Jennifer James and Nelle Bauer create culinary inspiration in a space the size of a walk-in closet
Diary of a Locavore
Is it possible to eat nothing but local food in a New Mexico winter?
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, March 6, 2008
Eggs, milk, peanuts. It didn’t look good.
I had spent the last hour scavenging the isles of La Montañita Co-op, and that’s what I was left with: eggs, milk, peanuts. I was hungry just looking at them. I offered my meager basket to the cashier, pausing to turn around and grab a hauntingly aromatic chocolate chip cookie from the deli counter behind me. If all I had to eat for the next seven days were eggs, whole milk and peanuts, I was going to enjoy my last meal, and I was going to have dessert.
I watched the clock on my cell phone strike midnight, rubbing my fingers together to erase the chocolate from their tips. This was it. For the next week, I would eat only food grown in New Mexico. In the middle of February, I knew it would be difficult. But when I opened my fridge door and saw two cartons and a bag of nuts staring back at me, I wondered if it was even possible. Preparing myself for starvation, I trundled off to bed. Tomorrow I was going “shopping.”
We Are What We Eat
“Locavore” has become somewhat of a linguistic celebrity. The term won the prestige of being named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year. At only two years old, it’s handily worked its way to the top.
A San Franciscan named Jessica Prentice coined “locavore” at World Environment Day in June 2005. The intention of the word was to refer to someone who seeks out food grown within a 100-mile radius of where he or she lives, and it was invented with a purpose: to call attention to the efforts of four women who would strive that summer to eat nothing but food grown within that limit of the Bay Area for a month. They extended the challenge to others and have continued to do so since, developing a website (www.locavores.com) that acts as a resource for those who wish to live the bumper sticker mantra: Eat Local.
Locavorism is spreading. Time Magazine and the New York Times have dedicated top headlines to the trend. Two books that explore ideas of eating locally—Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—both jumped to the top of the New York Times bestseller lists soon after their releases in the last two years. “Locavore” is in the national consciousness, and it makes sense why.
In a cultural climate thick with concerns over global warming, fuel economy and, that increasingly convoluted term, sustainability, it’s natural that as a nation we would start to think about how those things relate to the food we eat. Food is one of our most basic needs. As plants suck nutrients out of the soil they root in, so we absorb not only the proteins and amino acids but also the environmental, economic and political connotations of the food we digest. We are what we eat—as individuals, and as a culture.
People are exchanging incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, gas guzzlers for hybrids, conventional for organic—why wouldn’t they exchange food grown in and shipped from Argentina for something that comes from their own backyard, or their neighbor’s? Ideologically, it’s a superior way to eat. Realistically, it’s a long way from being easy.
Day One: The Kindness of Strangers
I have a tall glass of milk for breakfast. I’m lucky New Mexico is one of the largest dairy producers in the country; it allows me to be selective and choose a brand produced as close to my house as possible: Rasband, which is made in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
My original motive was to limit my diet to food grown only within the city. But the task proves daunting in the desert in the middle of winter, especially for a vegetarian. After my trip to the Co-op, I decided to expand my allowed range. I found a huge number of food produced by local companies waiting in the isles—everything from bread to jam to locally made frozen tamales—the problem is they weren’t made with local ingredients. There’s a big difference between supporting local businesses and eating local food—and one’s distinctively easier than the other. If even the salt in a loaf of bread, or the sugar in raspberry jam, was non-local, it was off limits. And so after combing the ingredient lists on products marked with a big, orange “local” sticker and finding select few foods I could actually eat, I figured I would need to breach Albuquerque limits to survive. By the end of my Co-op search, I decided anything grown within New Mexico would be allowed, with preference given to foods that stemmed closer to home.
Yesterday’s trip was just preparation for today. I hoped to find a hardy reserve of food at the Co-op, the store I figured would have the highest volume of local food (I was correct in my assumption). With such a low yield, I was depending on my mission today: finding victuals from Corrales growers.
The Corrales Growers’ Market only operates once a month in the winter instead of weekly, as it does in the summer, and most of the food available this time of year comes in the form of dried herbs. Fresh fruits and vegetables are unheard of in February, except for the yield of one grower, Rob Hays, who has a greenhouse and puts together an awesome salad mix with dill, mustard greens and eight different kinds of lettuce. I’m told there’s usually a mad rush for beans in the fall, and most are gone by November. I’ve heard legend of local flour, but I’ve looked in all the natural food stores in town and can’t find any. (I’ll finally discover some organic, unbleached, whole wheat local flour lurking in the bulk bins at the Co-op on Day Four, but so far it’s escaped me.) Rations are low.
I decided to try my experiment in this barren time of year for a reason. If eating local is going to expand beyond the definition of a trend and become a societal shift, it needs to be doable any time of year. If I could find local food to eat in February, I could do it year-round.
I found a connection to Corrales growers through Anita Walsh, who coordinates the Corrales Growers’ Market. Walsh raises and dries a myriad of herbs (sold under the label “Anita’s Herbs”), and her boyfriend harvests honey from some 160,000 bees in hives they have in their yard. I meet Walsh at Evelyn Losack’s apple farm, along with lavender grower and soap maker Mary Jane Rodriguez, where I’m served my second meal of the day: apple cider and apple butter.
The three ladies ask me if I’m hungry. They know what I’m about to attempt, and the worry shows in their actions. Losack keeps pushing the apple butter in my direction.
Losack is like a living piece of Corrales history. Her family has been in the area for six generations: Her father helped establish the village library. She helped start the growers’ market. Her spine is crooked and she uses ski poles to navigate her way around her property—after her husband passed four years ago it’s just her on the farm—but she still manages to harvest, process and preserve the massive amount of apples her trees bear every year.
We make our way out to the storage shed in the back of her property, where she loads me with cider, apple jerky, apple chips and a dozen mixed varieties she’s saved from the fall harvest. They’re puckering now and better for cooking with than munching on, but in the state of slow hunger that’s starting to swell through me, they look like a dream. Walsh gives me dried tarragon, alfalfa and some of her boyfriend’s honey. Arm stinging from the weight of the food they’ve just given me, I feel a deeper sense of connection to it. When I drink this cider, I’ll think of Losack ski-poling her way across her farm.
