Open Concept Kitchen

Hue-Chan Karels’ novel approach to building community

At Table 2-3-1, the night's menu was billed as "an intimate
exploration of food + culture." A benefit for Kitchen Angels, a Santa Fe nonprofit that provides meals and companionship to homebound individuals, learning about other cultures and people through food seemed an apropos way to support an important community service.

The premise behind Table 2-3-1 is "2 cultures, 3 ingredients, 1 amazing meal." Chefs Hue-Chan Karels, chef-owner of Open Kitchen (, and David Sellers, recent champ of the New Mexico Cocktails & Culture
Festival's Taco Wars, paired up for a three-course meal of Vietnamese and Italian cuisines, a pairing that seems almost impossible to pull off. But pull it off they did, with delicious, inventive couplings.

For example, with the common ingredient of "noodles," diners were treated to bún chạo tôm (lettuce wrap of grilled shrimp on sugarcane with rice vermicelli, fresh herbs and Vietnamese dipping sauce) and squid ink linguine with rock shrimp, Calabrese salami and red pepper.

"When you do fusion, you don't honor the cuisine," says Karels, creator of the concept. "But when approached this way, you honor what's distinctive about two cultures through their commonalities without losing the flavor of both. Take noodles, for example. They originated in China but are very common in both
Vietnamese and Italian cuisine; a common ingredient whose expression took very different routes."

I wrote briefly about Karel's Open Kitchen this spring (April 2: "Food
Improvement") as a new kid on the block of local cooking schools but, in reality, it's not so new and it's much more than cooking classes. Though Karels has lived in Santa Fe for five years and recently introduced Open Kitchen to Santa Fe, it was once a brick-and-mortar operation. Karels, looking to combine her 25 years of business compliance consulting with her love of cooking, originally launched Open Kitchen in Washington, DC, in 2009.

"The idea was a community kitchen incubator, offering kitchen space for rent as well as someone to help create successful small business models; it ended up being an expansive space with a bistro, CSA drop-offs [and] pick-ups, cooking classes, private event space and more," Karels explains. "Open Kitchen married my love of both cooking and consulting—it also reflected my passion for connecting."

And connect she did.

"There were no boundaries between people and food at Open Kitchen,"
Karels adds. "The kitchen was literally open to the room and everyone got to eat, ask questions, learn, and leave with a sense of how to do something they may not have known how to do before, or maybe were intimidated by."

Though Open Kitchen's DC location came to an end as Karels moved away, she realized how much she missed the concept—and how well it would work in Santa Fe.

"I made the conscious decision to just live in Santa Fe, stop traveling so much for work, and re-create Open Kitchen in my new community," she says.

It's Open Kitchen 2.0 with all the same intentions, minus one big thing: a
physical space. Karels instead shares her love of food through cooking classes,
catering, pop-ups and special events, all taking place in shared spaces and private homes.

Karels honed her craft as a child, learning to cook after her family left
Vietnam in 1975, eventually settling in Lansing, Michigan. Both her parents worked, and to help out, she and her siblings took on additional household

"No one ever knew what they were getting when it was my turn to cook," Karels tells SFR. "They complained I always had to 'jazz things up' when really, I was just learning to adapt new ingredients for those we couldn't get in Michigan—which were many."

Karels' cooking was also inspired by her grandmother, who attended the
University of Michigan to become the first female pharmacist in Vietnam.

"She also dabbled at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, so was always making things like bouillabaisse, croissants and crepes," remembers Karels.

When her parents decided to open a restaurant while she was in high school, Karels was a natural choice to be its pastry chef.

Her passion for food and the sharing of cultures, ideas and commonalities through the kitchen has never wavered, and it's certainly catching on in Santa Fe.

"The Santa Fe culinary scene is getting more dynamic, and I like exploring ways to honor the distinctiveness of a culture while welcoming people's experiences of the bigger world," she says.

Which brings us back to the idea of Table 2-3-1. Karels, who specializes in many cuisines, is open to ideas for bringing them together. "It's a concept that can so easily be actualized; say, Russian and Iranian or Jewish and Spanish. … What better opportunity to kick off a team meeting, corporate retreat or celebration? How great is it to connect through exploring differences? I'm open to any event or collaboration where we get to have fun with food."

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