This year’s election process has been such a constant barrage of polls—and both public and pundit opinion—that it practically has me catatonic. Still, I believe it can be interesting to find out what the folks on the street are curious about. So through the use of social media, and more specifically, Facebook, I alerted my friends and foodie fans that I was interviewing a newish chef in town and posed the question: What are you interested in knowing about my next (unspecified) interviewee?
The responses were many and varied. I was surprised to see that although we are currently considering a woman to be president, many of the responders who included a gender in their query assumed my subject was a male chef—surprise!
So using my list of over 30 questions from the masses as a guideline, I went to the newly opened 401 Fine Neighborhood Dining on Guadalupe Street to chat with Chef/Owner Laura Licona. I had already enjoyed at least three meals at the casual eatery, so my curiosity, too, was piqued. I wanted to know more about this talented newcomer to town and find out what made her tick and to discover her culinary platform, if you will. I wanted to learn what gastronomic promises her campaign of cookery makes.
The restaurant is subtitled “Fine Neighborhood Dining” and I like the simple clean décor with artistic flourish of whimsical dancing Zebras on one wall. This playful touch harkens back to front man Jack Shaab’s tenure in the Big Apple and to one of his favorite restaurants, Gino of Capri, which also sported the striped mammals on their walls. Laura’s menu has touches of Italian cuisine which corroborates the NYC connection, but she doesn’t stop there. She is equally comfortable—and her palate is confident with—French, Spanish, Mexican, and American cookery, with her pastas certainly a high-point. An ethereal gnocchi pesto was the first dish I ever sampled; it knocked my socks off.
As I arrive, Chef Laura (pronounced Lauda), is up to her wrists in buttery pie dough, so I tell her I will have a quick chat with front-of-house-man Jack Shaab to get a few quotes on his perspective of this new endeavor. Jack has been a part of quite a few restaurants in town, including involvement with 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar and Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen. And he’s also owned Jack’s, Rooney’s Pub, and Spaghetti.
Recently someone in print referred to him as a “serial restaurateur” which I think is a great way to describe a guy who keeps coming back in this tough racket. He never seems to loose his enthusiasm for the biz or cojones to put together new projects. I’m glad he had at least “one more in him” and congratulate him for bringing Licona’s talents to town.
The affable Jack reminds me of his long history in Santa Fe but is keen to focus on the chef of the project he’s most recently put together, and his enthusiasm for her talent. “I had placed an ad on Craigslist for a chef, and Laura answered,” he says. “I did have other candidates that I was looking at but once she came and cooked for me I knew she was the one. We opened June 6, and I am delighted with how the restaurant has grown.
Laura joins us, but Jack has administrative chores to do, so he takes off. I compliment the chef on a few of the dishes I’ve enjoyed the most while dining here—her gnocchi, her papperdelle, her mastery of bold flavors and creativity on her ever-changing Charcuterie Plate (among other dishes). Laura was privy to the postings placed on my Facebook quest of questions, and she laughs about the gender assumption.
Before we get to the public questions, I ask her about her upbringing. “I was born in El Paso,” she says. “I guess you could say that my parents were hippy homesteaders. My Dad was Mexican while my Mom was a Texan. We moved from Texas to Nambe and there my four siblings were born. I actually started cooking from about 6 years old and took on adult responsibilities from an early age. I learned whole animal butchering and learned to shoot and clean quail as a kid.” When pressed to explain this young entrance into being the family cook, Laura suggests a tumultuous childhood both inspired her and drove her away from her home life. “I feel as though I have come back to New Mexico to reconcile my childhood,” she explains.
As an adult, Laura studied Cultural and Agricultural Anthropology, worked for nonprofits, taught a semester at NMSU and was a personal chef. She had a daughter and worked in some major restaurants in Seattle that really helped hone her talents. “I worked for a chef named Sabrina Tinsley as her sous-chef at Osteria La Spiga. We did 400 covers a night and she really taught me about Italian food, which coming from New Mexico, I never thought I would be interested in. I next became the chef of Corretto Trattoria but I always knew I would be coming back to the Southwest. I had this little voice in my head that kept saying—you’re gonna have a restaurant in Santa Fe—so here I am.”