From Losack’s, the rest of my shopping trip is stream-of-consciousness. I’m directed to Rob Hays’ place, where I pick up mixed greens, more eggs (after meeting the 11 hens that laid them) and a sack full of frozen corn, peaches and green chile Rodriguez has dropped off for me. After that I’m ordered to Bob Johnston’s house—whose gate flaunts a sign reading “Trespassers will be beheaded”—who delivers with frozen blackberries, cherries and apples from the fall harvest, along with a couple onions that are growing green shoots but still look good enough to eat.
By now the sun is setting and I still have to drive into the Sandias to retrieve Donna Lockridge and Marge Petersen’s personal frozen reserves of goat milk, goat yogurt and goat feta from their South Mountain Dairy. I’ve still only consumed milk, apple butter and cider today, so I rush home to scramble some of my newly acquired eggs, washed down with another glass of milk, before I head east.
Lockridge and Petersen’s girls (their nickname for their 56 goats) don’t produce milk in the winter. This time of year is like a hibernation for their company, which sells enough the rest of the year to make up for it. I can’t find their products in stores right now, so I’m lucky they’re willing to part with some of their stash. Considering the amount of frozen food I gathered today, I realize how necessary it is to have a large freezer if one plans to eat locally year-round.
Finding groceries took me all day, and I still only have select ingredients—nothing to make a complete meal with. I never would have found what I did without making connections with local growers. Heading home, tired, stomach aching, I feel unbearably grateful to those who planned ahead this year—I am, in the truest sense, relying on the kindness of strangers.
“Cheap and Convenient”
How well do you know what you’re eating? According to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the average meal on an American’s plate has traveled 1,500 miles to get there. It’s the kind of number that makes you wonder what would happen if the transportation lines that bring us the food on that plate were severed. Until the last century, people have relied on food grown close to home for survival. Now creating a single meal out of nothing but local ingredients, unless it’s summer, is challenging, or sensually disappointing.
Eating local does make a difference. First and most obviously, it supports the local economy, recycling more dollars into your own community. Most of the time, it also supports small, independent business. But it also makes a difference in terms of food security. Eric Garretson, director of the Downtown Growers’ Market and board member for the New Mexico Farmers’ Markets Association, believes fervently in the practice and philosophy of knowing where our food comes from. He asks how sustainable a city can be if it doesn’t have a local food source.
“We’re importing more right now than we’ve ever imported around the world,” he says. “As a country, we don’t need to import much at all. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we take care of the rest of the world?”
But taking care of ourselves is demanding. Even Garretson, whose diet is up to 75 percent local in the summer (and only about 25 percent in the winter, he says), has to supplement his philosophy with imported food. Finding a purist locavore is a rare thing, and it’s not hard to understand why. Eating locally means not eating out. All food has to be prepared at home. If you don’t have energy to cook one night, it means you’re hungry the next day. It also requires extensive planning: growing your own food; frequenting growers’ markets; tailoring your diet around what’s available and in season; freezing, dehydrating, pickling and preserving surplus to last through the winter. It means turning your back on the comforts of technology and globalization and returning to simpler roots. It means forsaking the American dogma of “cheap and convenient” and endorsing a more difficult but ultimately more valuable food system. Is it worth it?
Day Five: The Land of Milk and Honey
I have discovered a new form of hunger. It’s as though my body has given up on trying to warn me that it needs nutrients. Sharp pangs have dissolved into a constant, tired ache. I get lost for minutes in daydreams about breakfast burritos. The little food I have seems so precious I lick my spoons dry.
I accumulated a few more ingredients in the last four days: a jar of peanut butter I overlooked in my first trip to the Co-op, made from nothing but roasted peanuts from Portales; hothouse tomatoes from Alcade; basil grown in Albuquerque; and the most exciting gift I’ve received thus far: a baggie of mixed dried beans from Los Lunas and Albuquerque. Garretson brought me the beans, and I never knew I could experience such exhilaration from so simple a token. I actually skipped around the office as I called out to my coworkers that I had in my possession beans, glorious beans.
But cooking the treasure I’d acquired turned disastrous. I’m unfortunately one of those people who can’t stand the taste of raw tomatoes, although I love them cooked, so I decided to make an easy marinara sauce with one of the onions I’d gotten from Bob Johnston and some old garlic I picked up from Los Poblanos Organics farm in Los Ranchos. But the onion and garlic were too old, foul-smelling, and local salt was nowhere to be found. The simmering tomato sauce exuded a pungent, stinging odor, and I tossed it. I later tried roasting tomatoes with the tarragon Anita Walsh gave me and basil. The end result was tasty, although still a little too tomato-y for my liking, but once the tomatoes cooked down there was hardly enough meat left in them to make a dent in my appetite.
I cooked the beans but naively believed the instructions I found online that said I only needed to soak them for four hours before cooking them. When the required cooking time had ended and the beans still seemed tough, I left them simmering longer to soften them. But I forgot to add more water to the pot and left them on for too long. The product was charred, slightly crunchy beans. I ate a cup’s worth with some Bueno frozen red chile I’d found, but the chile wasn’t enough to make them palatable.
My failed attempts at cooking land me with little to eat, although the hunger is punctuated with divine moments of revelation. On Day Two I defrosted Bob Johnston’s blackberries. Eating them at my desk, deep purple juice that would stain my palms dribbling down my fingers, I felt like a bear. I laughed as I tried to keep viscous rivulets from splashing on the proofing boards in front of me. Knowing that these berries would usually be forbidden by the elements this time of year, they seemed a magical, freak occurrence. I noticed every sweet, perfect orb.
This visceral experience was followed by a less passionate but still scintillating meal on Day Four, when I scattered remaining berries and a handful of crumbly cow feta I found at the Co-op over some greens I got from Rob Hays and Eric Garretson. This salad remains the only true meal of my week so far—and the first bite was a comfort I can’t describe.
The majority of my calories are coming from my staples of peanut butter, honey and milk. Peanut butter is miraculous with nine grams of protein in two tablespoons. Without it, I’m afraid I’d melt away. But I’m drinking so much milk, water is starting to assume its taste. I can’t believe I still have two more days of this.
