As tenacious as Rocky Balboa in the Rocky film franchise, Santa Fe’s own Rocky Durham keeps us coming back for more with his longevity and distinct culinary one-two punch. He has weathered a long and illustrious career that has taken him around the world and has included a few bumps in the road that might knock out an otherwise less sturdy chef. What I love about this guy is he always comes up swinging and with a big toothy grin on his face to boot. The length of his resume should make him well into his 50s, but the ever-youthful Durham is in fact only 46.
Durham’s latest gastronomic boxing ring is the beautifully re-imagined Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in nearby La Cienega. The long-standing spa-resort has been renovated and revitalized by the folks who own Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, and their move to bring Rocky onboard is a clever one. I had dined there right after they opened in September 2015, when original Chef Paul Novak, formerly of Geronimo, took a more Spartan approach to the food plan with dishes that were delicious but purposely simple and un-adorned—this flowed from the original design, in which the resort was primarily private and meals were for guests only. As the resort management got a better feel for how Sunrise Springs would fit into the hospitality and “wellness spa” community, it was decided to open the place up to locals and day visitors, allowing anyone to dine there and partake of the lovely spa attached. When Chef Paul moved on, Rocky stepped up to the ring.
A longtime colleague of Rocky’s, I’ve known him for over two decades, and after enjoying a delicious brunch at the lovely Blue Heron Restaurant where he now mans the stoves, I thought it would be interesting to chat with the local legend and see how his latest venture is settling in. I decide to spend some time in the kitchen to observe the chef in his natural habitat as it were (like watching a boxer at training).
As I arrive on a sunny morning in early January, I catch the chef putting the finishing touches on a batch of buckwheat crackers. He sets a timer and we retire to some comfy couches in the corner of the dining room overlooking one of the property’s many ponds. “I actually auditioned for the position, cooking the owners a meal,” Rocky begins. “I knew what the food had been like here, but I wanted to cook my food and not be too concerned about it being light or healthy, just my food.” We discuss how the image of what’s “healthy” in the food world has changed and is changing. “My wife is vegetarian and I have prepared both vegan and raw food,” the chef says. “So I do feel I have a strong background in food that is good and good for you.”
As I inquire about Rocky’s career, we both chuckle at the fact we first met in Sydney, Australia circa 1994. I had helped the company I worked for there open what became six locations of a chain of Southwestern restaurants called Arizona Bar & Grill, and we brought Rocky down to help with some new ideas and give us some authenticity. He was working at Santacafé at the time and as we reminisced, I realized he was 23 when we met and worked together. Even then, he had a very strong sense of himself. When I moved to Santa Fe two years later, we became friends and have had what you might call parallel careers in teaching, writing and consulting in the restaurant biz. But back to that lengthy resume.
“I like to say I was born and bred in Santa Fe and have a real sense of the place; I’m proud of that element,” he continues. “My Dad worked at the US Army’s rocket program and was a scientist and a historian. I always saw him as an Indiana Jones kind of guy. My first job in high school was washing dishes at a restaurant called La Frogery, which was where the Cowgirl is now. What I immediately liked about the business was that you are working in a team. I still think that is very important in a kitchen. My next job was doing prep and desserts at the original El Nido in Tesuque. I remember my big responsibility was making chocolate mousse, profiteroles and crème caramel. Next, I was a line cook at Zia Diner, which has always been one of my favorite positions in a kitchen. I love the action when working the line.”
After his initial foray into a career that would take him far and wide, the young Rocky was ready to see the world. “I wrapped my two chef knives in a tea towel and drove my Volkswagen to California to where I finally realized I needed to make a more professional commitment to cooking. I signed up for a one-year program at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. Although I had been working in restaurants for years, the first day in the program it occurred to me that I had so much more to learn.”
Upon graduation, Rocky returned to Santa Fe and had the opportunity to work at Santacafé with then chef—and now TV personality—Ming Tsai. “Ming taught me that there was so much more to the business than it just being about the food. He was very good at administration and taught me the importance of being organized.”
