GRACE, DEDICATION, AND PASSION PROVE TO BE HIS LIFE’S SECRET INGREDIENTS
BY VANI RANGACHAR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL QUAT FOR TREND
He’s dedicated, effortlessly creative, resilient, and as warm as his signature Sopa de Amor made of green chile, crab, amaretto foam, and a seductive touch of chocolate. And we’d all be better off if we had a bit of Fernando Olea in us.
No chef in Santa Fe is as beloved and well-known as Olea, thanks in part to his ever-present cowboy hat and the fact that he looks a lot like actor Robert Duvall.
For more than 30 years Olea has been giving the “city different” a cuisine unlike any other. In 2022 he won both a coveted James Beard Award and Chef of the Year honors from the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
But it hasn’t all been an easy ride. A fire closed his renowned restaurant Sazón in 2019. Then the pandemic forced another shutdown, so he switched to a takeout menu of Mexican street food like tacos, flautas, and tostadas. And just last fall, he suffered a stroke.
Olea was at the restaurant when he felt dizzy, so he went home. “I tried to put on my boots and couldn’t balance, so we called 911,” he says. A helicopter flew him to the University of New Mexico hospital in Albuquerque, where he stayed five days submitting to “every kind of test.” He could touch his nose and say what the date was, so the doctors called it a minor stroke and released him.
He went directly to Sazón’s kitchen, with no back-from-beyond transformations. “I see life the same way,” he says. “I’m very thankful to God, and I know there is one.”
From left: The chef inspects habanero peppers from Rio Lucera Farms near Taos; Olea chats with diners in front of a large painting depicting the ingredients for mole.
His faith is based on a traditional Roman Catholic upbringing in Mexico City. These days he doesn’t always go to church, but he prays all the time and carries a St. Michael Archangel medal around in his pocket.
Olea came to the US as a young man to manage a family-owned furniture store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, then moved to Santa Fe to sell beds and sofas for the same family. They also owned Bert’s Burger Bowl, a longtime favorite in Santa Fe, and when they retired in the early 1990s, they asked Olea to take over. “I told them I knew nothing about food and even less about the restaurant business,” he recalls. “But they said not to worry. They would teach me everything I needed to know.” He thought Santa Fe magical from the start, and then found a passion for cooking, especially when he recalled the food of his Mexican childhood. “My mum, sister, and aunt were all really good cooks and they sent me their own traditional recipes. Back then people had time to cook, and they created great food at home.”
He refers to this deeply rooted Mexican family cuisine as alta cosina Mexicana, now offered at fancy restaurants in Mexico City. Different from Tex-Mex and New Mexican food, Olea’s alta cosina Mexicana introduced diners to gourmet mole sauce, salsa that sits as a condiment in the middle of table, and other authentic Mexican dishes such as chiles en Nogada, a recipe from the city of Puebla. Made with nuts, it is reminiscent of Lebanese cuisine.
From left: Colossal shrimp on handmade spinach pasta in tuna sauce; A luscious shaved and caramelized beet salad, accompanied by snow peas, roasted almonds, and piñon nuts.
Aged Angus beef tenderloin with baby vegetables in a spinach sauce.
Olea opened Sazón in 2015 on the south side of downtown. The multilevel adobe-style building is adorned with bronze horse sculptures by Siri Hollander outside. Inside, large, bright, and romantic paintings by contemporary Mexican artists cover the walls. The restaurant was an immediate success. “People were starting to pay attention to Mexican culture,” recalls Olea. “It was a perfect time to open.”
Sazón’s true magic is in the food, which has evolved as Olea practices his personal alchemy on classic Mexican recipes from his family. Though he has had no formal training as a chef, his instincts rarely fail him. To the spices he gets from Mexico, he adds others from around the world. The results are the original recipes for which he’s famous, like his ever-popular stuffed zucchini blossoms. “Something whispers to me,” he says. “I think in flavors. Sometimes I dream recipes. It is all very natural, very easy.”
Sazón’s stunning Princesa dessert made of egg custard (natilla), layers of light pastry, assorted berries, and piñon nuts.
He makes a point of visiting each table to welcome and advise the diners, a custom common in fine European restaurants. “It’s important to connect with people on a personal level,” he says. “I like them to feel like dinner guests, instead of just customers.”
People have offered him the chance to open restaurants in other places, but Olea isn’t interested. “Santa Fe is a special town, which has really been amazing for me,” he says. “Anywhere else, I wouldn’t have been able to be inspired and to blossom as I have here. It has been my home now for the past 33 years, and I’m just so glad that Santa Fe wanted me to be here.”
Chef Olea at the Sazón bar, which features flights of premier Mexican tequilas.