Local vs. Organic
The American diet is evolving. If you can’t tell from the organic section at your supermarket or the all-natural Newman’s Own dressing served at Wendy’s, surely you can see it in the surge in natural food stores like Whole Foods across the country. Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that organic food has already created an $11 billion market—it’s a symptom of a yearning for change in our national food landscape. So where does locavorism fit in?
“Local food, as opposed to organic, implies a new economy as well as a new agriculture—new social and economic relationships as well as new ecological ones,” Pollan writes. “It’s a lot more complicated.”
With the rise of locavorism comes the question over which food trend is more important: local or organic? The answer shifts depending on who you ask.
“I just think the eating local movement is a little narrow in its vision. I can point to some horrendous food that’s locally grown.” These are the words of Jo Robinson, founder of Eatwild.com, a seven-year-old site with steadily growing name recognition—garnering an average of more than 5,000 unique visitors a day. “Just because it’s local, it doesn’t mean the animals are being treated well. It’s part of the solution, but as the single criteria, it falls short.”
Robinson, a freelance investigative journalist, started Eatwild in 2001 with the purpose of chronicling all the suppliers of grass-fed meat and dairy products in the country. When the site launched, it listed 49 farms. Now it details more than 1,000, with 11 in New Mexico—a testament to the strength of the movement to eat more conscientiously.
Robinson believes the quality of the food produced outweighs the benefits of buying locally, and she’s not alone. Monte Skarsgard is the managing farmer of Los Poblanos, a cooperative organic farm that works with 15 others in the region, trading food to ensure members get weekly delivered rations. Skarsgard gives credit to the economic benefits of buying local, but finds the argument to buy organic much stronger.
“Things that are grown locally can be harvested at the wrong time, they can be harvested and put in someone’s refrigerator for a week; and at the same time I can get some strawberries from California in two days,” he says. “After something comes off a plant, the nutrient value starts degrading.” (As a side note, Anita Walsh says the produce sold at the Corrales Growers’ Market is harvested the morning of or the night before the market.)
But when it comes to theories over nutrition, many locavores believe there are other, less tangible benefits to eating local food. Eric Garretson explains the hypothesis with the aid of an Arkansas black apple (grown in Los Lunas) he’s brought with him. “It’s not really about the nutrients. It’s how you feel you need to eat,” he says. “The energy put into growing that apple, if it was good energy, if it was done by a farmer who really cares about what’s going on—not an industrial agricultural situation where there’s just a monocrop and a farmer’s out there on a tractor not really paying attention to individual plants—but a farmer that has a small farm and is putting good, positive energy into that food, does that make a difference? You bet it makes a difference. That food is not only going to be better for you on a spiritual level but on all kinds of levels.”
Opinions on this particular debate may be varied, but one consensus that’s been reached is on the status of small-scale farmers and growers: They’re in trouble. Part of this is due the government’s lack of support for non-industrial operations (just last month, Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed a bill allocating $150,000 for a program that would have brought locally grown food into New Mexico school cafeterias, while at the same time signing a bill for $250,000 to go toward research on genetically modified green chile), and part of it’s due to the cultural attitudes toward farming.
“The stereotype is that farmers are the dumbest—the redneck-tripping-over-the-transmission-in-the-backyard, tobacco-spitting, farmer hillbilly. The old Jeffersonian idea of the sophisticated agrarian peasant, that idea is now gone,” says Joel Salatin, one of the nation’s pre-eminent grass farmers as the owner of Virginia’s Polyface Farms. Salatin raises beef, poultry, pork and eggs on his rolling acreage and believes a healthy, diverse pasture is the key to happy animals and sustainable farming. Salatin worries about the future of that farming in the hands of the next generation, which is told by society to disdain the profession.
“I remember in high school, when I told the guidance counselor I was going to be a farmer, she would have epileptic seizures over a wasted brain,” Salatin continues. “If you’ve got any brains you’re supposed to go to town to become an attorney or an accountant or an engineer. Who are the heroes of our society now?”
Day Seven: Needs Salt
All I can think about is food. It’s 11 p.m. and I’m counting the minutes—practically the only cognitive task my brain is capable of at this point. I’m second-guessing my decision to wait until midnight to eat again. But I’ve gone six days and 23 hours, and one more won’t kill me. At least I think it won’t.
Want to eat local? Here are some websites to guide you on your way.
New Mexico Farmers’ Markets
A directory of all our local farmers’ markets, along with when they run, updated every spring
Mid-Region Council of Governments
Lists information on how to grow and how to find people who grow in the Middle Rio Grande Basin
Center for Informed Food Choices
Advocates a diet based on whole, unprocessed and local food
Eat Local Challenge
Gives resources for those trying to live the life of a locavore
A directory of local, grass-fed meat and dairy
An online database of sustainably raised meat and eggs, searchable by zip code
Helps you find local growers
Provides resources for those trying to eat locally, especially those in the Bay Area
I tried cooking again in the last couple days. But without basic ingredients—salt the most critical—everything turns out slightly gross. I’ve been supplementing my diet with frozen fruit, apple products and feta, but I’m still primarily sustaining myself on milk, peanut butter and honey, as they’re calorie- and nutrient-rich. But if I have to eat one more spoonful, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to enjoy it again. I’ve reached my breaking point, and I’m mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
I’m now faced with answering a question I’m not sure how to approach: Was my experiment a success? I think it depends on how you look at it. Did I last a week of eating nothing but locally grown food? Yes. (With the heartbreaking exception of accepting an offered piece of gum on Day Six—I was a few chews in before the realization of what I just did struck me.) Did I eat a healthful, satisfying and temptation-worthy diet? Absolutely not. Do I understand more about what it would take to lead the life of a locavore? I like to think so.
I hope my experiment doesn’t discourage others from trying to localize their diets. It’s important to remember that I bulldozed into this lifestyle in the middle of February, just a couple weeks away from when the growing season will begin. In fact, Los Poblanos’ Monte Skarsgard told me he thinks it was probably the hardest week of the year to attempt such a task. This was the tail end of the year, and food was simply running out before the first spring harvest.
