Erin Wade’s Nambé farm is home to a curious cast of characters.
There’s the large flock of what Wade calls “ridiculously hormonal” chickens ranging freely over the property. They keep the pests down, roost in the trees and sometimes break into the house. Four very large pigs root around in a sturdy pen above the driveway. They spend their days taking mud baths and arguing with a bold pair of ravens over savory tidbits of slop. Charlie, Wade’s “egg-suckin’ hound,” pokes around in the shadows looking for wayward chicken eggs.
Finally, there’s Hopkins, a little orange cat that showed up on the farm one day and decided to stay. Hopkins is named after poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. She follows Wade around the farm, wagging her long striped tail and basking in the sunshine. She’s a cat that thinks she’s a dog.
It’s a bright morning in late March, and the air is warm. Wade stands in a beam of sunlight wearing yellow rubber boots and a red tee shirt. She has a trucker’s hat with “Pojoaque” written on it in airbrush cursive that she’s pulled down low to shade her face. Her smile is bright, nonetheless, as she regards her cat. “My dad calls her Anthony,” she says with a laugh, “and I yell, ‘Not that Hopkins!’”
But there’s more to this farm than creatures great and small. In a coyote-fenced garden are rows of greens—lettuce and cabbage and kale—still sheltering beneath cloud-white cloth, since the nights are cold. Wade uses these greens in her signature salads at Vinaigrette, the restaurant she opened in November 2008. Above the garden is a long greenhouse where the more tender plants—tomatoes and micro greens—are getting an early start. In all, Wade has roughly two acres under cultivation, with imminent plans for expansion.
“The story is that I had too much produce, and so I decided to open a restaurant, but that’s a really bad reason to open a restaurant,” she muses. “I mean, you’ll kick yourself until you’re blue if that’s your reason!”
In truth, she always wanted to design and run a restaurant. “I love the dynamism, the energy,” she says. “My mom is a great cook and designer, so I think it was actually sort of in me too.” Fresh out of high school, however, Wade thought her future would look very different. When she began her studies at Harvard University, she did what a lot of first-time college students do: chose an academic path of least resistance. “I was going to be a surgeon,” she says. “I got into a good school, and I was good at math and science, so it made sense.” After completing all of her pre-med requirements, however, she had an epiphany. She didn’t want to be a doctor.
“I finally let myself wonder what I wanted my days to be, what I wanted my life to be,” she recalls, “and I realized that I wanted to be more creative.” At the beginning of her junior year, she switched her major from pre-med to English. “I was doing fine with pre-med, but that wasn’t enough.” She laughs then adds, “I loved biology lab, but I hated organic chemistry. I always thought I was going to blow something up!”
After graduating with an English degree, she decided to try something else. Fashion. She took a job at Harper’s Bazaar, in New York City, but quickly learned that though she loved fashion, she didn’t want to be on that side of things. “It’s a crazy world. Really catty,” she relates. “I quickly realized that I wanted to be on the design side instead.”
Her next stop: Milan, where she studied fashion design for a year. But though she loved the school and enjoyed her experience in Milan, Wade hit yet another roadblock on her journey to self-realization. “I had to feel that what I was doing meant something,” she says, “so I ended up deciding that fashion wasn’t the thing, and I had to tease out what was the thing.”
She found the very beginning of that thing in Milan. “I was inspired by the whole cultural attitude toward eating well, which is the opposite of the American attitude that we should feel bad about things that taste good,” she relates. “The Italians have a lack of guilt about things, and that was refreshing.”
This refreshing spark of inspiration propelled her back to the States. Her family had just purchased the Nambé property, and Wade decided to settle in and revitalize the place with the idea that they could turn it into a vacation rental or a bed and breakfast. “The property was in need of a vision and rehabilitation and creativity,” she says, “and it had the potential to embody the things I loved most about fashion design: bringing imagination to life, planning and sketching and creating and then watching my imagination materialize. It suddenly felt right.”