Rocky then came to Sydney where our paths crossed. Returning to Santa Fe, but with a thirst for more travel, he took a stint cooking in a fly fishing lodge in Patagonia, Argentina. “I realized as long as I could pack up my chef knives, I could go anywhere to do what I do.” One more stint at Santacafé saw Rocky as co-chef with David Sellers, as well as teaching at and eventually becoming director of The Santa Fe School of Cooking. It is there that he became part of a consulting team that went to England to start a chain of Southwestern eateries that were simply called The Santa Fe Bar & Restaurant.
“What started off as a consulting gig led to me to ending up staying in Britain for five years and helping open eight locations of the restaurant. I also hosted a TV show called Plates from the States where I think we shot 85 episodes. It was insane. I would take the train to Manchester and actually shoot four episodes in day.” A call that his Dad was profoundly ill had Rocky returning to the states and back to his roots in Santa Fe.
In 2004, the well-travelled chef considered himself a “Chef-at-Large.” “I took a gig in Russia through the Russian Cultural Exchange and worked in a restaurant there.” I asked Rocky if he learned some amazing Russian dishes and he replies, “True Russian food happens in the homes, not in the restaurants. The restaurants serve primarily travelers and tourists; Russian nationals eat out only maybe once or twice a year. I remember there was a place called The Stroganoff Palace, and they advertised it as the most expensive restaurant in Russia. I did actually learn to speak Russian.”
Rocky’s memories of his journeys are peppered with witty quips and free-associations too numerous to include here. I’m writing as fast as I can, but I can’t get it all. Some that do make the page include, “I love how some restaurants say they are Farm to Table, when really they are Truck to Table,” and, “I love animals, but I love to eat them, too.” My favorite quote is when I ask him about the resort’s Chinese Silkie chickens that guests are encouraged to commune with in their pen, “Those aren’t eatin’ chickens, those are strokin’ chickens.” I kid him that his resume is so long it would require the entire issue to include it all––February Local Flavor––The Rocky Durham issue!
Post Russia, Rocky finally settled down and settled in on his home turf. He married his wife Jody in 2013 and helped create and direct the Santa Fe Culinary Academy. “We opened in December 2012 and it was very exciting to be a part of a culinary program that trained folks to become professionals. I learned a lot about what it took to run a school like that. We knew that it would take three years to get our accreditation, but the success and future of the school totally depended upon the continuation of a special type of student-loan program that when that went belly-up and it forced the closing of a lot of culinary schools nationwide including the Cordon Bleu. Of course, I was disappointed but I feel I can hold my head high having given it our best shot.” I remember at the time when it was announced the academy would close, I knew Rocky would have something new up his sleeve and indeed he has.
As we discuss his plan for Sunrise Springs and the stylish restaurant Blue Heron, I’m treated to a luscious, silken bowl of butternut squash soup that happens to be vegan and healthy but you’d never guess. It’s creamed with coconut milk and garnished with a sprinkle of powdered toasted pepitas and swirl of smoked guajillo chile oil. It is luscious. Rocky explains, “I wouldn’t describe this place as new-agey. The waters here have been an oasis for travelers for a thousand years. This spring, we will have a two-acre farm and 10 raised vegetable garden beds. The other day, one of our two horticulturalists came to me and asked what I would like them to plant for me to use. We are growing chiles so I can make my own homemade sriracha. It’s a chef’s dream come true. With my food, I want to show that there are a lot of different approaches to living well.”
If living and cooking well is the best revenge, then Chef Rocky is living the dream. As Santa Fe foodies, we can only hope this gastronomic nomad has found his home. Having tasted his food and seen him in action, I think it’s a great fit. And the chickens are safe…for now! – JV
The Blue Heron Restaurant is situated in the beautiful grounds of Sunrise Springs at 242 Los Pinos Road in Santa Fe. The restaurant is open to the public for lunch, dinner and Sunday Brunch by reservation only. 877.977.8212.
Story by John Vollertsen