark: Surviving the restaurant business for 38 years is a massive undertaking and achievement. Most significantly, to do it as a woman back when there were fewer women chefs/owners than there are now makes it even more impressive.
Katharine: Actually, there were a lot of woman pioneers in downtown Santa Fe. They had luncheonettes. Luncheonettes were a big part of Santa Fe when I first came here in the ’60s. Across the street were the Beva sisters. There was Isabelle at the Guadalupe Cafe, Rosalie at The Pink Adobe, Georgia at Tomasita’s and Tia Sophia’s, and Mu from MuDu Noodles…there have been a cadre of women.
It was an interesting time, particularly in the beginning, there was lots of prejudice that said women shouldn’t be in business and why, but, that’s old-style thinking.
Mark: That’s what makes this impressive, is that you’re still here 38 years later, flourishing.
Katharine: We’ve learned to dance as fast as we can, while the bullets of the economy or whatever gets shot at us, you dance fast when you have to—2001 or 2008, or when there’s downturns, you have to pull it together. You have to adapt. Life is adaptation.
Mark: Do you think chefs abandon recipes/dishes, like a painter abandons a painting? If not, would tweaking continue endlessly?
Katharine: Oh yeah, recipes, they’re just suggestions. A dish is always in motion; it’s emotion. I had a friend who said, “Life is all mood.” It changes all the time.
Mark: What do you think is the essential characteristic of a chef?
Katharine: You have to be very aware. Never, ever assume anything. Assume Nothing. Start at the beginning every time. Because if you assume something, you will be wrong. You don’t know why somebody was late to shift. You need to ask a thousand questions. Every time you begin a recipe, don’t assume you know the ingredients, or the cooking time. Don’t assume all your past experience is going to apply this time. You better be open, you have to stay very agile and you have to really say, “This is now.” I’m chopping this wood now, not yesterday. Yesterday’s pile of wood to chop is different from today’s.
Mark: Those are very fundamental Buddhist principles, Ajahn Sumedho would say, “Right now, it’s like this.” Do you have a meditation practice?
Katharine: I think cooking is. I think in a very, very true way, Cafe Pasqual’s has been a meditation practice for me. It is chop wood, carry water, absolutely. It’s the same everyday, but it’s never the same everyday. I’m going to do the same things I did yesterday, but try as we might, it’s never the same. And they say a chef makes a decision every 28 seconds, and I am positive it’s a much shorter increment.
So you better learn to laugh, you better be agile, and you better be able to shift from one foot to the other really quickly. Conditions will change in the river; it’s the only thing you can count on.
Mark: Are there any questions you want answered before you die?
Katharine: I was just reading last night about someone who, as they died, started singing, describing what they saw as they were dying and he was singing and singing at the top of his lungs, and I thought, Wow, now there’s a great way to jump over the river and start the next phase. That would be heaven. I hope I have that attitude.
Mark: Do you keep secrets?
Katharine: No, but interesting you should ask. I actually was keeping secrets for lots of family members. A couple of years ago, I realized that the people who asked me to keep secrets I had to handle with kid gloves, so I started going to thrift shops and buying kid gloves. At the time I wasn’t sure why I was buying kid gloves. Then I got focused, and realized, I wanna take those gloves off. I’m tired of carrying secrets. So I wrote their secrets down on the kid gloves. I cannot tell you how great it felt to take them off, and write down those secrets on the kid gloves. Now I’m in the process, in my studio, of destroying, very slowly, those kid gloves. I’m shredding them, cutting into them, burning them, and soon they’ll be gone and I won’t have to carry secrets any longer. Secrets are really a terrible burden. I’m just thrilled outta my mind about this process, and it was very organic. I never spoke to anyone about it, it just all emerged. I don’t have to keep the secrets; I can rid my burden myself.
Mark: Dan Barber said he wanted to cook his last meal, as that would afford him one last chance at getting it right. The idea of that says cooking is ultimately monumental and static, whereas I see it more as something forever unfinished and a process. Is there a perfect dish?
