Clad in a perfectly white, traditional chef’s coat and built to breathe black-and-white checkered pants, Executive Chef John Lamendola begins his day in the spotless kitchen at Old Martina’s Hall in between 7:30 and 8 a.m. He sets off on a walk-through to see what he needs to catch up on, what he needs to improve, organize the coolers and keep things fresh. It's a long day. It ends at about 9:30 to 10 p.m., except for being closed on Mondays and the half-day brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. No worries; He’s always up for the challenge.
Old Martina’s Hall (renamed after the current owner Martina Gebhardt) is a Ranchos de Taos landmark. It sits right across the road from another historic site, San Francisco de Asís Church. Lamendola remembers the formerly called Old Martinez Hall in the late 1980s to early ‘90s when it had “a bigger bar and people partied hard on the dance floor.” And, yes, with a younger man’s grin and a nod Lamendola admitted he joined in.
But his reason for being there now is the food. When Lamendola became the executive chef four years ago, he looked at the menu and saw mostly “American-style” offerings with very little Southwestern fare.
“And there was hardly any seafood at all, so I knew we had to make some changes,” he recalled. “The menu wasn't a local favorite.”
He also observed that tourists were looking at the menu posted outside and walking away. Why? Lamendola talked with customers and employees asking what kind of food they looking for. New Mexican was the answer.
Since then, Lamendola has transformed the “American-style” plates into a nice mix. The menu is smaller and more fish dishes are offered.
“I’m bringing in a lot of fresh fish. A lot of Taos restaurants don’t have much fish on their menus, except for maybe trout and fried shrimp, and fish tacos,” he said.
And he knows the difference between fresh fish and what’s been sitting around for a few days. He works with a couple of seafood companies that text him with a list of what they have, which always changes. He only orders fish in small quantities. If he sells out, “great,” and if he doesn’t, “oh, well” — there’s only so many blackened fish tacos he can make.
Because of Lamendola’s seafood mission, Old Martina’s is starting to get a good reputation for bringing in catches of the day. He got spoiled with fresh seafood while living in Florida for seven years. “I had captains calling me from their boats saying, ‘Hey chef, this what I have.’ ”
While he likes fish, South Asian cooking is his personal favorite. The combinations of spices create flavors his tongue dances around. That love prompted him to research on how to perfect the use of spices. And it goes without saying that flavor is important when preparing food — “Let’s not be bland.”
The most popular dishes at Old Martina’s are carne adovada, Southwest blue corn chicken enchiladas and the crab eggs Benedict (served only during Sunday brunch), and whichever of the three to four specials he runs every day.
The lunch menu will be changed for the summer season, with lighter fare such as fish and salads, stir-fry, softer pastas and fewer red meats. The dinner menu will also be revamped.
With spring and summer approaching there will be a lot of fresh produce in the area, which he’s looking forward to using in his dishes.
“I like the farm-to-table concept,” he explained. “That keeps me on my toes — what’s new and exciting? I get bored real easy with the standard menu. If I had my way, I’d walk in and create a menu every day. But we have to show some consistency.”
The Detroit-native’s approach as a chef is if he were a customer; What would he want to eat and how does he want it to taste and be presented? He puts himself in the customers’ shoes all the time and expects his cooks to do the same.
Lamendola is no stranger to Taos or Taoseños. After graduating from chef school in New York City he moved to Santa Fe where he spent seven years. He went to San Diego briefly and came back to New Mexico. He was the chef at Thunderbird Lodge in Taos Ski Valley for 11 years. Lamendola became partners with the Thunderbird owners to start his first restaurant in Taos, The Bread House. He also was the chef at Jacqueline’s and had a short stint in the kitchen at The Trading Post. Then he resided in St. Augustine and Marco Island, Florida. He started thinking about all of his family members back in Taos, including his children and grandchildren. Northern New Mexico called him back.
The seasoned chef admits he faced some challenges with changing the menu at Old Martina’s.
“Having been [in Taos] for 25 years, I had a good name in the community who expected a certain style of cooking,” he said. Bringing locals back is a priority.
Neither the history of the place nor the task of resuscitating the restaurant gave him the jitters. Nerves? What are nerves?
“I don’t ever get nervous. Life is too short,” he shared. “We’re just cooks. We’re not splitting atoms or performing brain surgery. That’s being nervous. There’s no ‘oops’ doing that.”
What does give him reason to pause is defeat.
“I have to be part of the future here and make it successful. If his place fails then I fail, and I can’t have that.”