The front-of-house employees who facilitate the actual experience of dining out—and who are usually nice for the tips—get all the attention. But what about the many other restaurant workers who make up the back-of-house at your favorite eateries? You may not always see them or even think about how hard they work to keep things running smoothly, but without their help, the system falls apart. We’ve obviously been thinking about restaurants a lot lately with this week’s publication of our annual Restaurant Guide (see p. 24 for a list of pickup locations), and it occurred to us that for every chef, server or bartender who is celebrated for working with customers in person, a number of others are doing the grunt work to make them look good.
It could be the dishwasher, a prep cook or even the owner. We sought out some of these people to highlight their importance to your meal: the ones who arrive to work before anyone else and continue to toil long after the last table has paid out and left the building. The number of small things that come together to make a restaurant successful are nearly incalculable, but we urge you to take a moment to think of these workers the next time you're at your favorite spot. Appreciate their hard work and try to be cool.
The Fastest in the West
Keepin’ it clean at Tecolote
Melquides Damian-Hernandez has been scrubbing, rinsing and wringing at Tecolote for 13 years. He met with SFR during one of those unseasonably hot October afternoons that graced this fall and says he wants to be referred to as Mel, because his full name is a little too long. As a fellow sufferer of hyphenated last names, I oblige.
Mel sits with me at a table towards the back of the café's new-ish location on St. Michael's Drive (that was a scary time without Tecolote, wasn't it?). He is shy and polite, and asks a coworker to help translate from Spanish to English. "The people here are really good to me," he says. "I feel happy with the way they treat me and I always feel like I do a really good job. Yeah, it's like my home."
Tecolote, the local breakfast hub with the motto "Great breakfast, No toast" (though one can get French toast prepared with a rotating list of breads), serves hundreds of people daily, sometimes more, and Mel estimates he washes "approximately a thousand dishes on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, because there are more people those days." The hardest dish to wash? "The huge chile pots."
Restaurant kitchens are notorious for their rapid-pace working environment, and Mel's position is no exception. He demonstrates his vocation towards the end of our interview at the impressively long and rectangular stainless steel basin in the depths of Tecolote's kitchen. With deft use of the professional pressure-washer, Mel blasts a plate spotlessly clean with skills so quick-draw fast, he'd have the drop on most cowboys. "The washing is easy, and I have so much to do that it keeps me busy and we are always trying to go as fast as we can," he says.
Along with being the dishwasher, Mel handles the mercancia, or storeroom; arriving to work at the literal crack of dawn around 5:30 am to check the restaurant's orders. "I check the whole order," he says. "It's a very important job."
And even after washing all those dishes at work, Mel says he washes them at home too. His wife also works at Tecolote. "With all of my experience, I am very quick." (Maria Egolf-Romero)
1616 St. Michael's Drive
Santacafé prep cook has been getting ingredients ready for nearly 30 years
Margarita “Maggie” Luján arrives at Santacafé every morning at 7 am and gets to work stuffing spring rolls with cactus and mushrooms. She then moves on to the dumplings, which get a dollop of shrimp and spinach.
Luján has been a prep cook at this fine dining institution for 28 years, working under at least five different chefs. She's stayed all this time, she says, because she's earned the trust of longtime owners Judith Ebbinghaus and Bobby Morean.
"The owners are good people. The chef is a good person," she says. Today's kitchen boss is Fernando Ruiz, who became executive chef about four years ago.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Luján sticks around longer than usual to make fettuccine noodles for dinner patrons. She feeds balls of yolk-yellow and parsley-speckled dough through a hand-cranked pasta machine, over and over. Once the dough mats out to her desired thickness, she cranks the mixture through one more time. Luján lays out the result, strips of ready-to-boil noodles, onto a tray and sprinkles it with flour.
Santacafé's pasta of the day, as one might imagine, changes depending on what ingredients are in store. Yesterday, it was linguine. "Tomorrow? I don't know," Luján says. What she doesn't mention is, unless Ruiz wants to make something special—like wasabi papardelle—she'll probably pick whatever pasta winds up the menu herself.
Luján grew up in Juarez and moved to Santa Fe in 1986 for better work opportunities. She met her husband here, with whom she has three children. When she's not prepping food at Santacafé, Luján works her second gig cleaning houses.
