BY CHRISTINA PROCTER | PHOTOS BY ROBERT RECK
From far-flung inspiration to local roots, fine dining in New Mexico is a carefully curated, ever-changing experience that’s only been emboldened by the pandemic. By now the word “resilience” has the tinge of last-season’s special, and as it turns out, many of the chefs in New Mexico aren’t talking about survival anymore, but resurgence. They sound like somewhat exhausted voyagers, ready to regroup after a surreal hiatus that was more positive for some than others.
From starting new restaurants to fine-tuning established ones, the following local chefs share a kind of vigor that is much like resurgence after a storm. They know each other, support each other, and are eager to be back at it, and not just for the food. Before he left Bishop’s Lodge in June 2021, Peter O’Brien, a well-known local talent, talked about his tenure as executive chef of SkyFire, the destination restaurant at the historic Tesuque lodge. His thoughts reflected the atmosphere that remains at SkyFire, as well as the general level of optimism of other local chefs.
“We don’t do stress. We have a lot fun in the kitchen,” he said. This stress-free environment may not jive with popular perception of the manic energy required to keep a high- end kitchen going, but it’s the reality at SkyFire.
According to O’Brien, it’s the team that makes the place tick. Dispersed during the pandemic, most employees have since returned. “We brought the band back together,” O’Brien said with a chuckle. Several members have been line cooks since graduating from high school and are now in their mid-20s. O’Brien said that they are primed for greatness, and that the goal is to make SkyFire a farm school for chefs.
Instead of the three-month marathon he normally runs to launch a new restaurant, for this one he had plenty of time to plan exactly what he wanted. He did so with his longtime friend and collaborator, celebrity chef Dean Fearing, a widely recognized pioneer of Southwestern cuisine and author of The Texas Food Bible. The two met back in Dallas in the late ’80s, and as concept chef for SkyFire, Fearing, who remains with the restaurant in that capacity, was an inspiration.
Now, while able to seat hundreds in an expansive dining hall and veranda, the Bishop’s Lodge venue also provides cozy nooks of classic fireside New Mexico charm with a familiar balance of Hispanic and Native art and décor. As for the food, the Southwestern cuisine that Fearing popularized decades ago is even more rooted in local traditions, while at the same time reflecting contemporary culinary trends.
As for the past year, O’Brien spoke about the time he finally got to spend with his family, road tripping and relaxing. “I’ve had the best year I’ve ever had,” he admitted. “I was talking to Chef Mark Kiffin [of The Compound], and we were like, what does a person even do on Christmas Eve or New Year’s?”
But 2020 wasn’t all about relaxation, as hordes of restaurants faced extinction while others barely held on. For diners, going out to eat became a mere memory. Meanwhile, restaurant owners and their often-close-knit executive chefs gritted their teeth and steered an unprecedented course.
Yet Quinn Stephenson, owner of Santacafé and Coyote Cafe, says that even during the peak of COVID-19 infections, business wasn’t a total bust. He was surprised at the tenacity of diners, even in winter months. “We had seven propane heaters along the edge of the cocktail rail at Coyote Cantina,” he says. “You don’t know sometimes until you try. We just didn’t give up.”
Rocky Durham, now executive chef of the revamped Palace Prime in Santa Fe, says the pandemic reminded him of what he loves best about his work. “Working in the kitchen, working with my crew—that absence was the most profound.” He filled the void by volunteering, working as a private chef, and honing the technical aspects of his craft. But ultimately, he says, kitchens are about “teamwork, connection, and camaraderie.”
“There was some comfort in knowing that we were all in the same boat,” says Chris Harvey, who co-owns Geronimo with executive chef Sllin Cruz. The two fretted during the pandemic, but they also came out inspired. “Geronimo has never closed its doors in 30 years, and we were closed for months,” Cruz says. “It was really scary, and most restaurants are still in crisis.”
In addition, many staff—particularly kitchen staff who don’t make nearly the same tips as servers—have been reluctant to return to possible health risks, questionable pay, and long hours. Across the board, restaurants are struggling to meet the surge in customer demand with what Dale Kester, executive chef of Santacafé, describes as a “skinny team.”
Still, Santacafé’s quiet, white-tablecloth charm conjures Old World Spain with a contemporary, Santa Fe flair. Despite the strain of his 95-hour work weeks, Kester says, “Summer is one of the best times to be a chef. The farmers are working really hard, and we just try to work with them and show off their ingredients.” It’s a 95-percent-from-scratch kitchen, where almost everything is made in-house at Santacafé, so there is no cutting corners.