The only way I was able to make it through the week was due to the connections I made, which is a large part of the philosophy behind locavorism: engaging and sharing in a community. And, even though I spent my week hungry, I found that the further I delved into this community, those connections swelled into a deep reservoir of local growers. Every person I met while scavenging for food suggested five more people I should call. My one regret this week was that I didn’t have the time to contact them all—but then, I never could have.
In the summer it would be entirely possible to eat a complete, nutritious and savory diet on nothing but local food, even without the connections. And, with foresight and effort, anyone could eat a largely local diet year-round, as long as they have a large freezer and preferably a small plot of land (Eric Garretson is adamant that food can be grown year-round here at a low cost, and he has the fresh greens to prove it). Even without a ton of preparation, it’s easy to look for local labels and occasionally stop by a growers’ market. It’s the kind of voting-with-your-dollar that really makes an impact on your local environment, economy and health.
It’s past midnight and I’m driving with a friend to Federico’s, an all-night Mexican drive-thru on Juan Tabo. I had my heart set on the Frontier, but it closes early now, which tonight feels incomprehensible. When we pull up to the speaker box, I order a breakfast burrito and a horchata. I’m trembling at the prospect of a meal.
We swerve into the empty parking lot next door and I rip open the foil on my burrito. Salt. I never understood how crucial it was to enjoying most food. I will always remember these first two bites of potato and tortilla. It tastes fine, but this isn’t really about flavor. I just want desperately to be full, to eat hot food. The horchata is sweet and grainy and perfect.
This was one of the longest, and in some ways most stimulating, weeks of my life. I’m happy I did it. I’m proud I did it. And I don’t ever want to do it again. Unless it’s summer.
A Recipe for Love
Albuquerque's best chefs share a five-star dinner at home
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 9, 2012
All right, sweethearts, here’s the deal. Valentine’s Day is on Tuesday, which means restaurants are booked solid or filling up fast. If you haven’t already made a reservation, you could be gambling with your love life. But there’s no need to panic.
We called upon superlative chefs to divulge the secrets of their favorite Valentine’s dishes. They kept it relatively simple for us, so that not-so-confident cooks can follow along, too. Create an impressive four-course meal with the following appetizer, side, main dish and dessert. Or mix and match what you make to suit your desires—that is, after all, the word of the day.
Appetizer: Seared Artichoke With Cara Cara Buerre Blanc
Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm, Chef Jonathan Perno
Two halves split from a whole. It’s a lovely metaphor to start your Valentine’s feast. While just about all butter lovers like a good artichoke to get a meal going, Chef Jonathan Perno’s version of the appetizer elevates the dish from classic to exceptional. Not content to merely steam the flower and serve it with some lemon, Perno douses it in white wine, orange juice and just the right amount of spice. Butter won’t be the only thing that melts.
Drink: Shaya Verdejo, a full-bodied Spanish white
1 globe artichoke
Lemon or splash of white vinegar
1 cup cara cara (aka pink or red navel) orange juice
1/2 cup white wine
1 shallot, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Pinch chile flakes
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Scrub and trim the artichoke. Cut in half from stem to tip. Cut out the choke and small center petals from each half. Rub all cut surfaces with lemon or white vinegar to reduce oxidation. Either steam or boil in salted water until crisp-tender, about 30 minutes. A paring knife or skewer will have slight resistance when inserted into the heart.
- Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine the orange juice, wine, shallot, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the sauce is reduced by 3/4. Strain out the solids. Return liquid to the pan and swirl in butter, 2 tablespoons at a time. Return to a very gentle flame to just melt the butter. Do not boil it or stop stirring, or the sauce will break. Salt to taste and keep in a warm—but not hot—place on your stove.
- Once the artichoke halves are done, drain well on towels to dry. Get a heavy, oven-safe skillet wicked hot. Add olive oil and place the artichokes cut-side down in the skillet. Once their faces are golden brown, turn them over, add salt and pepper to taste, and put them in the oven for a few minutes to heat through.
- Remove from oven, add garlic and chile flakes, and toss to coat. Place one half per person on a plate and drizzle with a very liberal portion of the beurre blanc over the artichokes, making sure it works its way between the petals and pools in the heart. Serve with a bowl for collecting spent petals.
Side: Root Vegetable Gratin
Jennifer James 101, Chef Jennifer James and Chef Nelle Bauer
This gratin is gorgeous. Its gradations fade from a deep crimson base to a creamy, smooth white top—colors that are ideal for this lusty meal. “We think it’s great for Valentine’s Day,” writes Chef Nelle Bauer, “because it can be made in advance and then hang out in the oven while you are busy doing other things (nudge nudge, wink wink).” Carnivores could also consider pairing these roots with grilled steak, because as Bauer says, “Nothing says love like a big, juicy rib-eye.”
Make It the Main Dish: Serve this baby alongside some wilted greens and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a healthy and hearty vegetarian main squeeze.
Drink: 2008 L’Ecole n41 Estate Perigee, an earthy red from Washington
2 large beets (baseball size)
1 really big sweet potato
1 really big rutabaga
1 big bulb celeriac
2 big russet potatoes
1 pint heavy cream
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Spray an 8-by-8-inch pan with cooking spray.
- Peel the beets. Using a mandolin, slice the beets 1/8-inch thick and layer them evenly in the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Barely cover with cream.
- Peel the sweet potato. Using a mandolin, slice the sweet potatoes 1/8-inch thick and layer over the beets. Season. Barely cover with cream.
- Repeat each step with the rutabaga, celeriac and potatoes. It should fill the pan, but not quite all the way.
- Cover tightly with plastic wrap, then with aluminum foil. (The taut plastic won’t melt and prevents the gratin from bubbling over. But if the idea weirds you out, just use foil.) Place the pan on a cookie sheet so if it bubbles over, it doesn’t drip onto the bottom of the oven. Bake for 1 1/2 hours.
- Remove the aluminum foil and plastic wrap, cover with an even layer of grated Parmesan, crank the oven up to 425 and bake uncovered for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and bubbly.
