Evan and Gavin Keene, brothers age 30 and 26 respectively, have been in the Albuquerque restaurant business since they were old enough to bus tables. They’re mellow and recognize that they have a lot going for them in their gigs at Farina Alto and Farina Pizzeria—Evan is part owner of Alto and Gavin cooks on the line at the pizzeria in East Downtown. All of this was something they grew into as a natural path through their family. You see, their parents are well known in this town—even if you haven’t heard their names, you know their footprints: locally loved spots like Portobello, Bien Shur, ReBar, and, let’s not forget, Artichoke Cafe.
Those parents are Terry and Pat Keene. Terry and Pat’s history bounces around the United States a bit, from their start with an Albuquerque restaurant called the Montana Mining Company to an El Paso transfer, then back to Albuquerque for a stint at Steak & Ale. And there, Terry says, is where he realized the corporate restaurant business was not where he wanted to be. Next up for the couple was Pat’s culinary training in New York City and then their first restaurant in New Jersey.
As Terry tells me all this, Evan is sitting nearby, making notes on paperwork for the upcoming payroll with a small Parker pen, the kind I used to have and appreciated but lost after many years, the kind of pen that runs circles around the myriad business-name pens in my daily rotation. I mention this to him and he gestures at Terry, who also has one clipped in his shirt pocket. Quality, in some ways, is hereditary. So too, is the restaurant trade. Evan started out in his folks’ restaurant business as a dishwasher around age 13 and Gavin began bussing tables around 14. It was far from a bad deal—they made money through tip-sharing and were only called in when there was a last-minute shortage in the kitchen. They’ve spent 90 percent of their working life in restaurants.
Terry and Pat bought the Artichoke Cafe after it had been closed for a year and they kept the fine dining theme going. The menu was created by Pat, using her new skills from culinary school and its curriculum of white-tablecloth fine dining. They opened for dinner and haven’t looked back since then—it’s the longest running staple in their business lives. In 1998, they opened Portobello on San Mateo, then after a few years they had the opportunity to open Bien Shur at Sandia Casino and jumped at the chance. It took many long days. “I’ve never done anything that was so hard in my life,” says Terry. After a year, things seemed to be coming together and the work was paying off. Evan was by this point bar-backing and loved it—making great tips and bonding with the rest of the staff. After a few years, Sandia decided to take back control and the Keenes were out.
ReBar was the next project; it was an expensive remodel and didn’t make money, so that was a learning experience project rather than a slam-dunk. After a year they sold it and Terry focused his efforts back on Artichoke and began contemplating what to do with some additional Central Avenue properties that they owned with tenants they couldn’t rely on. Finally, Pat decided they should do their own pizza joint and they offered the opportunity to Stewart Dorris, Artichoke’s sommelier, and Richard Winers, the chef. Both were all in and ready to make Farina go. Terry had eaten at the fabulous Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Mozza in Los Angeles and modeled Farina’s offerings after the latter—something I’d noticed when I dined at Mozza after Farina and observed the identical butterscotch budino. Terry says, “Oh, it’s totally Mozza!”
When the first Farina opened, Evan was co-owner. He was also working at Toad Road, the Nob Hill clothing shop, and coming to realize that retail wasn’t quite his thing. In late 2010, he started bartending at Farina, working under Stewart—his first experience in restaurants not working directly under his parents. This was a nice change for Evan, who says, “It was some of the best years of my life. Working for Stew was amazing. The amazing people, the customers were great, even the neighborhood was fantastic.”
Being removed from the direct family management was, as Evan says, “great.” It was a relief and a change of pace and Evan blossomed at Farina. He and his brother were being groomed for bigger roles in Farina Alto—if they were on board, of course. Before Farina Alto opened, it was just a speculation, says Evan. “I’d always known my dad was going to open another Farina, never knew when, never knew where, never knew what my role would be…” Between the two brothers, they’ve figured out their talents. Evan is the people-person and adores his role at Alto, while Gavin prefers to work behind the scenes. Gavin loves putting his work on display for customers to appreciate and found cooking to be the perfect fit. It’s similar to his other love, music. Gavin has been a drummer for many years and would like to make that a life for himself in the future. Stage performance is not so different from being a chef, he says. “There is artistry in both and immediate feedback, but also a separation from the audience.”
Now, after years with the original Farina and the new-ish Farina Alto, Terry says, “I’m 63 years old, and Pat and I would like toslow down a little bit. There are a lot of sleepless nights, still. I wake up and I just worry in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, about paying bills, about opening a new bar, about if payroll is too high…” Those nights, he can’t wait for daylight to come, because then he knows things will be fine. He goes back to work. “Get up, show up and shut up and get to work,” says Terry, summing up his whole career and life thus far.
As of November, Farina Alto has a full liquor license. Everyone is excited to promote a cocktail program (and daily 3 to 6 p.m. happy hour) that draws from a huge list of local spirits and as many organic bottles as possible, at least one in each category. They do as many of the mixers as possible from scratch and organic. I’m excited by their commitment to organic ingredients across the board, the cocktail program is just recent icing on the cake.
Moving toward local, organic ingredients is how the whole family sees the recent past—and future—of restaurants in Albuquerque. It’s far from the default, but traction is being made and hearts are being won, and that is a trend that will continue to grow as customers vote with their dollars and restaurateurs lead the front lines in making changes even before some of their customers know what to ask for.
On the flip side, what are the things that are slow to change and frustrating? Terry and Evan agree it’s the dominance of chains—from their dubious ingredient sourcing to their lack of value for the consumer. It is clear that a person can go to any chain restaurant and order an entree for $12 (or, for that matter, drop $8 to $10 on fast food) and receive something full of ingredients from unknown sources with additives and flavor enhancers galore. Alternatively, that same consumer could go to a place like Farina and spend the same amount of money and be supporting not only a locally-owned business but also farmers and the whole local supply chain. Gavin is less vociferous on this point but still a big fan of any of the locally established eateries, places like El Patio or Zinc or small family Mexican joints. All of them recognize that family owned is a value to be supported.
Evan is dairy and gluten intolerant, so he has always had to think carefully and deliberately about what to eat. When asked about how he arrived at his practical cooking philosophy, he says, “Something in my brain just decided that doing it this way was the only way. I’ve always been very emotionally connected to things like this, truly caring about the animals and what it takes to raise them, to bring them to our plate. A package of bacon is not just delicious salty pieces of protein—it was once a living thing.” He credits extended family, too, for exposing him to really great food when younger, as well as the ideas of caring for the health of the earth and the bigger picture issues.
Evan says he is most proud of bringing organic ingredients to the menu at both Farina locations. He positively glows when he announces that there is not a single conventional item from the “dirty dozen” list on the Farina menus. That’s a big deal, and he knows it. What I like about the family’s philosophy as business owners is the pragmatism, saving money by buying conventional ingredients where they are accepted as low-risk, the so-called “clean 13.” Ultimately, it takes this kind of restaurateur to push the boundaries just enough, while still making money to allow the change to happen. And when you start from within a nurturing family environment—especially when asked to wash dishes at 13 or bus tables at 14—those values seem to flow naturally.
Artichoke Café 424 Central Avenue SE Alb. 505.243.0200. artichokecafe.com.
Farina Pizzeria 510 Central Avenue SE Alb. 505.243.0130. farinapizzeria.com.
Farina Alto 10721 Montgomery Boulevard NE Alb. 505.298.0035. farinaalto.com.
story by Andrea Feucht