Kester describes the restaurant’s core staff as “a family” that helps each other navigate an admittedly stressful, high-pressure industry. What motivates them, he says, is giving diners a truly memorable experience. “I think we all have a new appreciation for a nice dinner out,” he muses, “because you never know when that will be taken away again.”
In response to a flood in demand that’s straining small crews, restaurants have increased pay as well as meal prices, the latter being subject to inflation and the profound effects of the pandemic on food costs, particularly protein sources, which are up anywhere between 10 to 30 percent. Additionally, Harvey points out, rampant wildfires in California will cause increased wine prices. Across the board, restaurants have increased their prices in response. At Geronimo, Harvey says they’ve also opened opportunities for shared assets for kitchen staff along with increased pay. “No one makes less than $17 an hour here,” he says with pride. “After 30 years this feels the best; paying 60 people, everyone making way above national average.”
Cruz and Harvey share a love for quality, and they’re two men who can’t help but chase what’s best and better. Since spring of this year, Cruz has built a relationship with a family of fishermen in Hawaii. He speaks with them every Tuesday to find out what landed that day and to select what could end up on one’s plate Friday evening. Like many restaurants, Geronimo sources meat and produce locally, but Cruz does not hesitate to look further afield for such ingredients as Kobe beef from Japan. “I’m always researching what’s new, what’s the best,” Cruz says.
Harvey also talks about how they’ve responded to the changed desires of diners. With decades in the business, he’s seeing people really slow down for the first time. “People are seeing friends they haven’t seen for a year,” he says. “So we’ve refocused on slowing the experience down. We’re doing two-and-a-half to three-hour seatings now.”
For Julian Martinez, manager of the relatively new Palace Prime in Santa Fe, building a desirable workplace is as important as creating an experience for diners. “This industry has not been the best for people,” he says bluntly. “There’s a lot of alcoholism, drug abuse, and addiction problems, along with unsafe environments that allow for sexual harassment. So, for me, it’s about providing a positive place where we can learn and grow while being safe, understood, and comfortable.” In addition to increased wages, he now offers healthcare benefits to staff.
Palace Prime also offers a slower experience, but unlike Geronimo’s adobe-style intimacy, it’s a more urban atmosphere. “When you walk into the space, it’s kind of palatial, regal, steel midcentury modern, with lots of color.” The hospitality makes you feel special, from valet parking to a coat-check and warm welcome before being ushered to what feels like a private space. This includes some outdoor dining as well as the restaurant’s new pride and joy: a raw seafood bar. Martinez is also excited about bringing in DJs and live performances, and he’s been planning Sunday Vino and Vinyl evenings that pair fine wines with well-aged tunes.
As for the food, Martinez says, “We’re trying not to be fussy. We’re looking at well-sourced, cleaner cuisine. It’s expensive to get great ingredients, particularly great protein. We don’t disguise that with sauces and garnishes. Pan-roasted fish or a perfectly grilled steak is simply delicious on its own.”
Since executive chef Rocky Durham took the helm earlier this year, Martinez says the restaurant is getting closer to its initial vision. “We’re not leaning French or American, you know? We’re about unassuming, high quality ingredients.”
Meanwhile, another pal in this circle of chefs is David Sellers, who marked the summer solstice in 2021 with the opening of Horno in Santa Fe. Occupying the building that formerly housed Il Piatto, Sellers is expanding outdoor seating and coming up with a whole new menu. “I’m kind of restless as a chef,” he says. He’s also planning for the long haul. “We want this to be a family business that can continue with our sons.”
At a far smaller scale than O’Brien’s restaurant, Sellers has a similar goal. “I’m excited to create a family of employees and guests again. I truly miss that feeling of having a house full of people celebrating food, drink, and life.”
The camaraderie extends between kitchens. “I think we know we can count on each other,” O’Brien says. Durham concurs, saying that whether it’s riffing on recipes, sharing staff, or running over spare arugula or eggs when supplies are tight, the chefs have each other’s backs. The diners hold up their end of the deal, which for now might mean showing a little more patience, compassion, and willingness to pay for what a meal is really worth in terms of food costs and human labor.
“We work 12-to-14-hour days,” Cruz says. “You’re here. You don’t get to see your family. You just deliver the best you can. And we’re blessed, because we get a good response. In this industry, you have to love what you do.” Meanwhile, what’s clear is that with significant dedication on the part of chefs and owners, fine dining in New Mexico is going somewhere. We’re all aboard.