Katharine: I understand that on a couple of different levels. I have to direct because the ship would flounder without me, but I am so in love with the first, second and third mates because they do it differently, and I wouldn’t know that unless they were there. So there is no right way; there isn’t just my way, there’s so many ways.
Mark: How do you meet feelings of vulnerability?
Katharine: Zuleikha Zuleikha is a storyteller/dancer here in Santa Fe. She says there’s only two dances in life: thank you and help. I get help, if I feel vulnerable. I get help, and then I say thank you. I think that covers it, I really do. If you feel vulnerable, you don’t have to go it alone. If it’s really bad, I’ll stay in place, don’t go any further. Consider where you are. Feel it.
Mark: Cafe Pasqual’s is a meeting place, a sanctuary, a long-standing known in an ever-shifting landscape of the unknown.
Katharine: In the early years, we received photographs of two different babies in the mail from parents who had met at the big table and had named their boys Pasqual. I’m waiting for those boys to come through the front door––now they must be about 35. Wouldn’t that be a blast? Maybe by some miracle, one day, they’ll show up. It is really a small-town experience right here in this building.
Mark: I’m interested in something I read by Gary Snyder on the importance of place and how meaningful it is to stay, not move, and grow roots, participating in the vibrancy of community––where people we know grow up, grow old and die. You’ve been here in this one spot for 38 years, and you’ve seen people be born and some who’ve died.
Katharine: Yes, we’ve had that kind of wonderful experience of the sun going from east to west, and it’s lovely. What an opportunity it’s been for me to work with people for decades. It’s a joy. Their kids get born, now those kids are parents and my co-workers are now grandparents. I remember when their kids were born, and now, they’re grandparents. I’m very involved, and it’s just a blast.
Mark: You refer to yourself as The Luddite Chef. What parts of the old ways need to be preserved and what others let go?
Katharine: Firstly, keeping the ways that work, and time always tells us which ones will stay useful, because they work. We have so much fun selling Mica cook pots, which were developed in the 15th century by the Northern Pueblos and Jicarillos Apache. We have the great fortune to represent the mica potter Felipe Ortega and five other potters that he has worked with for many years. When you shape a pot with shoulders as the heat and liquid rises and hits the shoulders, the flavors and the juices condense at the shoulder and go back down in the pot, instead of onto the ceiling. In America, the best place to eat is on the ceiling; that’s where all the flavor is. In straight-sided pots, all the flavor goes up and out in the steam.
I resist sous-vide. It doesn’t seem right for me. I’m still the child of immigrants from the Ukraine––hands in the earth, direct nourishment—if there’s too much in-between I can’t deal with it, that’s why I’m a luddite.
Mark: You open your latest cookbook with a poem from Mary Oliver. Why that poem?
Katharine: I chose that poem because it was the story of my grandmother and me. My grandmother spoke in broken English, and was totally, completely invested in my welfare.
Mark: How have things changed since your younger idealistic self met your wizened older self? How has it changed you, your views on accomplishment and success?
Katharine: Firstly, you’re only as successful as your last plate, and that is something every chef lives with and everybody needs to know, because there is no such thing as success. Success awaits every moment––there’s no rest. When I started, I didn’t have any idea; I’d only worked eight days in the restaurant industry in my life as a server, and quit. I had no idea what I was getting into; I’d been a caterer just for a summer. I didn’t have any idea when I started this journey where I was going, I just knew the joy of feeding people and preparing food and giving to others is what gives me joy.
Mark: What parts of youth would you like to keep?
Katharine: I’m stuck. Here I am; it’s me.
Mark: Have you achieved all the things you want to achieve?
Katharine: No! I’m not done. I’m not done by a long shot. But I don’t think in those terms; I don’t think in terms of achievement. I see life as happening daily.
