BY ESTHER TSENG | PHOTOS BY KATE RUSSELL
Three chefs rev Santa Fe’s culinary engine
Santa Fe restaurants offer some of the most exciting culinary experiences in the Southwest. And that’s due in no small part
to the women at the helm of three of them: a mainstay legacy restaurant, a groundbreaking modern steakhouse, and a Taiwanese-inspired, small-plates speakeasy. Each of these chefs brings experience and expertise from her own walk of life while drawing inspiration from the city’s freewheeling sensibility and close-knit vibe.
Dakota Weiss, executive chef since June 2021 at the longstanding Coyote Cafe, is no stranger to working at the 35-year-old restaurant—nor to living in Santa Fe. In addition to attending junior high and high school here, she came back to do her externship at Coyote Cafe after graduating from the American Culinary Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1997. “I thought, I’ve got to go work there; it’s such a cool place,” she says. “It was one of the first open kitchens in America. Mark Miller was ahead of the game on that one.”
After leaving Coyote as a young chef in 1999, Weiss had stints at restaurants in Dallas, Atlanta, Sarasota, and Philadelphia before decamping to Los Angeles, where she spent most of her culinary career. She was executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey and the W Hotel in Westwood, and she became a reality cooking competition star thanks to an appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef Texas in 2011. It was also in LA where she cofounded Sweetfin, a poke restaurant that ultimately expanded to 12 locations.
But it was the pandemic—and a breast cancer diagnosis—that made Weiss reevaluate her priorities. After learning from owner Quinn Stephenson that Coyote Cafe was looking for an executive chef, she realized that she was done living in LA. She moved back to Santa Fe to take the job and be closer to family. (She is also now in remission.)
Stepping into the role of executive chef at Coyote Cafe was by no means an easy choice. Weiss estimates that diners are evenly distributed between locals and tourists throughout the year, which meant she had to be careful to leave longtime favorites, like the signature lobster and elk dishes, in place while also putting her own touch on the menu. “I thought,” she says, “how do you make Southwestern food modern? So, I tried to plate with some negative space. Also, my overall cuisine is [eclectic] because I’ve worked in so many different places with so many mentors. I have a strong Asian and French background in food, so I blended them together, but without making it ‘fusion’.”
Weiss also introduced more seafood dishes, a decision that initially was met with some resistance. Even her former boss, Mark Miller, happened to come in one day and was surprised to see that Weiss had added a posole to the menu—with mussels. He balked, but she assured him she was shipping in fresh mollusks daily. “Santa Fe is definitely full of meat-eaters who like hearty food,” Weiss concedes. “But the lighter dishes and fish have been kind of fun and people are responding well to them.”
When it comes to steak, Kathleen Crook is committed to sourcing only the best quality beef available. She knows her meat, having grown up on a ranch in Artesia, three-and-a-half hours south of Santa Fe. She became involved in rodeo competitions at age 11, where she won a slew of awards and ended up attending college on a rodeo scholarship. Ultimately, however, ranch life was not what she wanted. She realized that her passion was cooking.
“My grandmother was a caterer, and I always found myself drawn to the kitchen,” she says. In 2003, at the age of 26, she sold her horses, her truck, her trailer, and her saddle and applied to the American Culinary Institute in Scottsdale after learning about it on an infomercial. She was in school a month and a half later.
After graduation, she went to work for Tom Fleming at Old Hickory Steakhouse inside the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas, before working for him at Central 214 at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar. She has also worked for Mickie Crockett of Front Burner Restaurants, Gilbert Garza of Suze, and Marc Cassel of 20 Feet Seafood Joint and Park. Crook’s tenure at these steak and seafood restaurants expanded her expertise in American cuisine and informed her next moves. It was at Park where Crook met her future wife and now-business partner, Kristina Goode, who was a server there.
Together, in 2011, they moved to Aspen, Colorado, to open Steakhouse 316. While there, Crook received national recognition as a top chef by Best Chefs America and was featured on Season 2 of the Cooking Channel’s Chuck’s Eat the Street. In 2014, Crook opened Grey Lady, for which she flew in seafood from the East Coast via purveyors she still uses today.
