Roughly two weeks ago, chef Fernando Ruiz opened his newest enterprise, Palace Prime Steakhouse in the former Palace Saloon location at—get this—142 W Palace Ave. You might know Ruiz as a bit of a celebrity following appearances on the Food Network. We caught up with the guy to get a broader picture of what's going on, including answers to why someone would open a restaurant during COVID-19.
SFR: Let’s get the big question out of the way—why open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic?
Fernando Ruiz: Why not? I've done crazier stuff growing up, and this is probably one of the least crazy things I've ever done—so, why not? In my opinion and my partners' opinion, we think the restaurants that come alive or do survive are going to do really well [after the pandemic]. This project has been in the works for at least over a year, too. And it's The Palace. Everybody's got a story about the place. We were gonna do it no matter what. We did a total renovation inside. When you walk in, it really doesn't resemble The Palace it was before. A lot of people are asking me, how do you describe the restaurant? I'm telling people, if you get a NYC restaurant and a Santa Fe restaurant and you mated them and had a baby restaurant, that's what it would be.
Tell me about the development of your menu. It seems minimalist, but also focused in its offerings.
The menu you see now is probably half of what I came up with to begin with. We shortened it because we have a smaller space where we can seat since we're not open inside yet. It's really emphasizing the steaks and fresh seafood. I'll also have an oyster bar and we're incorporating ceviche and sashimi…that's not open right now because we only have the patio, but once we're allowed 25% at least indoors, I'll start adding the other items to the menu and we can keep expanding the menu. Once we can do 50% inside, we'll go bigger.
I know locally sourced is important to you. Is your meat all local?
I wouldn't call it local, I'm calling it regional, which is New Mexico, West Texas, Arizona and Colorado. I've managed to meet a lot of small regional beef farmers, and I've been working with them, and I'm getting the opportunity where I can get that product. Not a lot of people in New Mexico have access to that product. Same thing with the seafood. I'm working with four or five seafood companies from back east, Hawaii, Mexico, and I can get limited fish for a limited time that not a lot of people in Santa Fe will have on their menus.
How have the first weeks of business been going? We hear a lot of talk about supporting local restaurants right now. Is that happening for you?
We just hit our two-week mark on Sunday, and we've been pretty much booked every day. It's been going great. I kind of like the way we did the opening—25% on the patio. The reason I say I like doing this the way we're doing it is because it kind of gives the kitchen a way to get settled in. It would have been 100 times harder if we did a grand opening with indoor dining, I don't think it would have gone as smoothly as it's gone. I'm really excited about doing it this way because it gives us a chance in the front of the house and the back of the house to get comfortable.
Your personal story involves stints in jail when you were younger, which you credit as ultimately leading to your work as a chef. Can you speak to how you came to that realization?
Basically I was in and out of jail in Maricopa County in Arizona, living in a tent city and walking around all disoriented because it's 122 degrees out. I was [cooking] in the jails. I always knew how to cook, I grew up slaughtering and cooking as a kid, but I kind of got the knack for it when I was in jail working in the kitchens. 85-90% of people who are in jail have worked in a restaurant, so everybody who was in there cooking already had some background in kitchens. We would have to make our own food for us and the inmates with what we had. You'd have to get creative. I remember receiving 900 pounds of beef liver, and that's all we served—beef liver steaks, beef liver stew…I can't eat beef liver now.
You mentioned slaughtering and cooking as a kid. Were your folks ranchers?
Mom and dad were both from Mexico, I was raised in Phoenix. My parents migrated from Mexico in their late 20s and ended up in Arizona, and what they would do, me being little, as soon as I'd get out of school, they'd drop me off on [my grandfather's] ranch in Guaymas, Sonora in Mexico, and I'd be there all summer long from age 7 to 13. They ran cows and goats, made cheeses, sold the milk, slaughtered; we'd go hunting, we'd play rodeo with the calves, me and my cousins. I loved it. I looked forward to it all year.
Having that experience when you were young, is finding your creative voice through food something you want to pass on to others, perhaps young people?
I have little ones here, older ones in Arizona. A couple of my little ones here are into it, but I don't want them to think they have to do what I do. I also don't want them to think it's OK to get in trouble as a young person and be OK later on in life—because it's not supposed to turn out this way. But in my kitchen and in my previous kitchens, I've always hired people with a criminal background. I've hired ex-MS13 gang members, and they're some of the best workers I've ever had, the best people I've mentored, and they're still with me wherever I go. It's all knowledge. I teach all my cooks everything I know. It makes my life a lot easier, their lives a lot easier. Knowledge is free.
Given the shape of the world right now, what would you want people to know about working in the food world?
Of course the restaurants are taking the biggest hit—we all know that, but we're not the only ones. Small retail, small mom and pop shops, whether it's an art gallery or clothing store or shoe store, everybody's feeling it. But we're doing great on the takeout. It's a troubling time, but it's a time we can all evolve with and roll with the punches. There's really not a whole lot the industry can do but evolve.