Things morphed from there as Wade worked to tease out her passion and organically discover that thing that she was meant to do. It didn’t take long. Beneath the sweeping New Mexico sky and expansive arms of old cottonwoods that shade the property, Wade became reacquainted with the “tree hugger” side of herself. “I had ten acres and a pent-up urge to get my hands in the dirt,” she says. “I was still bringing that over-achiever, Type A energy of the rat race along with me, but I realized I needed to stop and think and figure things out.”
After so many years in a city, she was tired of the crowds and the concrete. Living under the star-struck skies of Nambé helped clarify the path that Wade wanted to walk through her life—the path that Wade had to walk through her life.
“It was always in my mind that we should grow something on this land, be it lavender, grapes or peaches. Then that, too, became a fluid process of trying out different things, and one that ultimately melded with the restaurant coming into the picture,” she says. The “restaurant moment,” as Wade calls it, came when she was alone in Nambé with only her dogs. She started making and experimenting with salads because they represented healthy, nourishing and loving food. “This was really important to me at the time, just taking care of myself in that way,” she reflects, “so these were not your average salads. They were awesome.” Wade loved coming up with new flavor combinations and ideas. “For me the genius of a salad is its capacity for endless innovation.”
Endless innovation is also a sentiment which—if you follow Wade’s own timeline backwards from Nambé through Milan, New York and Boston…back through fashion design, English classes and pre-med seems a fitting way to describe the trajectory of someone so young, so driven and so inspired. Endless innovation is exactly the thing that helped Wade integrate all the elements of her life and experience to create the meaning she was looking for.
Now 30, Wade has been running her farm and restaurant together for more than two years. During the peak season, she grows at least 70% of the produce for the restaurant. What she can’t grow at any given time she buys from the Farmers’ Market, her Nambé neighbors or through Just The Best, another local company. “I would love to do 100% with the farm,” she says, “but there’s always something we’re not able to provide.” Soon, Wade plans to add more double-dug raised beds so that she can grow even more, and she’s actively working on ways to extend the growing season. “Whatever we can do to lengthen the season, we’re doing that,” she says.
Growing (and buying) organically is critically important to Wade. Though the farm is not officially labeled organic, she follows all the appropriate guidelines. As she puts it, “we’re organic without the label.”
“I couldn’t care less about that,” she says, “I have so much paperwork in my life with the restaurant, that I’d rather shoot myself in the toe before I would go do that. I know what we do, and our customers know what we do. We don’t use any chemicals whatsoever.”
And every day Wade drives to Santa Fe with the lettuce, arugula and micro greens for her signature salads with catchy names and a huge local following. “We don’t have a lot of cold storage, so I’m cutting the greens every morning and driving them to the restaurant in my Mini Cooper,” she says, laughing. “I need a truck! I’m like the one person who needs a truck!”
There’s little else Wade needs, though. She has her chickens and her pigs. Her dog and poetic little cat. She has her restaurant. And she has her farm. Doves call out from the tops of cottonwoods, and raven shadows slice across the winter-blonde earth as the birds glide over to settle in the pigpen. Through all of this Wade walks, coffee mug in hand and Hopkins at her heels, inspecting the acequia, the chickens, the garden. And though she still has goals, still has ripe new ideas for her future, by all accounts she is living the dream. Living the thing.
“I love it,” she says, as she contemplates the synthesis of her farm and restaurant. “It’s like the tangible combination of what were intangible elements. To want that symphony of things and to create that…it’s hard, a lot harder than I realized!” Hopkins streaks through a sunbeam, golden in the light, as Wade takes a sip of her coffee and smiles. “But,” she says finally, “I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into!”
Erin Wade’s restaurant, Vinaigrette, is located at 709 Don Cubero Alley in Santa Fe. 505.820.9205. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. vinaigretteonline.com.
Story by Ana June