"Hey, look at this cake," my friend said one day, showing me a photo on his Facebook feed. My jaw dropped. It was so beautiful, I was expecting the creator to be out of New York, or maybe Paris, but not at all—the creator was local, and my friend knew her.
Such world-class technique is not uncommon in Santa Fe, and I was naïve to be surprised. I asked my friend to make a connection for me so I could learn more about the exquisite cake craftswoman, and start meeting with other chefs in town.
My first conversation with Jessica Bransford blossomed into a chain of chefs, each recommending another whom they often patronize. I spoke with many of them in between customers or after shifts, and they talked about what motivates them to keep cooking for the people and guests of our city. They all readily discussed who they think is doing good work, and I was happy to see such a supportive community. For a city our size, you'd think there would be fierce competition among chefs, but I noticed none. Rather, each person on this list reflects the highest values of the hospitality industry and is motivated by deep connections to the earth and their guests.
Jessica Bransford works at Paloma (401 S Guadalupe St, 467-8624), where she holds the position of executive pastry chef. She's the third generation of female chefs to emerge from her family; her mom and grandma were both executive chefs in the Sacramento area. Her grandma came to Santa Fe in 1989, and her mom followed with Bransford in 2003, taking a position at Harry's Roadhouse. Her young niece is already interested in cooking, and Bransford hopes to mentor the family's fourth generation chef.
Like any great origin story, Bransford didn't start out dedicated to pastry. She was studying culinary arts and forensics at Santa Fe Community College, which involved a lot of chemistry, when the folks at Santacafé threw her on the pastry line in 2010. Baking is just applied chemistry, of course, so she quickly grasped the technical side while bringing her own distinct, minimalist and gestural style to her pieces.
"I chose fine dining because it's really deconstructed," Bransford tells SFR. "They take really really good ingredients and they cook them flawlessly, and I was really into that. The plating is just beautiful. When you say culinary arts, that's artwork right there."
Still, Bransford says, pastry artists are often overlooked in fine dining despite producing some of the most delicious work. There's a lot to learn, too, and what's often thought of as "pastry" in the kitchen can incorporate numerous disciplines like chocolate, bread and sugar work.
She says she thrives at Paloma because she shares the values of the other chefs she works with.
"Make things approachable," she explains. "Cook with integrity, and serve something beautiful and what's kind of different from what's in Santa Fe."
I asked Bransford for two recommendations, just in case one thread fell through. She recommended the work of James Caruso Campbell at La Boca and Mark Kiffin at the Compound. Two classic Santa Fe choices, known for their consistency, dedication and bold approach.
It's also worth noting that not just one, but two different folks down the line re-recommended Paloma and their take on Mexican food; it's truly the chefs' restaurant.
Select Dish: Bransford has a hand in the restaurant's ubiquitous blue corn tortillas, the flour for which is ground fresh every morning. She's also a big fan of slow-roasted meats; the two combine in the smoked brisket taco ($6), topped with salsa guajillo, pickled onions and poblano rejas.
This is a big year for chef Mark Kiffin. His restaurant, the venerable Canyon Road institution The Compound (653 Canyon Road, A, 982-4353) celebrates 20 years under his ownership on May 30. Expect a menu that changes throughout the year to incorporate dishes from the restaurant's history, an open house (date TBD) and, on the horizon, a new book celebrating the space's famous Alexander Girard interior design alongside the artistry behind Kiffin's plates.
"We're a true wing of the [International] Folk Art Museum," Kiffin says.
The restaurant's been around since 1966 and is a work of art unto itself, but something special comes together when a plate of Kiffin's food is delivered to a table surrounded by Girard's design, and he's thought about that aspect carefully since becoming owner.
"The key of [the book] is—it's not just another chef's cookbook…we're gonna be doing the history and the art within the building itself, and food as art," he says about his upcoming book, which he's working on with local publisher David Chickey to appear in the next year.
Despite the high culture, the Compound is easily one of the most genuine, grounded fine dining establishments in town. The menu is tailored to each season and is kind to the guest, describing familiar, quality ingredients rather than overloading diners with fine-dining or culinary mumbo-jumbo. Kiffin was welcoming and enthusiastic during our conversation, and he passes that value along to his staff.
Kiffin looks for a similar vibe in the places he likes to eat.