As something of a celebrity chef, Ruiz, who competed in the Nov. 1 episode of the Food Network challenge show Chopped, usually gets the attention. But as anyone in the restaurant world will tell you, every meal is a team effort. "I can't do this without Maggie," Ruiz tells SFR. He swings open the kitchen door, revealing a cramped and busy room full of workers who are prepping for the day in what passes as an afternoon lull. "And I can't do this without them." (Steven Hsieh)
231 Washington Ave.
Something new from the brewmaster at Rowley Farmhouse Ales
John Rowley’s garage hasn’t had a car parked in it for a decade. That’s how long the space has been dedicated, instead, to brewing beer. But the longtime home-brewer finally turned that itch to go bigger into something even more consuming: the recently opened Rowley Farmhouse Ales.
"I don't want to horde it," he says. "Beer is a community thing, something everyone comes together around."
The East Coast native came west first to Arizona before landing a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he still works as a chemist. His days are spent elbow-deep in a glove box.
"There's some crossover work for me there, for sure," he says of his chemistry training and his brewer's skills. "But beer is my passion."
Evenings and weekends are consumed at the brewery. Here, the recipes honed in the years he's spent with a local brewers club, and through the "Small Batch Saturdays" when the Santa Fe Brewing Company opened their equipment to club members, finally get a public debut. Occasionally, he makes it back to his Eldorado home and his pair of French bulldogs (hence the brewery stepping up to fundraise for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society).
Business has been steady enough that they're burning through more than their planned allotment of house-brewed beer each week and scaling up production toward four house brews on tap at a time.
Though there's obvious love for hops in New Mexico, that's not what they're about, Rowley says during a tour of the kitchen and brew facilities. While they want to be able to pour for the IPA guy, the stout guy and the sour girl, sour beer is where he hopes to shine.
"I like brewing it, and I think there's a niche for that in Santa Fe," says the consummate beer geek, repeatedly spotted in black t-shirts emblazoned with terms only a brewer would love ("Lupulin-forward," or a listing of the four varieties of yeast used in beer).
A key selling point for the space they purchased, on Maclovia just off Cerrillos, was its cellar. There, beers can take their time brewing, like a lambic sour, which can take over a year to mature. He's ordering what looks to be the state's only foeder, a 8-foot-tall oak barrel 5 feet in diameter that's only ever partially emptied and refilled with new wort—unfermented beer.
"It doesn't have to be the same thing—it can change, and it lives and grows over time," he says. Truly funky. (Elizabeth Miller)
Rowley Farmhouse Ales
1405 Maclovia St.
Mary Francis Cheeseman wants you to enjoy your wine
There are so few sommeliers in Santa Fe that it seems a real boon for any restaurant to have one on its staff. These educated wine-lovers can make the difference between navigating the baffling labyrinth of global wines alone (for some of us, they all taste the damn same) and having a seasoned guide to lead the way. La Casa Sena’s Mary Francis Cheeseman is just that person.
"I definitely don't want to be over-sentimental about it, but wine is special and unique and with the proper handling and service it can make a night out magical," Cheeseman says. "Really good wine is supposed to tell you a story, and I think we're seeing this cultural shift toward these finer products."
Cheeseman is a second-level, or certified, som. There are four levels total, and fewer than five people in all of Santa Fe have achieved their certification. She works in La Casa Sena's retail wine shop by day, editing the list through addition and subtraction and always aspiring to the best possible experience for oenophiles and diners alike. By night, she works in the restaurant itself, providing tableside service with friendly advice and a slight educational bent.
If ever you've wanted to pick up a few wine tricks or enhance a meal, this is how to do it, and yet it's one of the few local restaurants that has such a component or even the proper means of storage. La Casa Sena's wine list is easily the largest in town, and the restaurant's access to the wine shop puts them squarely above the competition which, in a foodie paradise such as Santa Fe, is serious business. A vast, temperature-controlled cellar ensures the best possible vino whether it comes by the bottle or the glass.
Still, for a town with so many high-quality eateries, the wine isn't as celebrated as it could be, according to Cheeseman. "I'd like the community to be expanded," she says, "and I'd like to see more intelligent young people on the floors of restaurants talking about and sharing quality wines." She brings this ethos to special events and tastings in La Casa Sena's wine shop, to the restaurant's dining experience and to monthly classes at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe (130 E Marcy St., 795-7878).
"My next goal would be to become a wine buyer or manager somewhere while working toward the next sommelier," Cheeseman says, an actual glint in her eye. Until such a time, however, she'll be at La Casa Sena, happily sharing her experience and matching customers with the right wine. (Alex De Vore)
La Casa Sena
125 E Palace Ave.
Wine Shop: 982-2121