Mark: As a luddite, does the Slow-Food movement grab your attention?
Katharine: I think it’s important for people to understand we boil the chickens, we pull the chicken off of the bones, we use the stock that’s created from the boiled chickens, we use every part, we don’t buy from a factory where everything is done with robotics. I really believe in the conviction of direct application. Farm in the old ways. Don’t pollute in the process. Use the freshest possible ingredients as fast as you can, and you’ll be nourished. I mean, we have so many muddling middle people. That’s why it’s a joy to buy direct from farmers. Isn’t that why we have farmers’ markets? It’s the greatest joy to meet and buy the food from the people that grew it themselves.
Mark: You offer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules on Cafe Pasqual’s website. That’s one of my favorite books––for many years, it was my Hanukah gift to my friends.
Katharine: People need to know the basic food rules. Michael Pollan has written many wonderful books about food. I don’t necessarily always agree, but he has really delved into a wide range of food and food-industry practices.
The Food Rules is perfect because many people are lost; they need a map, and he provided a very simple map. Each page is a revelation––it’s a little food koan. “Don’t shop in the middle of the store, the middle of the store is processed food, only shop on the edges––that’s where the fresh things are.”
“Don’t buy something you can’t pronounce.” It’s very simple and easily understood, any age can use it––everyone needs refreshing about what’s important in how we treat our bodies.
Mark: Have you ever fallen out of love with cooking? How did you find your way back?
Katharine: Of course, especially when you’ve made a flop, or you didn’t do it right, or you forgot a process. You can fall out of love in a second. But you better get back on track just as fast as you fell out––better fall back in. So yes, lean in, keep your spirit rolling, keep it juicy, keep it wonderful. Keep it filled with the wonder.
Mark: “Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation.” Eugene Wei
Katharine: I don’t think food ever wasn’t. You can always tell if you have a successful meal going, whether you’re at a friend’s house where people are saying, “Yah, ya’ know, my grandma used to make this.” Or people are talking about their next meal while they’re eating the meal they’re eating. All because they’re so excited, so turned on. They’re talking about their past meals, and about their future meals, and how they’ll organize their activities around food and meals.
Mark: Nostalgia seems to play a major role in most chefs’ creative imagination, whether it’s to recapture something long lost or simple sentimental longing. Is there a tension in attending to nostalgia as we cook our way into the future?
Katharine: Because we have palate memory, we all, as chefs, have our own personal hall of fame––flavors that turn us on––and we have to refer to them. It’s our food story, our personal palate library. We need a vibrant flavor archive.
Mark: What character from history do you identify with?
Katharine: Robin Williams has always been my guru and my crush, because he was able to, in the humblest of terms, bring our folly as humans to a place where we could laugh about ourselves in such a way that was new. I’ll take Mel Brooks and Robin Williams as the greatest minds, because they could really, really celebrate human folly and express it in a way that has always made us belly laugh and marvel. I loved the agility of their brains.
Mark: You’re very playful.
Katharine: It’s all play. I think of myself as playful. My parents, my father, said, “Work hard and play hard.” And man, they lived that. Music, dance, entertaining and being with people you love and celebrating all of it are very, very important to me. I’m unfortunately unrelenting in playing.
Mark: What would your last meal on earth be?
Katharine: Mangoes, raspberries, chocolate and something with lemon. I’m a “I like these ingredients” person, as opposed to a specific dish. Probably gravlax and something piquant, something sweet.
Mark: Where would the setting for the meal be?
Katharine: By a river or the ocean, with a perfectly beautiful bank to sit on and watch the water.
Mark: What would you drink with the meal?
Katharine: I love water.
Mark: Would there be music?
Katharine: My favorite sound is the sound of a bird’s wing on air.
Mark: Who would your dining companions be?
Katharine: The people I love.
Mark: Who would prepare the meal?
Katharine: It would be my final opportunity to mingle flavor.
Story by Mark Oppenheimer