Last week I was out of the office, breathing in cleaner air, drinking better tasting tap water and purchasing a bit of turquoise.
I also ended up working alongside a James Beard winner.
Mark Kiffin, the James Beard award-winning Best Chef of the Southwest in 2005, is the chef of the Compound Restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’s also on the board of directors for the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, an impressive food festival that just wrapped its 29th year.
I joined my boyfriend, chef Peter Barlow, who was set to cook in one of the festival’s lunches before leading a cooking class. We’ve both been to Santa Fe, so we started the week where we haven’t been: Taos.
Two Days in Taos
It’s about a 10-hour drive to this beautiful spot, with a trip that’s mostly not all that beautiful. During that trek, I had to pull over in Childress to interview Dean Fearing by phone. He went to the Santa Fe festival last year and noted how the drive through this part of Texas is “scabby.” He gracefully mentioned this as he said he was walking down a lovely sidewalk in Napa.
But eventually we did get to the mountains that led us to Taos, a lovely town with friendly people, but one that’s not booming with superior cuisine, it seems. In our two days there, we had a number of mediocre meals (one somewhat consistent factor being that salt was missing). We did have a memorable meal at the Taos Inn, where a lovely patio space lit by the buzzing neon sign had live music spilling onto it from the interior lobby. This was part of the Adobe bar, where we’d find decent margaritas and ordered off the bar menu of Doc Martin’s Restaurant, also in the hotel.
While I coveted a huge pile of nachos that went to a neighboring table, we went with queso fundido with chorizo followed by a chile relleno platter. The fundido hit the spot (the one in myself anyway that constantly wants all the cheese) and Barlow couldn’t stop raving about the rellenos. The Anaheim chiles were blue corn-beer battered, containing an herb-filled cheese. Like most plates in New Mexico, this was topped with green chile, but also garnished with complementing pumpkin seeds.
Rather strangely, I got a news release the following day about this very restaurant (because Taos Airlines now has direct flights from Dallas, for people who aren’t crazy and drive). They’ve just brought in James Beard award-winning chef Zak Pelaccio, who’s revamping the restaurant. Apparently there’s new ownership of the inn; hopefully the planned renovations maintain the charm that makes us want to return.
The drive from Taos to Santa Fe is stunning, going alongside the Rio Grande with smaller mountains as a backdrop. Plus, anything after the recent 10-hour drive felt delightfully short.
Finally in Santa Fe
We stayed at the Hotel Santa Fe, where we wound up making friends with a pleasant bartender who made a supremely spicy jalapeño margarita, and we met a couple from Big Bend, of all places.
Before we hit the bar, though, we had lunch at The Shake Foundation, where you can get any burger topped with green chile. I opted for the local lamb and was officially satisfied with my first meal in Santa Fe. The shoestring fries were fine but needed salt. However, the conversation was the main attraction. We ended up talking for two and a half hours with our host, Mark Miller. We didn’t have a conversation on the record, so I’ll skip details. But Miller is a big deal. He’s known throughout the world of Southwest cuisine: He’s the one who opened Coyote Cafe in 1987, and he’s impressively knowledgeable about food and psychology, among other things.
Dinners past the normal dining hours are harder to come by in Santa Fe. Our bartender from earlier recommended Boxcar, which was one of the few serving food closer to midnight and was conveniently within a short walk from the hotel. It’s more or less the kind of dive bar that’s close to our liking, filled with locals drinking well cocktails or New Mexican beer from draft. The altitude was hitting me hard, so I stuck with water, but Barlow was digging the Marble Pilsner beer from Albuquerque.
Food-wise, we got Southwestern bar fare, which was perfectly appropriate.
The bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers were the largest either of us have seen and contained New Mexico’s Tucumcari Mountain cheddar along with cream cheese. The light tempura and crema verde made these pretty much the best version of this standard we’ve encountered.
The grilled cheese was also memorable, with cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and tomatoes on house-baked white bread. Of course, this meal wouldn’t be in New Mexico without there being Hatch green chile in that sandwich, and now I don’t know if I want this classic without it.
The next day, I explored a bit, going to a museum and hopping in and out of shops. The highlight was definitely my breakfast, a place recommended to Barlow by Stephan Pyles. I walked to Cafe Pasqual’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and my regular cowboy boots — it was appropriate attire for the 65 degrees we had that day. As I approached the entrance, I recalled being here two years ago when visiting Santa Fe, except it was impossible to get through the door because it was so busy.