“Upon my return I first started making gourmet chocolates but got bored so started to look for a real chef job. I wanted a place where I would have complete free reign on the food and the concept. I had a menu already in my head. It took Jack and me some time to learn to trust each other. I took some of his suggestions on the menu––some did and some didn’t pan out. I wanted to make food that talks to me.”
I introduce a few questions from my posting. “What’s the weirdest thing you have ever put green chile in,” asks one chile-head. “I actually don’t like green chile, but I am a native New Mexican in mind and heart. I love the landscape, our identity and native ingredients—just not specifically chile. There are so many other indigenous foods; they are like the roots of the tree that has been planted in your life. I do like to play with New Mexico foods and will be doing so more on our lunch menu,” she says.
“Why do you cook?” another asks. “Simply because it’s the only thing I understand.” And from the next poster, “How will you make your mark here?” Laura answers: “I want to help class the joint up a bit. Santa Fe has been on Food TV a lot lately, but I think there is more to us than those shows. I look forward to being a part of the chef’s circle.”
“What do you love most about what you do?” Laura replies: “I love being a leader and leaders need teams. It has been difficult building my team here; I really look for cooks with a good education and who have travelled, and I feel I am there now with a terrific strong team.”
One posting suggests I ask the chef to prepare me an omelet as proof of talent. Another asks about the chef’s home life, exclaiming, “Happy chefs make happy food!” This one elicits, “Well I don’t date much––I have a restaurant! And I will be excited for my kid to be here, that makes me very happy.” Another implores what makes the chef happy on a daily basis. “Happiness to me is a long process. It requires daily meditation, coffee, hot yoga, music and creating. I guess I really am happy and go to therapy to figure the rest out.”
Several folks asked what the chef’s favorite ingredient is. “I love winter squashes, pumpkins, long deep braises. Right now is my favorite season, and this winter I’ll be using things I preserved from the summer harvest.” How will she keep the customers coming back? “I love my regulars. Some customers have told me they are not sure what it is but they think I am putting out something different. I tell them that it is me talking to them on the plate.” I compliment the chef on her constantly changing the menu, which keeps me coming back, too.
Favorite comfort food? “I love Grape Nuts cereal and mashed potatoes and gravy with pork chops.” Red or Green? “Red definitely, I have made red chile sauce all over the world.”
One questioner asked, “What chef inspired you the most? And if they walked into your restaurant what would you cook for them?” Laura’s answer: “It would definitely be Sabrina Tinsley, and I would cook her four Italian sauces; I learned so much from her.” Another implored, “If you had only five ingredients to cook with forever, what would they be?” “Hmm, that’s a great question—I think I would want salt, rosemary, meat, oil and flour—but I need eggs, too.”
A query from a PR person who handles restaurants asks about the chef’s palate and their skill at dealing with the front-of-house staff. “I’m lucky; I think I have an incredible palate. I have to admit, I’m really bad at dealing with the floor staff, but I’m really working on it.”
A question I often ask popped up, too: “What would your last meal on earth consist of?” “Mmmm…. a perfect roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and a big slice of three-layer chocolate cake.”
When asked what she’d like to be when she grows up, Laura answers with a laugh, “I still don’t know what I want to be. Maybe a deep-sea diver; I can hold my breath for a really, really long time. And back to the question about the secret to a successful life, I think it’s ultimately all about figuring out a way to live it that makes you happy.”
The numbers of female chefs in Santa Fe is but a handful, and with the closing of Mu Du Noodles, it’s now even less. After sitting down with this impassioned chef and having tasted many of her culinary creations, I’m excited to see girl-power at local stoves continue to grow. To coin a phrase, “I’m with her.”
Restaurant 401, Fine Neighborhood Dining is located at 401 South Guadalupe in Santa Fe. 401santafe.com. 505.989.3297.
Story by Chef Johnny Vee