Meat buzzwords abound.
Folks with an eye toward ethical meat purchases have all seen "hormone-free," "organic," "grass-fed," and the ever-vague "free-range," but these terms merely commoditize what we're really after: respect for the animal, the land and the consumer. This rare respect runs deep in Chef Kathleen Crook's blood and shows itself in every aspect of her new restaurant, Market Steer Steakhouse, which won top honors in SFR's Best of Santa Fe this year.
"Do I need to say, 'I cook farm-to-table?' That's for me, that's my pride," she tells SFR in the stately dining room of the historic Hotel St. Francis.
Crook comes from a family of agriculture: Her mother has a ranch outside Roswell and her father has a farm and ranch near Artesia, both still operational today. The spirit of that upbringing fills the room, despite the downtown location.
"Whenever I was growing up, we raised our own beef and we raised our own pork and we raised our own chickens," Crook says, "and then we also grew the food we ate that was on our table, three squares a day."
The family ranching operations provided the springboard into Crook's first career with cattle. She began competing at rodeos at age 14 and was awarded a collegiate level rodeo scholarship following high school. After riding the circuit for three years, she ascended in skill to become the 1997 World Champion in breakaway roping, and for four more years, she continued to rodeo and train horses on her mother's ranch.
Then, something changed.
"It's hard work, right? Which is fine, I don't mind the hard work, but I just needed a shift," she says of ranch labor. "I woke up one morning and was like, 'You know what, I don't want to ranch anymore—I want to go do something different.'"
Within two months, she started classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona. There she found the roots for her second career in the same place as her first—family.
"My grandmother was a caterer, and growing up, I was always drawn to the kitchen but … I didn't really pay attention to it until later," she says.
But Crooks' family taught her to not only respect food, but respect the experience of dining.
"It was a big deal for us to go out to dinner, big deal, like 'We're going to town to go to dinner?' We put on our Sunday best," she remembers.
Crook worked for a time in Dallas before opening her own restaurant, Steakhouse 316, in Aspen, Colorado. After seven years of cold weather and fast-paced tourist seasons, however, she moved back to New Mexico, wanting to connect with a community of chefs and diners who valued the craft as much as she did.
"There are some really fantastic restaurants in this town and some phenomenal chefs," Crook tells SFR. "I felt like the level we wanted to do would just add to what's already been created here, and I wanted to be a part of it."
Central to achieving her level of excellence is, of course, the beef. But more important are the connections with the people behind the beef.
"I know my ranchers," she says, excitedly rattling off her favorite farms by name, one in Texas and one in Montana. "They have a very good reputation of being good stewards, and putting quality before profit. That's a big deal. At my mom's ranch, her quote is 'And to protect and care for God's creations, he made farmers and ranchers.' That was a motto we always lived by."
As such, Crook admires ranchers who carry pride in their work, and she maintains a similar pride among her small staff of six, which helps ensure the quality of the product from the time of delivery to the moment the guest receives their steak. Market Steer offers steaks ranging in size from 7-ounce to 24-ounce with a variety of seafood toppings and sauces, but it's also got a rack of lamb, duck breast, and for the vegetarian who finds themselves in a steak house, a blackened cauliflower. A full cocktail menu is offered by the hotel's lounge, El Secreto.
"We all respect each other, we respect the product, and we respect the kitchen. We all have each other's back," Crook explains. "I always try to take care of them in that regard and teach them my values about how I want the food to be—you buy quality ingredients and you treat it right."