It’s Sunday around 6 p.m., and all hands are busy at Common Fire. People fill the restaurant, partly because it’s the Fourth of July weekend, but also because the chef’s creations are quickly gaining recognition among Taos foodies.
Andrew Horton, Common Fire chef de cuisine, grew up outside Boulder, Colorado. His first encounter with the food business was in a Mexican restaurant, where he was a dishwasher at 14. He later became a line cook, and wanting to advance professionally, he attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan from 2008 to 2009.
After graduation, Horton went on to work at a variety of restaurants in New York City. Among the chefs that he considers the most influential of his career are Dennis Spina at the Roebling Tea Room, Homer Murray at River Styx and Kevin Adey at the Northeast Kingdom and Faro.
“I love New York, but I got tired of living in a small apartment that cost $2,000 a month,” Horton said. “I longed to return to nature and be close to the mountains. Two years ago, I came to Taos to visit a friend. Well, I ended up falling in love with a girl, getting a puppy and enjoying the place so much that I decided to stay.”
He worked at Taos Mesa Brewing, Lambert’s and Sabroso. At Sabroso, he met Andy Lynch, Common Fire owner, who invited him to become part of his new venture.
“I’m very happy I did because I have never worked with a better culinary team in my entire career,” Horton said. “I am really excited about what we are bringing to the local community and what the local community is bringing to us.”
So what is Common Fire bringing to Taos’ collective table? Chef Horton thinks for a while before answering, “Hot food, cold beer, good wine,” the eatery’s tagline.
The restaurant menu changes often, depending on what “above-sea level” fish is available in Santa Fe and fresh local produce.
“Our cheese selection comes from Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, and it also varies every week or so,” Horton said.
As for regular dishes, he always tries to have the pork and noodle soup at the ready — created for those who crave a light, but satisfying meal.
He also likes to cook large pieces of meat, particularly heritage pork from Kyzer Farm.
If Horton is invited to a party and asked to bring an appetizer, he is quite likely to come up with steak tartare.
“That’s finely chopped raw beef, served on bread with some kind of mayonnaise,” he said. “Easy to make and delicious.”
Every chef has a favorite tool. Horton loves his knives, of course, but when asked to name something else, he mentioned a cheese cloth.
“It has many more uses besides straining cheese,” he said. “You can make butter with it. You can also use it to wrap up sachets of fresh herbs and spices and put them into soups and stocks. It’s one of the most versatile items in my repertoire.”
Chefs typically work long hours and don’t have much free time. Horton is no exception, but when he has a chance to watch TV, he tunes in to “Chef’s Table,” a documentary series on Netflix.
“It’s a very intimate look into a chef’s life and work,” he said. “Argentinean chef Francis Mallmann is one of the best.”
No smoke and mirrors
Common Fire has an open kitchen with a hearth — and that’s pretty much it.
“We don’t have a sauté station or a deep fryer,” Horton said. “Everything that is cooked here comes out of our hearth. People can see exactly what the chef is doing. No smoke and mirrors — what you see is what you get.”
The hearth itself is reminiscent of a Native American horno, a traditional way of cooking in this area. Horton loves the fact that his hands are always close to the flames. That goes along well with his cooking philosophy, which is based on simplicity, quality ingredients and seasonality.
“I believe that simple dishes are the best,” he said. “I like rustic cooking and food that looks as if it had fallen from a tree and into a plate.”
Like most chefs, Horton enjoys making people happy with food.
“Everybody has to eat, right?” he said. “But if we can add a bit of excitement to that daily process, that makes a great difference in the way we approach eating. When I see a sparkle in people’s eyes after they finished a dish that I have prepared thoughtfully, that’s as good as it gets for me.”
And the early reviews from Taos-area foodies and tourists are coming in.
“The food here is excellent, and the hospitality is equally impressive,” said Chris Mixson. “A wood-burning oven is always great in the hands of a proper chef.”
“And Horton is a wonderful one,” said Gerry Katz. “Everything was delicious, from the broccolini croissant to the wine.”
Common Fire is located at 88 State Highway 150 in El Prado. Call (505) 803-9113 for more information.