Main Dish: Heart-Shaped Lobster and Lemon Ravioli
Torinos’ @ Home Trattoria Italiana and Café, Chef Maxime Bouneou
Admittedly, this recipe isn’t for beginners. But if you’ve got the equipment and the love, it’s perfect for Valentine’s dinner. Chef Maxime Bouneou has been making this decadent dish for about 15 years. A European through and through, he exclusively uses metric measurements. While we’ve done our best to convert ingredients to U.S. standards, we’ve also included the original metric amounts for those of you who like precision. If you’re looking for a more manageable meal, consider using Jennifer James 101’s root vegetable gratin as a main course.
Drink: Salviano Orvieto or Gauchezco Torrontes, crisp whites with bright fruit and balanced acidity
1 1/2 cups (250 grams) semolina flour
2 cups (250 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) kosher or sea salt
3 1/2 teaspoons (20 grams) concentrated tomato paste
1 whole shallot, thinly diced
Butter for sautéing
1 sprig of tarragon, destemmed and minced
1/2 pound (200 grams) lobster meat
Zest of 2 lemons
1/4 cup (50 grams) fresh ricotta
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons (25 grams) butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Make the pasta dough
- Combine the pasta ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until fully incorporated. The dough will be dry to the touch, but you should be able to form a ball out of it. (You can mix the dough by hand in a bowl if you don’t have a food processor.) If your dough turns out too dry, add a small amount of water. If your dough is too wet or sticky, add more all-purpose flour.
- Set aside and let rest for about 30 minutes.
Make the filling
- Sauté the diced shallot in a saucepan in a little butter over medium to low heat, stirring often. When the shallot is translucent, add the minced tarragon leaves. Remove from heat.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the cooked shallot and tarragon with lobster meat, lemon zest and ricotta. Season to taste. Place in a piping bag. (A Ziploc with one corner snipped off will work.)
Make the ravioli
- Cut the dough into 4 even pieces. Slightly work each piece with a rolling pin on a dusted surface, sprinkling with a little flour before rolling.
- Crank each piece through a pasta machine on the widest setting 5 to 10 times, until the dough comes out smooth and uniform.
- Decrease the roller gap of the pasta machine by 1 setting and roll each piece of dough. Repeat, reducing the roller opening 1 setting at a time until the thickness is about 1/32 inch.
- You now have 4 sheets of pasta. Spread one sheet on a floured work surface, and use a pastry brush to lightly coat the pasta with water.
- Place dollops of filling on the pasta sheet about 3 inches apart.
- Cover with another pasta sheet, making sure the edges align properly. Using your fingers, press the top sheet around the filling, chasing air bubbles as much as possible.
- Cut the ravioli with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, making sure to keep the filling in the center of each piece.
Make the sauce
In a sauté pan on medium heat, melt the butter and add the minced garlic, lemon juice and zest. Season to taste and remove from heat.
- Bring salted water to a simmer in a large pot over high heat. Add ravioli in batches, about 4 to 5 minutes for each batch. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them in the sauce.
- Cook the ravioli in the sauce on medium heat for another minute or so. Serve immediately.
Dessert: Mousse au Chocolat
P’tit Louis Bistro, Chef Christophe Descarpentries
The last flavors of a romantic meal aren’t complete without a lingering note of cacao. And this isn’t any old chocolate recipe. Though it’s fairly simple to make, Chef Christophe Descarpentries’ mousse au chocolat is a triumphant bridge between airy and rich. It’s marvelously deep and textured but not at all overpowering—and just the thing to inspire the remainder of your evening.
Drink: Banyuls, a red dessert wine from the South of France, or a tawny Port
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup confectionary sugar
8 3/4 ounces (250 grams) semisweet chocolate
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
- In a medium bowl, beat the cream and sugar until whipped. Set aside.
- Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. (You don’t need fancy equipment. Just rest a heat-safe glass or metal mixing bowl on top of a simmering pot of water.) Remove from heat and fold the whipped cream into the melted chocolate. Set aside.
- Separate the egg whites from the yolks, reserving one egg yolk in a small bowl. In a large stainless steel bowl, beat the whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Set aside.
- Add a bit of the chocolate mixture to the reserved egg yolk. Then add the tempered yolk to the rest of the chocolate, incorporating with a wooden spoon. (Tempering gently raises the yolk’s temperature, which prevents it from scrambling when it’s added to the warm chocolate.)
- Fold in 1/3 of the stiff, beaten egg whites to the chocolate mixture. Do not use a whisk. Add the chocolate mixture to the rest of the beaten egg whites and fold gently until incorporated.
- Spoon the chocolate mousse mixture into individual ramekins. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
The Floating World
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, September 2011
Deborah Fleig and Linda Tetrault’s warehouse looks like some sort of long-term art project. In a way, perhaps, that’s what it is—a sifting expression of the last 12 years of their lives, from the strings of paper origami globes that drape off the windows in their office, to the bakers racks packed to their wiry gills with fabric-covered boxes and multicolored scissors, to the walk-in cooler in the back stuffed with towering stacks of freshly imported sake bottles. It’s a place where Fleig walks barefoot over wood floors and Tetrault’s two boys come after their first day of school to play and wait for their mom. The Floating World warehouse is also a home to a breed of wine you may know nothing about.
Sake is a wine, after all—a rice wine; and the good stuff is made with not much more than rice, water and yeast. It’s a combination that leaves out the sulfites and tannins and therefore the headaches and other ornery byproducts of drinking. But we’re not talking about the sake you’ve sipped hot from a sushi bar, the kind that tastes and feels like nothing more than warm, astringent vapor. Fleig and Tetrault’s sake—soon to be your sake, too—is an entirely different beast, and it may make you turn your back on your beloved beaujolais.
The stuff you find at most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. is called futsu-shu. This normal table sake corners 80 percent of the market. The differences between it and higher-grade sakes start with temperature—the premium beverages are served cold, not hot. Referred to as tokutei meishoushu collectively, higher grades are smooth, almost syrupy, but without any saccharine hints. Fleig likes to drink hers in a chilled glass with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these varieties is that their flavors range robustly, from airier, champagne-like sakes to those that resemble a good port.
Fleig and Tetrault will be teaching people about this relatively unknown form of sake along with two other panelists in a seminar at this year’s Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. It’s the first time a sake seminar has been included in the Fiesta’s lineup of events, and it’s something Fleig and Tetrault have been lobbying for over the last few years. The hour-long course aims to expose people to the delicacies and complexities of sake, through tastings, lessons on how sake is made, tips on how it should be drunk and advice how to order good sake at a restaurant.