"I live out by Arroyo Vino, so I go there on a pretty regular basis," he says. After mentioning the wine list and his personal connections with the folks there, he sums up his main point: "it's just easy for me to get in and out…and they always take good care of us."
Select Dish: Sometimes winter can be hard for vegetarians, as nothing's really fresh and processed foods beckon ever stronger. Chef Kiffin's winter menu has your fix: wild mushrooms and organic stone-ground polenta ($28) with black truffle relish, shaved parmesan and organic watercress.
James Campbell Caruso
Jessica Bransford's recommendations also led me to get in touch with James Campbell Caruso.
I may be a fresh foodie, but I've been around enough to notice that La Boca (72 W Marcy St, 982-3433) consistently tops the lists of best restaurants in Santa Fe. Speaking to chef Caruso on the phone, I soon understood why.
"It's a real intimate thing, hospitality and inviting people into your house," he says. "My house is La Boca, so it's an important thing for me to get right and make sure people are genuinely happy, and that's what we talk about with our staff all the time."
This value was more or less echoed by every chef I spoke with, but Caruso was the first to state it so clearly at the top of his priorities.
Folks go to La Boca for small plates when they want to connect with friends or relatives, to spend a long time with good food and unwind.
"[My Italian grandma] taught me how to cook," Caruso tells SFR. "I thought everyone ate as well as we did, and I got out in the world and realized, 'oh, some people need other people to cook for them.'"
Bransford spoke highly of La Boca's steak served with salted caramel, which struck me as an inspired and innovative dish. Like, candy steak? Yes, please. Chef Caruso recommended chef Joseph Wrede of Joseph's Culinary Pub in a similar vein; he's independent, creative and pushes food into new and exciting realms.
Select Dish: That steak with caramel sauce ($15) is intriguing, but I'm more interested by the symphony of flavors in the alcachofas ($15): grilled artichokes covered in Spanish goat cheese, orange zest and mint.
As chef Allison Jenkins described the reasons she was drawn to work at Arroyo Vino (218 Camino La Tierra; 983-2100), it sounded like the ideal situation for a chef. She started her career in Santa Fe at a Coyote Cafe externship in 2002, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America's Hyde Park campus (TK hyde park is the institute?) the year after and working for a few years in Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard before heading back west. She returned to Santa Fe in 2018 after piloting the Hotel St. George in Marfa, Texas.
"Arroyo Vino was particularly attractive because there's no breakfast or lunch or room service or all the trappings that come with a big hotel job… and also there's the garden on site, it's great to have your own produce," she says. "To use that and have the creativity from whatever pops up in the moment."
Jenkins is a serious and down-to-earth chef, connected to the soil that provides her materials and focused on creating experiences to reflect that connection. She loves handmade, fresh pasta and introduced a small section on the menu that changes every couple of months.
"It's a little less formal than ordering an entree, but still really satisfying at the same time," she muses. "You can come in and have a couple small plates, have a pasta and feel like you've had a full experience with the menu."
Her recommendation again reflects her values of seeking out experiences that are true to the source of fine dining. She turned me towards Johnny Ortiz, founder of the /Shed (shed-project.com/johnny-ortiz) project.
"He forages and preserves, and his story is really interesting for how he serves meals. You just kinda sign up for an email and get on a list, and when he releases the dates you gotta get 'em, I think it's like 10 seats per dinner?" she describes, but I was already pulling up Ortiz's website after she said "forage."
Select Dish: Out of the handmade pastas chef Jenkins has brought to the menu, the cavatelli ($23) is what I would spring for. It's got more of those wild mushrooms I crave deeply, plus spinach, toasted hazelnuts for some crunch and parmesan cheese.
Joseph's Culinary Pub (428 Agua Fria St; 982-1272) is a low-key powerhouse of culinary arts just a few steps from the Railyard. The project first started in Taos 20 years ago, but moved to Santa Fe in 2014. When asked about his motivations to cook, chef Joseph Wrede says he's drawn to "the way to express yourself through edible language form, good and bad."
New Mexico's centuries-old traditions are his medium; he specifically mentions lamb and the history of red and green chile.
"Taking those ingredients that are relatively accessible and putting them into slight different configurations so that they pack more flavor and they look more beautiful or they taste cleaner," he says.
In a town of artists and chefs, Wrede values his ability to create art in the dining experience, from the plate to the environment to the service.
Who in town does Joseph Wrede think is of similar artistic caliber?
