Nationwide experts agree: Santa Fe restaurants and chefs prove to be some of the most exciting and innovative in the country. The newly released nominees for the 2024 James Beard Awards showcase some of the city’s finest again this year. Recent shortlists for the lauded food prizes have included the likes of Horno and El Chile Toreado (though, neither won), and Restaurant Martín’s Martín Rios has earned a number of Beard Awards nominations over the years; Sazón chef Fernando Olea won the Best Chef: Southwest award just two years ago, too, and remains the only guy for whom many locals will readily eat crickets.
All told this year, four Santa Fe restaurants and chefs made the semifinalist lists announced Jan. 24, including Best Chef: Southwest nods for Dolina’s Annamaria O’Brien and Zacatlán’s Eduardo Rodriguez; Outstanding Restaurant for chef Mark Kiffin’s The Compound; and Best New Restaurant for Hue-Chan Karels’ Alkeme at Open Kitchen.
No stranger to the Beards, The Compound’s Kiffin won the Best Chef: Southwest honor in 2005 and has owned the Alexander Girard-designed fine dining institution on Canyon Road since 2000. Recognition from the James Beard Awards, he tells SFR, nonetheless remains meaningful after all these years.
“When I think of the restaurants that have won this award—Spago, French Laundry, Emeril’s—to be included in that is...well, we’re proud of the work we do here,” he says. “I come in here every day with a feeling that we have to back up who we are, that we have to continue to be relevant. And we’re very much still a local’s restaurant. When we’re busy, it’s our community, our neighbors who make it happen.”
Downtown on Aztec Street, Zacatlán owner and chef Eduardo Rodriguez says he never expected the nomination. Zacatlán is a bit of an outlier, too, what with its ethos of affordable brunch by day and fine dining quality by night. Rodriguez opened in July 2020 and continues to hone his vision. He recently completed small-scale renovations in the dining room, including work on the floor and a fresh coat of paint. This week, he says, he’s also developing special menus for Valentine’s Day service, as well as the forthcoming Santa Fe Restaurant Week (Feb. 19-29).
“It really surprised me to hear this morning. I didn’t even know, but my friends called to tell me,” he says. “I wasn’t jumping, but I was almost jumping.”
Rodriguez expects to unveil his special event menus on the Zacatlán site by next week.
Dolina’s O’Brien is similarly surprised by her nomination. She’s built one of Santa Fe’s most popular brunch spots with a combination of delectable pastries and carefully crafted dishes that cull from her Slovakian heritage and American dining tradition. (Oh, and Dolina boasts a killer breakfast burrito, too.) There’s been a line out the door practically since it first opened in 2017, and the Beard nod represents many years of hard work for O’Brien, who cut her teeth at restaurants like Café Fina and Geronimo. Dolina represents her own vision, though, making her first-ever Beard nomination feel particularly impactful.
“I feel appreciated for what I do,” she explains, “and for what everyone at Dolina does. It takes a whole team, and I have amazing cooks that put their love into the food daily and front-of-house staff that is kind and attentive and sweet. It’s everyone’s work, not just mine.”
O’Brien says that enduring popularity and nominations are nice, but she’ll be happy to stay put in her current location on Guadalupe Street, working to create more from-scratch dishes, pastries and even condiments.
“It’s cozy,” she says, adding that while she could likely expand, there’s a lot to be said for her restaurant’s general energy. “I’d rather have a line out the door than a giant restaurant only half or three-quarters full.”
A nomination for Karels’ Alkeme at the corner of West Alameda and Don Gaspar Avenue feels particularly noteworthy as she and her executive chef Erica Tai only opened the restaurant last summer following a series of outstanding tasting menu events.
Karels, of course, has long been known for her commitment to fusion cuisine with a particular bent toward the Vietnamese. She even hosts culinary trips through her home country yearly and, in 2022, was kind enough to cook a meal with SFR for a cover story on local chefs (Stop, Shop and Cook; July, 2022). The idea at Alkeme, Karels says, is to embrace a broad sense of Asian cuisines while paying homage to her Vietmanese background and Tai’s Taiwanese heritage.
“I’m feeling beyond great. Very grateful. Absolutely happy. Very blissful,” Karels tells SFR. “We actually just called Erica; she’s in Taiwan for her annual homeward journey, so she’s there and we called her and she was amazingly elated even though it was the middle of the night for her. Erica and I are definitely very proud of what we’ve established.”
The nomination is also the first for both Tai and Karels, who have had a protege-mentor relationship through Karels’ Open Kitchen culinary education program over the last few years. Karels further explains the dishes that have put them on the map will likely stick around, though evolution has always been a key strategy for the business and will continue to be a core component.
“The whole essence of alchemy is transformation,” she says. “From the base, from the roots. We honor our roots and traditions as chef Erica and I transform, and I think that vision is the reason why we’ve been selected.”
The winners for this year’s James Beard Awards will be announced on April 3, with a special ceremony to follow in June in Chicago.