As in a Western epic where partners join shoulder-to-shoulder to ride out together, local heroes Chef Martin Rios, Jennifer Rios, Bill Jamison, Cheryl Alters Jamison and photographer Kate Russell, banded together to create The Restaurant Martín Cookbook: Sophisticated Home Cooking From the Celebrated Santa Fe Restaurant (Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers). The book, hot off the range, was released in mid-July and is available from the usual sources and area stores, or stop by Restaurant Martín to purchase a copy. You just might get lucky and receive an autograph. The chef/author spends a lot of time there.
Martin Rios, 50, has dark, weary eyes that frankly show the steep dues paid to a chef’s life. From dishwasher to culinary school to apprentice and then from an ever successful series of executive chef jobs, Martin, and wife and business partner, Jennifer, purchased a long fallow building at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Galisteo Streets in Santa Fe. The couple reimagined the site, sweating equity into the remodel, and opened Restaurant Martín in September, 2009. With a welcoming courtyard, clean interior lines of light-stained woods, elegant and comfortable, the family-owned restaurant has been a continual favorite of locals, travelers and critics. Both Martin and Jennifer have had a professional “wish list,” which included (A) their own restaurant, (B) James Beard recognition, and then a multiple-choice: bakery, another restaurant, franchise, or, (C) cookbook. “In no way,” says Jennifer, emphatically shaking her curly hair á la Bernadette Peters, “we see this book as a financial windfall. We see it as an investment in our reputation.” And, she adds, “People are always asking Martin for recipes.”
Assembling the book’s partnerships began a year and a half ago. “I would see the Jamison’s back when I was chef at the Old House (in Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel). I didn’t know they were cookbook writers,” says Martin, “but from our conversations, I could tell they knew food. Then, I began to read their books. I respected their detailed descriptions of food and ingredients.” Martin describes the discussions about collaborating, saying, “There was a lot of back and forth of ideas, publishers, trying to find a system that worked for all of us. We knew there hadn’t been a book written of this type. Bill Jamison was the mastermind who put the vision together that made sense. Cheryl was the hands-on, handling all the details, seeing what I did in the kitchen and translating it.”
For 25 years, Bill and Cheryl Jamison have authored more than a dozen travel and cookbooks. They’ve won four James Beard Foundation awards, appeared at festivals, on television, in life-style magazines and have taught and guided foodies around the world. “We were always fans of Martin Rios,” Cheryl says when asked what drew them into the project. “Martin loves cooking. He still works with the guys on the line. And, most are guys,” she says, musing on the masculine stronghold of professional kitchens. “The process is fun for him and he cares about cooking. Martin is different from other chefs of his caliber who’ve franchised themselves all over the place. Soft-spoken, humble, always pushing to do better work, never sitting on what he did before, makes him one of the best chefs working today. Anywhere! He and Jennifer are great people and Bill and I really wanted to do this project.” Part of the book is given to Rios’ early inspirations and upbringing in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he spent his youth working with his grandmother in an outdoor street-market kitchen. “It’s a fascinating back story,” Cheryl says. “As a boy, he learned to pick the best vegetables and fruits, cheeses, to pluck chickens,” she laughs. “Talk about nose-to-tail training!”
Restaurant offices are a study waiting to happen. Most are converted storage rooms without windows, furnished with castaway dormitory desks. In this, at least, Restaurant Martín is not the exception, and one often finds Chef Rios working on his laptop in the restaurant’s new courtyard-dining addition, the retractable windows thrown open to his kitchen garden. “For seven months, I had no life,” Rios says, sipping coffee with cream from a paper cup. “Our book has 96 dishes, and each dish has three recipes. Every free moment I spent typing recipes!” Why three recipes? Both Cheryl Jamison and Rios spoke about the challenges of writing for the home cook, while at the same time elucidating Martin’s approach to equipment, ingredients and sharing insights into his unique, creative combinations. “Many cookbooks are written from chef to chef, and can be complicated for the home cook. It can scare people off if they don’t own a $3,000 machine. This is two cookbooks in one, marketed both to professionals and good home cooks,” Rios explains. Recipes are written in levels of complexity, showing the reader components they may leave out and simpler alternative methods for achieving great results. “We wanted this to be inclusive,” Cheryl says, “detailing all the key embellishments and multiple sauces. Those touches are important to Martin. But not everyone at home can or wants to do all that on a weeknight.”
The partners were open-minded and agreed to disagree. Martin says: “Cheryl would tell me, ‘I don’t like that dish.’ And, I would say, ‘Why?’ She’d say, ‘Because it’s not you.’ And she’d be right. I’d go back and redo the dish.” Rios returns to the subject of details. “I have always known how I put dishes together. I know what goes in it! But Cheryl forced me to be precise. ‘No pinches,’ she’d say. ‘Weigh and measure every single thing.’ And if I didn’t know exactly how much I put in, we’d make it over. I learned her way of putting down recipes. I’d write as I learned from her. The experience has made me a better chef,” says Rios. “We would spend the day in the restaurant kitchen,” recounts Cheryl, “and I would ask, ‘Why this?’ and, ‘What’s that process?’ I’d take notes, go back to my Tesuque kitchen using the same ingredients and––with household equipment––make home versions of the recipes.”
“Kate has always worked with us whenever we’ve used a photographer,” Jennifer Rios says of the book’s photographer, Kate Russell. “We’ve always been locally minded. We want to use local talent, friends, people we respect. Also, I like that our book is printed in the United States. Kate is so gifted and cool.” Jennifer shyly shrugs. “I feel cooler just by knowing her.” The process of food photography was not something Martin had thought a lot about. But, he says, when he saw the first photos for the cookbook, “It looked nice, but we needed to be more original. We asked ourselves, what are we seeing; what else can we do?” Martin pauses like a storyteller. “Then, we found our inspiration in texture. The foods had textures, so Kate began bringing in stones, river rocks, found objects like pieces of rusted metal, or a plank of old wood.” Relaxing back in his chair, he says, “The dishes were brought to life.”
In the end of those classic tales of the West, deed fulfilled, the heroes ride toward the horizon, but not before the heartbreak of an ambushed comrade. Less than four months before the book’s release, Bill Jamison died from complications of cancer. “We sent in the manuscript on a Friday,” Cheryl says, “and left for the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale on Monday.” The Jamison’s continued to work on the proofs and edits in Arizona between treatments. Bill Jamison lived to see the cover. “The project was a remarkable gift,” says Cheryl. “We were aware that we were telling Jennifer and Martin’s story, and through it all, became friends. Make no mistake; Martin is the author of this book. It’s his voice that comes through.”
Behind every good partner is a good partner, and The Restaurant Martín Cookbook had the binary effect of partners partnering. “Jennifer has always encouraged me to have my dreams come true,” says Martin Rios. “We made it come true.”
Restaurant Martín is located at 526 Galisteo Street in Santa Fe. restaurantmartin.com. 505.820.0919.