Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in La Cienega (242 Los Pinos Road, 780-8145) has a new chef with a familiar name. Rocky Durham is now overseeing all food at the resort, which includes the fine dining restaurant, Blue Heron; Sages Café, where guests often have breakfast; and the Moon House, where guests have cocktail hour every night (Durham hopes to soon open that to the public).
The move comes several weeks after the closing of the Santa Fe Culinary Academy, which Durham co-founded in 2012. Calling out to the resort recently, I caught Durham in a characteristically enthusiastic mood. Here are some lightly edited excerpts from our conversation about his new gig and why the cooking school couldn’t last.
SFR: How did you end up at Sunrise Springs?
RD: I had, like, two or three of my colleagues let me know they were looking for an executive chef—because we knew for months that the Academy was closing. I had been to the resort a while ago for a memorial service and for a wedding, but … how to put this politely … I thought it was kind of crunchy. There was a lot of incense burning. I thought: That isn’t really my style. But I came out here and as soon as I got to the gate I saw that the grounds were perfectly manicured, all the facilities had been redone and it was gorgeous. They showed me the huge greenhouse, the chicken coop and I met the farmer who’s putting in a 2-acre organic garden here. I’m able to say I’d like a whole bunch of English peas next year and they’ll do it!
What did the owners tell you they wanted you to do?
I asked them what direction they wanted to go in and they asked me what direction I wanted to go in! That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here. I have total artistic license.
You’re coming to executive cheffing after a several-year period of teaching. Is that an adjustment?
Absolutely. The first thing I noticed was how much I missed it. I learned a ton in my sojourn into culinary education. If I had known what was involved I never would have done it, but looking back I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being a great chef is about 30 percent teaching. If you can’t train, lead and inspire your crew, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
If you knew what was involved you never would have started a cooking school? How was teaching and running a school different from what you expected?
Number one, there wasn’t a lot of cooking, it was a whole lot of policies and procedures. I sat in front of a computer for far too long.
What was the best part of it?
There were a couple people who went through that program who are going to go on to do incredible things with food. And there some people who took the message that we taught and are going to parlay that into other projects. Some became lifelong friends.
Why did it end?
There were a couple reasons. One of our founding members was diagnosed with cancer. She’s fine! She made it! She kicked its ass, so good! But she had to pull herself out and we had a small team. Also, the world of for-profit education has been under very strict scrutiny by the federal government, especially trade schools. The federal Department of Education generated a new metric for access to Title IV [federal student aid money], looking at the average worker in an industry and what they earn. But if you look at the average wage of a restaurant worker, you have to include every McDonald’s, every Taco Bell and every dishwasher, so that average annual income is not much. And loan repayment can only be a percentage of disposable income, so that’s why we closed and every single Cordon Bleu has closed [in the US].
Are you sad about it?
What have you changed at Sunrise Springs?
One thing we’ve done is now we’re open to the public for Sunday brunch.
What’s on the Sunday brunch menu that you’re really excited about?
Being a New Mexican, I love me a green chile cheeseburger. If you’re going to put a green chile cheeseburger on your menu is has to be killer. You gotta fuckin’ nail it. And we do.
What have I not asked you that you really want people to know?
I want them to know I’m so excited to be back as a working chef. I’m a fiercely proud New Mexican and being able to find this culinary home I feel like I’m truly blessed and I have arrived at home.