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Home grown: chefs and food executives with local flavor

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New Mexico is all about food, with a distinctive cuisine that blends Spanish, Native American and Mexican elements together into dishes found nowhere else.

So it’s not surprising that Northern New Mexico, like other foodie paradises, encourages its children to make food their passion and profession. And in a place as diverse as New Mexico, many different paths can lead to the same delicious destination.

Socorro Herrera — Socorro’s

Out in Hernandez, New Mexico, by the side of the road on US 84/285, is a magic little spot called Socorro’s, owned and operated by Socorro Herrera, who was born and raised in Hernandez and whose family has owned the building since she was a child. Socorro’s is a fixture in Northern New Mexico, a local landmark frequented by cops and road-trippers alike. Herrera, now 80, has owned the restaurant for 18 years, but this is her second career. Her first and primary life was in music; as a singer, she was famous for ranchera tunes. She married her husband, Lorenzo Herrera, who plays trumpet, at age 16. They cut their first album in 1978 and for many years had a band called Socorro y Los Sueños, while also raising three boys and a girl. 

Herrera first started singing when she was 5, when her father would plunk her on the counter at the family grocery/liquor store, which occupied the building where her restaurant stands now, and have her sing for customers. 

“All my family is in the music business,” she says. “We used to play all over. People are still playing my records.” 

Socorro’s is Herrera’s first and only restaurant. She didn’t even know how to cook when she got married — living at a family-run grocery store made it less-than-urgent for her to learn. When she and her husband moved to Los Angeles for a few years after they got married, she had to give herself a crash course in all things home economics. 

“I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know how to sew, I didn’t know anything,” she laughs. “My dad and mom had a liquor store here, so I had potato chips, I had Vienna sausage, I had candies. I was lost. I learned the hard way.” 

The New Mexican food at Socorro’s comes primarily from family recipes, with the food all done to taste — Socorro’s taste. The menu is voluminous, encompassing New Mexican favorites (enchiladas, tacos, rarely found chicos, combo plates, and so forth) as well as more diner-y American items, including pizzas and steaks.

“At first I kept getting people from Colorado, Nambe. Eighty percent of my clientele were out-of-staters. Locals probably figured I didn’t know how to cook, all I knew how to do was to sing.” Now, of course, Socorro’s is legendary, well worth the drive to have fresh, crispy sopapillas on her vast back party patio.

Christina Martinez — El Monte Sagrado

Up in Taos, El Monte Sagrado hotel and resort stands as a jewel of hidden luxury built around holistic principles and an eco-friendly ethos. And when you stay there, head chef Cristina Martinez will feed you. Her current role began last November, but Martinez’s journey to all things culinary began at age 15, when she was working at the Las Campanas country club in Santa Fe with her family’s janitorial business. There she was inspired by watching the chefs. 

“I started my own catering company, when I was 18, called Good Taste, a family-owned catering thing in Albuquerque.” she says. “Since I was really young, I was helping prepare foods for large groups, like enchiladas, or we would do steak or chicken dishes, and beautiful vegetable dishes.” 

Martinez’s family encouraged her to go to culinary school. She attended the Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena and then moved back to Albuquerque, where she worked for Heritage Hotels and then Artichoke Café for almost five years. 

“I was always in charge of the desserts [as a child],” says Martinez. “It’s funny because I thought I would be a pastry chef, but actually going to culinary school, I realized I am not a pastry chef.”

Among her responsibilities today, she juggles room service meals — everything from huevos rancheros to winter squash salad to carne adovada enchiladas to the Anaconda BBQ Burger with its tobacco onion strings and jalapeño barbecue sauce — catering and the overall fine-dining menu. It emphasizes regional cuisine with twists — for example, a duck confit tamale, a salad utilizing the “three sisters” — beans, corn and squash — and salmon cured in locally distilled Taos Lightning gin. 

“I was really inspired by Northern New Mexican food. As much as I’ve grown up with it, it’s very different in different parts of the state,” she says. “For example, up here in the north they put a lot of oregano in chile, a lot of vegetables added like mushrooms and carrots, which is still really strange to me, but I’m very open-minded,” she laughs. As the executive chef of a luxury resort, she has to deal with the food aspect of the business as well as the personnel aspect. It’s a far cry from working in her parent’s kitchen, yet in a way it’s the very same job — crafting an experience for large groups of people. 

Rocky Durham — Sunrise Springs

For some, the culinary journey begins in New Mexico, takes them everywhere else and then, inevitably, brings them back to the Land of Entrapment. For Rocky Durham — chef, culinary personality, teacher and currently executive chef at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort — that journey has been the longest and windiest of roads. 

“I don’t have that backstory where I have a proud food culture or heritage,” laughs Durham, who was born and raised in Santa Fe. “I never spent all day in the kitchen with my grandmother making food from the old country. The old country was New York and new Jersey.” Durham had his first restaurant job as a teenager, moving chairs around at Upper Crust Pizza, for which he was paid in pizza. His next job was at a French restaurant called, adorably, Le Froggerie, located where Cowgirl BBQ is now. 

“I washed dishes for them,” says Durham. “I loved the work — it turned out I really liked being on a crew, being part of the team. I was excited to show up for work. The chef, Jean-Jacques Alexandre, thought that I was trying to impress him I think. He offered me an apprenticeship. If I showed up every day with my head screwed on straight, he would teach me everything he knew.” After Le Froggerie closed, Durham worked at the old El Nido and then at Zia Diner. Then he studied at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon.

After that, he couldn’t be stopped. He worked in New Orleans and then Los Angeles and then headed back to Santa Fe to run the kitchen at SantaCafé. After that he opened eight southwestern-style restaurants, all called Santa Fe, in eight different British cities. He’s cooked in Australia. He’s cooked in Russia. For a few years, while co-helming SantaCafé with chef Davi Sellers, he spent six months each year as chef at an adventure fly-fishing lodge in Patagonia in Argentina.

“I went and worked the summer season in the southern hemisphere. I would go down and cook for wealthy American industrialists,” he says. “I would forage for wild mushrooms. We would hunt the giant rabbits — this is a very, very remote area, but absolutely spectacular. If you like the outdoors, you can’t beat Patagonia for the beauty and adventure.”

Sunrise Springs is both a resort and a wellness spa, and Durham is in charge of the food for all of it. His main outlet is the Blue Heron Restaurant, where he uses food as an “elixir for the body and mind.” This doesn’t mean “health food” per se (this is not a wheatgrass-and-yogurt joint) but rather local, seasonal foods. The Sunday brunch menu, for example, might include crab cakes, duck confit posole, or eggs Benedict with blue corn, avocado and house-made sausage. Dinner sometimes includes tempura shrimp nachos or rib eye steak with green chile whipped potatoes.

“I love to travel,” Durham concludes. “Having a skill like cheffing is totally transferable — you don’t need to know the host language. All you have to do is get there. Fire pretty much behaves the same way wherever you are. Ice behaves the same way wherever you are. As long as there’s food there to eat, we can work.” 

Tantri Wija is a writer and filmmaker from Bali, Indonesia, and Santa Fe. She currently writes for “New Mexico Magazine” and “Taste” columns for “The Santa Fe New Mexican.” 

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