Ten Years at the Compound

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, September 2010

Mark Kiffin talks about food the way one might about the great loves of his or her life—with a slow-building yet exuberant passion it’s difficult to not get swept away by. Even if you don’t speak with Kiffin face-to-face, having a meal at his restaurant, The Compound, feels like having a conversation with the chef and entrepreneur himself. Every item on the rotating menu is imbued with Kiffin’s inspirations, tastes and intentions—his grilled beef tenderloin with cèpe O’Brian potatoes and foie gras hollandaise; his Alaskan halibut with summer sweet corn pudding and smoked bacon, tomato and basil; his wild mushrooms and organic stone-ground polenta with black truffle relish, shaved parmesan and organic arugula; and, never to be overlooked, his liquid chocolate cake with white chocolate-pistachio cremeaux, mint chocolate wafers and tangerine caramel. Sitting down to dinner at The Compound, which Kiffin has now owned for 10 years, is about feeding the soul as much as it is about feeding the body.

Gastronomes across the Southwest are familiar with Kiffin’s accolades—from being named “Best Chef of the Southwest” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, to having The Compound featured in Gourmet Magazine’s 2002 “Guide to America’s Best Restaurants,” to being mentioned as a not-to-be-missed destination in the New York Times.

Kiffin got his start in the food industry at the age of 15, working as a dishwasher in the mountain town of Evergreen, Colo., where he grew up. Some of his first memories of cooking involve helping his grandmother and mom make holiday dinners. And although his parents didn’t like cooking outside the holidays much, they were both in the travel business and would come home armed with tales of exotic cuisines they had sampled afar, inspiring Kiffin’s mind to run wild.

The young cook didn’t think much about his future in food until perusing college application forms at the library one day. As he flipped though form after form, his fingers landed on one for The Culinary Institute of America, a school (and a career path) he’d never heard of. Fearful that someone else would see it and also apply, lessening his chances of getting in, he took the book. A little more than a year later, he started at CIA as one of the youngest students in his class. 

Kiffin’s now worked in the restaurant industry for more than 25 years, partnering with Mark Miller at the Coyote Café in Santa Fe, acting as the corporate executive chef of the Coyote Café MGM Grand in Las Vegas and working with Stephan Pyles as the corporate executive chef of Star Concepts, among a host of other positions. Kiffin has helped develop a line of Southwestern food products, collaborated on three cookbooks and taught his craft all around the world, from Asia to Central America.

When Kiffin bought The Compound in 2000, he was looking for a sizable new project. The restaurant had been open since the ’60s and was ready for a makeover. When its owner was ready to pass it on, Kiffin snatched up the opportunity and set to work updating the building and setting a new pace for the restaurant. “The biggest thing in a restaurant like this is to give it the respect it deserves,” he says. “It had 30-plus years as a functioning operation. The people that came before us, you want to respect them. At the same time, you want to continue that longevity, that life.”

Ten years after Kiffin took it over, The Compound has grown, with about 60 employees and dining areas that seat a couple hundred. While the restaurant’s previous life was as a French eatery, these days the menu defies stereotypes, although Kiffin does like to base his creations on historical food from the region. “I believe in the history and anthropology of where food comes from,” he says. Kiffin takes a New World approach to his menus, infusing them with Mediterranean flair.

Those menus change every season, introducing 20-some new dishes four times a year. There are some items that stay constant, however, which Kiffin refers to as his Compound Classics. They’re hearty, undeniably and persistently satisfying meals, such as buttermilk roast chicken with creamed spinach and foie gras pan gravy. The idea behind the menu structure is to maintain unchanging, core items that people can come back for time and again but to also always offer something fresh and exciting, so even when people aren’t craving their favorites, they have reason to return.

Kiffin revels in the joy and experimentation of continuously evolving menus. He tailors his choices to the seasons, following the moods and philosophies of different times of year as well as centering his dishes around what’s ripe. “Spring is peas and fava beans, and spring lamb and new potatoes,” he says, pronouncing each ingredient as though it were poetry. “In summertime, it’s corn, squash and tomatoes. You want things that are lighter, so more salads and lighter presentations. Then when the leaves fall you want heavier, richer dishes. Dried fruit and heavier mushrooms, more pasta and cheese. And then there comes the spring again, and it’s time to wake up. The leaves are coming out, you get the feeling that you want to go outside again—bright, green vegetables are popping out of the ground.”

It’s when Kiffin talks about his ingredients and the moods they incite that his voice comes alive. He is both business and passion. A salesperson and an inventor. He discusses his history and accomplishments like a pro marketeer, but ask him about what he puts in his food and why, and his voice slows, the proverbial lights dim and the artist emerges. It’s because it’s the ingredients, food in its most natural state, that win his devotion. “Great ingredients speak for themselves,” he says. “The more you talk to great chefs, they think about what they can take off the plate instead of what they can add to it.” 

There’s a natural and understated elegance Kiffin transfers from himself to every dish that leaves his kitchen, and it’s based in a philosophy that puts whole ingredients on high. What that means is that those ingredients must be perfect, and he’ll search all over the country to find the right ones—he gets naturally raised lamb from Washington, pork from Idaho, and a host of fruits and vegetables from the Hudson Valley in Upstate New York. Kiffin still gets as much local food as possible, but if he can’t find something here, he’ll search the country over until he finds an ideal version of what he’s looking for.

“It’s not just about food,” he says, “it’s also about the philosophy, the flavors, the wine. Right now, all the patios are open, the doors are open, people are dining outside. In the winter, it’s closed up, there are fireplaces and rich food. We take care of you, we warm you up.”

He runs what he calls a “chef-driven concept,” which means everything on the menu is something he’d like to eat himself. “I cook what I like,” he says. “If I don’t like it, I don’t have to put it on the menu. We like to cook the way we eat. If you enjoy it, it starts in your head, it moves to your heart. You transfer that passion through your food and onto the plate.”

Kiffin knows what he likes, and he knows equally well what he hates. He despises the term “fusion,” arguing that the type of cuisine forces things together that aren’t supposed to mix and ends up hiding the true flavor of the foods it uses. “I like the classical history of cuisine I was taught,” he says. “Everything is a flavor. Everything gets respect.”

His menus are also based around the notions of movement. “There has to be a flow, from first courses to entrées to dessert,” he says. “It’s like music and theater: There’s the opening act, then the boom-boom-boom in the middle, then the finales, the opera, how it all finishes.”

Perhaps equal to his love for ingredients is Kiffin’s loyalty to family. Even though The Compound is considered fine dining, he welcomes kids and makes dishes specially for them. “My daughter was born while I owned this restaurant. She’s grown up inside it,” he says. “We have families here, families who work hard, and I’ve seen their kids born while they’ve come here. Now I see them running around.”

A love for family dining and the fact that Kiffin was born on Christmas Day means the holidays are an extravagant affair. The Compound kitchen crafts homemade marshmallows and cider for kids, and Kiffin sets up more than 3,000 faralitos on the restaurant’s grounds.

When he’s not at the restaurant, Kiffin is usually with his girlfriend and nearly 8-year-old daughter. The nightly menus he creates in his own kitchen mimic that of his professional one: steaks and salads, roast chicken and root vegetables, fine cheeses and homemade pizza. And, of course, sundaes on Sundays. 

Kiffin has more plans on the horizon. He’s looking for another place to open a restaurant that’s different in nature from The Compound and, one day, he plans on writing a cookbook based solely on his Compound menus. But he’s in no rush. He’s enjoying the process. “This is The Compound, not the compromise,” he says. “I love my work, and I love my family. And together, I’m a lucky man.”