"I like Dale Kester's food at Santacafé," he says. "I just like the energy he's putting into his food. How he's really trying to express himself through his flavors and his presentations."
Select Dish: Wrede's Chicken Under a Brick ($28) captures his involved approach to his foods. Yeah, there's a brick involved to get that perfect charred edge while keeping it juicy, plus shiitake mushroom and bacon sautee, brussels sprouts with truffle and Parmigiano Reggiano, and a hot tomato confit.
Speaking with Dale Kester, I get a deeper sense of that "energy" of which Wrede spoke.
"I love to put my heart and soul in a plate," he says.
The success that Santacafé (231 Washington Ave; 984-1788) has enjoyed since re-opening in August of last year is evidence of that effort. Kester's been there since then, and says he appreciates the restaurant's historic location in the heart of downtown, along with the brand's reputation and the restaurant's new owner, Quinn Stephenson, who also owns Coyote Café.
"I'm happy to be part of that lineage," he notes.
But Kester wasn't always
destined for that lineage. His first lifelong passion was aerospace engineering, but he started making food for other people at age 14 and something clicked, setting him off on a 19-year career across the country. He came to Santacafé following a two-year stint at New York City's Restaurant Daniel, which boasts two prestigious Michelin stars, but he was a sous chef at Joseph's Culinary Pub for three and a half years before that.
I was kind of intimidated to learn about Kester's stint at Restaurant Daniel, but for no good reason; it seems Santa Fe is really his style, as he enjoys the more laid-back and simpler delights like a big bowl of ramen from Mampuku. "I don't think a bowl of their ramen has ever gone unfinished at my hands," he says.
Select Dish: Go for lunch, keep it simple and grab the grilled salmon ($22). What seems like a basic concept unfolds with the flavors of roasted oranges and fennel, asparagus and a sauce gribiche (basically a fancy French tartar sauce).
Mampuku (1965 Cerrillos Road; 772-0169) is a relative newcomer to Santa Fe's culinary scene, but owner Iba Fukuda is not. Owner of the now-defunct Shokho Cafe, and current owner of Naruto Café in Albuquerque, which also serves ramen, Fukuda's family has excelled at bringing quality Japanese food to New Mexico since 1975.
Mampuku, which she co-manages with her sister Ayame, is a casual distillation of the Fukudas' talent, offering a simple menu of ramen and appetizers that have proven insanely popular and delicious. Both times I've gone, it was packed with young folks and the table turnaround time was quick. I stopped by one weekday afternoon to ask for Fukuda's take on how things have went since their August opening; it turns out, they're going fabulously.
"People have been really loving ramen. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the community since we opened," Fukuda says. She's quick to pass that love back to the community: "I like Jambo, and Dr. Field Goods," she says, gesturing broadly at her neighbors further down the Cerrillos corridor.
SFR readers will be familiar with Jambo's chef Ahmed Obo—he's won Best Chef in our Best of Santa Fe competition every year for the past five. "At Dr. Field Good's, they're farm to table, there's just a lot of love being put into their food," Fukuda says about chef Josh Gerwin's cooking.
Select Dish: There's at least eight different types of ramen to chose from, but I'll make it easy: go for the black tonkatsu ($11.95). The pork broth gains a soul-filling depth from black garlic oil and comes topped with nori, bamboo shoots, pork slices and the traditional boiled egg. If you're looking for an izakaya, I can't over-recommend the takoyaki ($5), or octopus dumplings; an almost-sweet batter surrounds tender chunks of octopus and is fried to a deep gold color.
As for Jenkin's recommendation of Johnny Ortiz, I reached out but we didn't connect, and that's a shame—from what I gather, he brings small groups into rural Northern New Mexico and serves a meal featuring wild-foraged ingredients on ceramics hand-made with locally sourced clay. I've never seen someone with such a comprehensive approach, so, Johnny, if you're reading this…wanna do a podcast with SFR?
So many chefs mention "love"—what's up with that? It's like some special, secret ingredient that makes all food better or something. I'm not sure from where they're sourcing it, but I hope it's organic. At any rate, there's dozens more culinary artists in town who I didn't get the chance to speak to but definitely deserve some love, too. Nominations for our Best of Santa Fe readers poll are open through March 15 (sfreporter.com/bosf), and we want to hear what the people think.
But first, make sure you're well-informed; give all the chefs here a visit.