Take, for instance, this little nugget: The thing that most determines a sake’s quality and flavor, as one might imagine, is the rice. There’s table rice, and then there’s sake rice. About 100 different varieties make up the latter. When rice is used to make sake, it’s first polished to rid it of the fats and proteins on its crust (the good stuff if you want to put it on your plate instead of in your glass), leaving a pure starchy center. The more polished the rice is, the higher quality sake you get. The really polished stuff, the rice that’s rubbed down to 50 percent of its original size, looks like slightly translucent pearls.
This rice range helps determine flavor, but the rest of a good sake’s taste comes from nuances in the local water at each brewer and the yeast used. “In old factories, the yeast occurs naturally,” says Fleig, adding that brewers leave vats open for a time to let the yeast in the air infuse them. “They’re living things.”
Unlike other kinds of wine, sake is meant to be drunk fresh, not aged, says Tetrault. “Sake is more about consistency,” she says. Therefore, much of the sake you drink may have been brewed within the last couple years. An interesting juxtaposition is the fact that sake keeps longer than other wines. “Sake doesn’t oxidize like wine,” says Tetrault. “You can keep it in the fridge for weeks or months.”
Fleig and Tetrault got into sake after starting their other business, taking over the Ten Thousand Waves spa store in 1999. The two have known each other much longer, though, since they both attended St. John’s College. Both were vegetarians when they were juniors, and the school let them take over the kitchen every Friday night to make veggie-friendly entrées for the whole student body. Perhaps that’s what led them to start their first business fresh out of college as caterers. That first venture was short-lived, and soon both went to the East Coast for graduate school, Fleig to earn an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and Tetrault to get an MBA from Dartmouth.
In 1999, the two joined forces again at Ten Thousand Waves, and their new ownership of the store led them to take a series of trips to Japan to look for new spa products and antiques. It was during these trips that they both began to fall in love with sake, or the higher-quality forms of sake they hadn’t yet encountered in the U.S. Fleig would stuff as many bottles of the stuff as she could into suitcases to lug back, proudly claiming to have squeezed in 36 bottles into a single suitcase on one trip. Eventually, they decided that they wanted to bring the sake they loved back home legitimately and share it with others, so they began the arduous two-year process of becoming importers. That was two years ago, when The Floating World was born. Fleig and Tetrault acted as distributors while waiting for their federal importing license to come through, and this summer, it finally did. The two ladies got the first shipment of their own imports in July.
Over the last two years, Fleig and Tetrault also studied sake in New York City under John Gauntner in his Sake Professional Course and followed it with a round of sake exams in Tokyo. The two now have the highest level of sake sommelier education available, and they belong to a group of only about 80 people worldwide who can claim the same.
Another panelist is on her way to the same status, though. Ayame Fukuda is a general manager with the Shohko Café, her family’s business, and the vice president of sales at a sake distribution company run out of the restaurant. Fukuda has completed the NYC course and hopes to make it to Tokyo to complete her training in the future.
What she loves most about sake is how it makes her feel—or how it doesn’t make her feel. “I’m Asian, and a lot of Asian people can’t absorb alcohol very well,” she says. “Some of us get super, toxic red ... I never enjoyed drinking because it made me feel red and icky.” Sake doesn’t give her that reaction, though. “It’s clean,” she says. “It’s not as acidic as wine, there are no sharp edges. It doesn’t have that bite.” She describes it as “harmonious” to drink, and she’s right, because it melds with so many things—from other beverages to a wide scope of cuisines. “I can drink it warm, cold, on the rocks, with juices,” she says. “It’s clean and it allows me to drink alcohol.”
Don Weston, regional sales manager for Vine Connections and the final panelist, likes sake because it’s so easy to pair with a variety of cuisines, he says, especially the lighter, fish-oriented fare he’s accustomed to where he lives in the Pacific Northwest. “In the seminar, I would like customers to take away that sake is not your parents’ or your grandparents’ sake,” he says. “It’s a whole different dimension.”
Fukuda echoes that sentiment. “I want people to walk away with their curiosity being piqued to learn even more about sake,” she says. “Like, oh my god, my whole world has been busted open ... this is the drink of life.”
Do It Yourself, Honey
Urban farmers take living well into their own hands
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, May 19, 2011
A colony of 80,000 bees holds enough sting to kill you—actually, it holds enough to kill about 80 of you. But sitting a few feet away from a hive that’s nearly as tall as she is, Chantal Foster is unfazed as yellow-and-black honeybees whiz by on a pollen-fueled highway. Maybe it’s because, with rare exception, the potentially deadly flying insects seem to have no interest in her. The bees are on a mission, and it’s about getting frisky with flowers, not ferocious with humans.
Foster runs the Albuquerque Beekeepers Association, and she’s seen the group’s membership double over the course of a year. “Last year there would be 30 to 40 people at a meeting,” she says. “Now it’s standing-room-only with 60-plus people—and on a Wednesday night.” A lot of those new members are young, and many of them are women, she says. “There’s something in the zeitgeist,” she says. “Maybe people are feeling discontented with the way of modern life.”
Foster herself didn’t harbor a lifelong yen to become a beekeeper. But a few years ago, after going to a barbecue where a friend was babysitting a beehive, she felt something click. There was a magic about the bees—the duality between the danger they could potentially inflict and the sweet elixir they produce. And there, in the middle of Albuquerque—not in some rural pasture far away from people—was a hive of perfectly peaceful bees. She realized she didn’t have to be a traditional farmer to harvest honey; she just needed a backyard.
The nationwide push toward eating locally grown food has swelled significantly in the past few years. As the word “locavore” crept into the American lexicon, even megastores like Walmart started marketing some of its produce as local. Now the trend is coming full-circle as urbanites like Foster rediscover the most fundamental level of eating local: growing your own food—be it through bees, goats, chickens or a classic patch of vegetables.
A Wise Acre
Jen Prosser began farming long before it was considered cool. She was going to school in New York City, studying to become a literature professor. But the more time she spent in classrooms, the more she found herself dreaming about being outside. When she was downsized from an administrative job and given a severance package, she used it to move upstate to the Catskills and start a farm with her partner, Tree McElhinney.