Four years later, Crook and Goode decided they were done with Colorado winters and settled in Santa Fe, opening Market Steer in 2018, the name an homage to her ranching heritage. “I raised true steers in 4-H and FFA,” Crook says. “Those steers? They were ready to go to market. That’s how we got the name of the restaurant.”
Market Steer is the only steakhouse in New Mexico to serve prime grade beef, but of course quality has its costs. Their 13-ounce New Mexico–raised Wagyu ribeye runs $85, but that’s not something available from the commodity market. Crook buys her product exclusively from co-ops made up of smaller boutique ranches, which means there are no growth hormones or antibiotics in the meat. “We want to pass the quality along to the guests,” Crook says, pointing out that only two percent of producers will grade their product as prime. “It’s a very small, niche market.”
Elizabeth Blankstein and her husband, Cameron Markham, have carved out their own niche in the city’s culinary scene. When the pandemic hit, the couple was getting ready to put a deposit down to rent a wedding venue in Orange County, California. Both had spent years working in development for the most well-known restaurants and restaurant groups there and in Los Angeles, including Wally’s, Animal, and Patina. But they were ready to leave the city life and start something all their own.
Markham had grown up in Santa Fe, knew the lay of the land, and suggested to Blankstein that they use their wedding deposit money to move here to open up a Taiwanese restaurant. Blankstein, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the States when she was 11 (her last name is from her stepfather, who raised her), had grown up with the cuisine and introduced Markham to it. He had fallen in love with it, but she was surprised that he thought Santa Feans would find it palatable.
The result is Liu Liu Liu (a Mandarin phrase meaning “lucky,” “easy-going,” and “wealth”), a small-plate restaurant with a big-city vibe. It bills itself as a bit of a speakeasy, purposely tucked into a strip mall on St. Michael’s Drive, a small sign on one of the windows the only clue to what’s inside. And, instead of jazz, loud rock music livens up the atmosphere while French, Californian, and Santa Fean influences put an inventive spin on its Taiwanese cuisine.
While there’s traditional beef noodle soup on the menu made from Blankstein’s mom’s recipe, their popcorn chicken is infused with truffle oil and truffle salt. The goat is the result of a collaboration with their Salvadoran district manager, Edgar Mejía, and uses traditional seasonings like cayenne, oregano, and bay leaf to give the dish its spicy kick. The chefs deliver most of the small plates to the tables personally. “When we bring a dish to the table, we talk about what’s going on in the dish, what all the sauces are,” Blankstein explains. “We do this with every single table.”
Both Blankstein and Markham are sommeliers, so not only is their wine list carefully curated but all of the half dozen or so bottles are also available by the glass because they use Coravin resealers. The soda selection hails from all over the world, including Taiwan and Cuba. Markham also brings his water sommelier experience from Patina, so there are six or seven different waters from around the world on the menu at any given time.
The restaurant serves as a barometer for the city’s evolving dining scene, its tables filled with a mix of longtime Santa Feans, recently settled ones, and out-of-town visitors. “There will be times when we realize that the entire restaurant is from California,” Blankstein says. “Someone will say, ‘I just moved here six months ago,’ and someone at another table might say they moved here eight months ago. Tables with people from San Francisco might be sitting next to each other. A lot of guests have said that our restaurant reminds them of wherever they came from—LA, Chicago, or New York—because the vibe is familiar.”
It’s safe to say that Blankstein can definitely call New Mexico home now, as her creativity expands elsewhere. Her newest venture, Blood Sausage, opened in Albuquerque in March. References to Michael Myers and Jason amid dark red lighting and 1980s-era rock ’n’ roll music evoke a retro horror movie theme at the restaurant as they serve different blood sausages with recipes originating from all over the world.
Whether they’re retooling the menu of a longtime favorite restaurant, serving prime-grade ingredients from small ranchers, or interpreting a traditional cuisine for an entirely new audience, each of these three chefs executes her vision with precision and care, mixing years of experience in the nation’s best kitchens with an appreciation for the laid-back sensibility that draws people to the City Different.