This time, walking in around 9:30 a.m. solo, I was seated promptly. I felt immediately at home, either because a ficus was in the corner, art was everywhere or the smell of good food filled the space. It was more likely due to the warm service. One gentleman gave me what I thought was something of an amuse-bouche but later figured it was a sympathy pastry for eating alone. It was a delightful, heavenly canalé. He explained the importance of baking this pastry with beeswax and using a specific copper mold. He even said people from France come here just for them. I was doubtful and started messaging my Dallas sources, but Bisous Bisous Pâtisserie’s Andrea Meyer said it’s true: They’re really, really, really hard to find done well. I savored every bite.
This breakfast ended up being my favorite plate from the trip. Griddled mascarpone and green chile-flecked polenta was the base of a dish consisting of red chile sauce, sauteed chorizo and roasted corn topped with two eggs. The polenta was the best I’ve had (admittedly, I don’t order it often). The red chile paste seemed condensed, it was so thick and flavorful. Little kernels of corn eased the flavor, making the dish more addicting. The housemade chorizo was worth writing home about (which I did to Observer contributor Philip Kingston, who says few make their own chorizo well — he agreed Pasqual’s knows how to do it).
The Compound Restaurant
The rest of the day involved working in the kitchen to prepare for the next day’s meal, followed by pool time. While the previous day’s dinner was late-night calorie punches, we decided to go more fine dining for this one, so we went to Canyon Road to experience the Compound Restaurant. It was kind of what I’ve been craving for a long time: that nice place my parents would take me when I was younger, where you’d have three courses, the first involving foie gras or bisque, the second being steak or lamb and the third cheesecake or crème brûlée. (There were always more choices, but these were what I gravitated toward, and apparently what I still crave occasionally.)
We split all courses, starting with sweet breads and foie gras, with cèpes (mushrooms), cayenne and Spanish sherry. The rich sauce seemed delightfully French. And we finally had a plate that was properly salted.
We followed that with a rack of lamb served with polenta, eggplant peperonata, basil pesto and balsamic lamb jus. The dessert was another favorite, and honestly had me thinking of something Pyles might create: a goat cheese cheesecake. It leaned into that savory side, and along with a pistachio crust, it was rather balanced.
This was also the time I first met Kiffin, who seems gifted in making other people feel special. I don’t need to rave about his skill set — that’s already known across the country.
On the Line
The next day is when we’d all get to work the live auction luncheon at the Eldorado Hotel. I helped Barlow with this first course; all hands were on deck for plating. He had Heritage pork jowl burnt ends on a red curry-masa bocadito with avocado mousse; a chicken liver-oyster cream-filled doughnut with Hatch chile-abalone XO sauce (my favorite); and a sea urchin-miso chile cone with Oklahoma paddlefish caviar — this one blew minds for those who bit into these little ice cream cones.
All courses involved all the chefs helping out. After final plates where handed to servers, everyone in the kitchen was shamelessly devouring some leftovers from each course — they were all that good.
We were with some superb chefs, including Kiffin and his team (they had a scallop crudo aguachile); Ravi Kapur, Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco (roasted squab); Neal Fraser, Redbird in Los Angeles (grilled New York Strip); and Eldorado host chef Gilbert Aragon (another delightfully savory cheesecake).
The squab and steak courses involved an assembly line, called the brigade, where two lines of people stood putting one or two items on the plate. It was a rush. I survived (even if my body yearned for rest and a massage later).
From each course, Barlow took scraps. He got some odd looks from a few until he explained they were for the cooking class immediately afterward, one all around the James Beard Foundation’s Waste Not Initiative.
In the afternoon, he instructed some locals as well as out-of-town guests (some from Firewheel, in fact) on how to use up all food in recipes. Everyone seemed to get the mindset of just using what you have. His explanations of fermenting and the value of preserving hit home. And one surprise was that chef John Sedlar was in the audience, too.
We wrapped the day at the Governor’s Mansion, where I texted some friends to mention I was underdressed for a wonderfully bougie event. Festival guests, impressive chefs and locally elected officials gathered, tasting small bites and sipping wine. The view of the mountains in the distance had people taking selfies for the duration.
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Our final event of the trip (before we’d drive all night to make it back in time for Barlow to resume at his Dallas restaurant) was dinner at the Shed. I’ve been dying to go here but hadn't yet — they book up for weeks at a time, it seems. But I was hanging with cool people, and the likes of Santa Fe Chile and Wine Festival’s executive director, Greg O’Byrne, could get me in. We sat in the private dining room of the restaurant where people were waiting outside to get a taste of this famous red and green chile. Margaritas went around the room as we all learned about each other.
Some new faces joined us, as they were gearing up for the weekend events, including Dallas’ Richard Chamberlain, who would prepare the guest chef luncheon the following day for the festival. I also learned a number of these chefs (including O’Byrne and Kiffin) are avid cyclists, making me wish I could stay here even longer. The sixth annual bike ride in the festival was Sunday, going through what was sure to be a scenic route.
Assuming I’d get used to the altitude, I know I’d enjoy that ride.