The two raised goats and chickens and grew herbs and vegetables for about 10 years on their 21 acres. But it rains a lot in the Catskills, Prosser says—so much that it makes farming difficult. Eventually, Prosser and McElhinney began to crave the sun. After a countrywide search, they decided on Albuquerque. Packing up three goats, 10 chickens, two dogs and two cats for a cross-country move out West, they settled in the South Valley in 2007.
Sunstone Farm and Learning Center sits on just one and a half acres, and Prosser and McElhinney can hear Coors Boulevard from their yard. But that one and a half acres is an urban oasis. The two harvest honey from three hives of bees. They raise chickens—including a particularly charismatic cuckoo maran hen named TicTac—for eggs and meat. Those three regal goats are milked, and their creamy bounty is made into cheese, yogurts and soaps. The couple also grow vegetables and fruits that account for about 60 percent of their diet. After living in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, Prosser is happy as a desert clam on her abundant plot.
“In New York, people expected you to work 24 hours a day,” she says. “There can be a slower pace here if you allow yourself.” Prosser starts her workday at 5 or 6 a.m. every morning, but she stops when she chooses, which is usually in the mid-afternoon. It allows her the luxury to connect with the food she’s grown. She and McElhinney have what Prosser calls a “slow meal” every day, savoring the arugula and spinach grown in their backyard and sprinkling their salads with homemade cheese.
Americans get most of their meat from cellophane-wrapped trays at the grocery store and their produce from parcels of land several countries away. In sharp contrast, the do-it-yourself movement champions all things homemade and local. But cultivating a relationship to the land and the food extends far beyond the pedigree of what’s on your dinner plate: It also requires a network of human relationships, as well as their shared bank of knowledge—techniques passed down from generation to generation that are strangely absent in modern society.
Prosser found a greater appreciation for the “old-fashioned” way of doing things once she started growing her own food, she says. It was a gateway into traditional methods and crafts, like food fermentation, soda-making and composting. In a turn that seems fitting with her previous ambitions of being a professor, Prosser teaches classes on how to do all the things she’s learned: raising backyard chickens, creating an urban homestead, making goat milk soap, baking artisan bread. Many of her classes are devoted to herbalism, since Prosser is also an herbalist. In addition to teaching people about the practice, she does consultations.
The participation at her classes is telling. “There seem to be two different kinds of people who attend: urban hippies and survivalists.” Those from the former category come because they want to learn how to be more sustainable, she says. The others come because they think “the rapture’s going to be here in five years.” They want the skills they’ll need to live through it. “It’s important to know how to talk to people who are different,” says Prosser.
Finding common ground is just another facet of the urban farming movement. “I think all these things I do fall under the heading of ‘sustainable,’ ” she says. “But they all have an effect on the larger picture without politics or drama. It’s about creating abundance in your life.”
Busy as Bees
While Foster found beekeeping out of pure interest and Prosser became a farmer out of a desire to get her hands into the earth, Maggie Shepard became a fluent member of the DIY movement for an entirely different reason: money. Shepard is the founder of the newly formed The Old School, a collection of teachers who host classes on how to do a variety of traditional crafts and skills.
“My family and I don’t have a lot of money,” Shepard says. “Whenever I wanted to learn these skills myself, classes were too expensive.” Even if Shepard could afford a class, she had to find a babysitter for her two kids; it just never worked out. “I thought, There’s probably more people like me who can’t afford classes.” Shepard sent an email to everyone she knew in late February, explaining that she wanted to start a class series and was looking for teachers. In just two months, she’s already amassed 20 instructors offering 22 classes.
The scope of the classes is wide-ranging: The Old School teaches about quilting, solar cooking, homebrewing, gray-water recapture, fermenting kombucha, container gardening, canning and making homemade beauty products. And that’s just a sampling. Most classes cost less than $10 to attend, and free or low-cost child care is available at all of them. Adding to the feel-good meter, 10 percent of all proceeds from classes are donated to Water for People.
“As an American, I value independence and perseverance,” Shepard says. “And independence for me means being able to take care of yourself in the most dire of situations.” In this country, a dire situation is being without money, she adds. She thinks the DIY movement has arisen, at least partially, for that reason. “We’ve become so reliant on corporations to get milk, clothing, etc.,” she says. “It’s an expression of our need for security combined with a need for independence.”
Foster comes to it from a different angle. Beekeeping doesn’t save her money. She eats and brews up flowery mead concoctions from some of the honey she harvests. But she gives most of it away. What she likes about the practice is the awareness it gives her. She notices when the elm trees in her yard start to bloom, as it’s the first pollen her bees get in the spring. This year, she just discovered that one of the bushes in her front yard has tiny flowers because she saw bees hovering around it. Like Prosser, it gives her a connection to her environment and a hand in shaping it.
What she likes most about beekeeping, though, is more existential. A colony of bees acts as a super organism, with thousands of individual members working toward the same goal, often simultaneously. Like ants and flocks of birds and schools of fish, bees have their individuality—some take on nurse roles while others are guards or foragers—but they’re tapped into a larger form of consciousness created by the whole. They act collectively. Foster sees human populations the same way. “How do you convince 30,000 bees to swarm?” she asks. “How do you decide to overturn the leadership in Egypt?”
by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, February 2011
Jennifer James picks up two empty coffee cups at the counter and hands them to Nelle Bauer, who relays them to the fixings station, where she fills them with breakfast roast and cream. As the two settle down at a small metal table in Ecco Gelato in Nob Hill, they look at each other nervously. Talking about your relationship to a stranger must be uncomfortable, especially when you possess one of the town's most memorable names, which is strung up over one of Albuquerque’s most well-known restaurants.
We start by talking about their different roles at Jennifer James 101, where both work literally side-by-side every day in a space the size of a walk-in closet. “I’m not capable of doing 90 percent of what Nelle does,” Jennifer says, to which Nelle chimes in, “I always defer to her.” On the restaurant’s website, Jennifer, Nelle and the third owner, Jennifer’s sister Kelly Burton, are listed respectively as “brawn,” “brains” and “beauty.” Kelly takes care of the front of house while Nelle handles communications and works in the kitchen with Jennifer, who prefers staying close to the restaurant’s four-burner stove.
The two met five years ago, when Jennifer was still at her previous restaurant, Graze. Nelle was back in town from New York, where she was getting her Master’s in Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and working atFood Arts. A mutual friend thought the two would hit it off, due to their shared love of cuisine, and slyly brought Nelle to Graze for a meal. Over the next six months, Nelle flew back regularly to see Jennifer—and, on the side, to visit her family, who still lives here. The two would also occasionally meet on random trips around the country, like the time they met in Cleveland, when Nelle was acting as a judge for an event at The Chef’s Garden farm.
When Jennifer left Graze, she road-tripped to New York, with Nelle meeting her halfway and continuing the rest of the distance. Jennifer stayed in New York with Nelle for the next four months, while Nelle finished her Master's and the two of them hatched a plan.
Nelle says she knew she’d end up going back to Albuquerque with Jennifer, but not because she craved the West. “I never wanted to move back,” she says, “but Jennifer was not going to go anywhere.”
“That’s not true,” Jennifer protests. “There was that tiny place in New Jersey I wanted to open, except you told me all the food would have to be kosher.” They smile at each other.
“I wanted to be with Jennifer and closer to my family,” says Nelle, so they packed up and came back.
Nelle grew up in Albuquerque but left when she was 18, gradually making her way to New York via an undergraduate stint in Philadelphia (she also picked up a degree from the Culinary Institute of America once she got to NYC). She says she's only really come to terms with being back in New Mexico during the last couple of months. “I hate driving in my car to work,” she says, wistfully recalling the twice-daily 40-minute train rides that gave her plenty of time to read.
Jennifer comes from a very different background. She grew up in small-town White Hall, Illinois, where there were nearly as many farms as people and the downtown basically consisted of Main Street. She got her Bachelor’s from the University of Illinois and found a job in St. Louis, thinking she would make a career in restaurant management. Around the time she realized she wanted to be on the other side of the kitchen, she decided to uproot. “I knew I was sick of the Midwest,” she says, “and I always had a romantic notion of the West.”
Jennifer didn’t come to Albuquerque right away. “I had a brief love affair with Cheyenne, Wyoming,” she says. “I bought two Stetson cowboy hats and line danced occasionally.” The affair ended and she moved here and “fell in love” with the city. That was in her late 20s, or at least that’s what she thinks. Jennifer doesn’t know exactly how long she’s been in Albuquerque, so she and Nelle spend a couple minutes trying to figure it out.
“Were you here in ’93?” Nelle asks.
“No, definitely not.”
“Were you here in ’95?”
“I don’t think so.”
This continues, and eventually Jennifer eases back into her seat. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I’ve been here a while.”
When Nelle and Jennifer first moved back to Albuquerque, they didn’t have grand plans to open a restaurant. They were both living with Kelly and, Nelle laughs, “I didn’t look for a job. Jennifer didn’t either. We didn’t want one.”
“I still don’t want one,” Jennifer grins.
The desire to cook and create bore its way to the surface, though, and their household started throwing JUG (Jennifer Under Ground) dinner parties. They’d cook, and guests would chip in whatever money they could. They liked the model so much that they wanted to figure out a way to do it on a daily basis. They started looking for a space to open a restaurant while working at Chef du Jour. After a year of doing JUG parties, they opened Jennifer James 101.
The restaurant continues in the tradition of JUG with its community table, a communally seated table of eight that seats every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. The rest of the dining room operates like a normal restaurant, but Jennifer and Nelle like having something that brings people together under the umbrella of great food.
Most of Jennifer and Nelle’s relationship has evolved while working together. For the last three years they’ve spent the majority of every day standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. “We were forced to learn about each other more quickly,” Jennifer says. Developing a relationship in such a tight environment has its advantages and challenges. “There are both sides,” Jennifer adds. “In our industry we’re together 24/7. Then we go home and we’re there.” She pauses. “But on the other hand, I’m exhausted and she knows exactly why.”
They each have to set aside time for themselves to be alone, but beyond managing their personal space they also have to keep themselves from talking about work all the time. “We can’t go out to dinner and talk about our days,” Nelle says, “because we end up talking about work.” And when they go on vacation, Jennifer adds, they end up buying things for the restaurant rather than their house or themselves.
This is perhaps due equally to the fact that both are self-proclaimed workaholics, which is one reason why they get along so well. “That helps, and having the same passion for what we do,” Jennifer adds.
Working together so closely has also turned the pair into a serene but very quickly running machine. “Customers comment on how quiet and calm the kitchen is,” Nelle says. “We don’t have to speak—I know her timing, I know how she moves.”
“A lot of people comment on that, that it’s like watching a symphony,” Jennifer adds.
Even now, the two work off each other’s sentences, as if they’re both expressing a single thought. And there are plenty of qualities the two of them share.
“We’re both stubborn, hard-headed,” says Nelle.
“We’re both perfectionists,” adds Jennifer.
“We both have excellent fashion sense,” Nelle says, laughing. “Don’t write that.”
But Jennifer and Nelle, although they’re both working pieces that make up one symphonically smooth machine, maintain their differences. Jennifer is easy to smile but shy; Nelle is exuberant, doling out jokes effortlessly. Jennifer taught herself to cook (“I just love to eat,” she says), while Nelle was trained traditionally. Jennifer calls herself a “doer” and Nelle a “thinker.”
“And I don’t do laundry,” Nelle says. “For real, I don’t.”
Those differences complement each other. Jennifer will come up with an idea for a dish, and Nelle will figure out a way to make it a reality in such a small cooking space. They learn from and take care of each other, doing things like reminding the other to eat. It sounds silly considering that the two of them spend their days in front of food, but they stay so busy that eating is easy to neglect. “Literally, we have to do it for each other,” Nelle says. “I like to be her reality check—remind her what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.”
It’s easy to imagine how spending so much time with one person could create tension in a relationship, and the two talk and laugh about the ways they have to escape each other. But when asked what the best thing about working together is, Nelle’s response is immediate. “The best thing?” she repeats with a massive grin. “The best thing is showing up to work. And the person you’re head-over-heels crazy about is who you get to work with every day.”
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.”