Albuquerque Power Chefs Call Their Faves

I had a lot of fun speaking with Albuquerque chefs and restaurant owners for this piece for Local Flavor’s December/January issue. Check out the magazine’s updated website to see the article in print, complete with beautiful photographs by Gabriella Marks.

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Abq Power Chefs Call their Faves

Five Abq restaurant owners/chefs name their favorite dishes—at another restaurant!—then give us tips as to what they think the next hot ingredient/technique or trend for 2013 will be.

If you do a quick Google search this time of the year, you’ll find the top five (or ten, or fifty) of everything: the best reads, the best songs, the best blogs and even the year’s best news stories. Some of my favorite lists have to do with, of course, food and wine, and I could spend hours cruising through nationwide or city-specific lists ogling the array of restaurants, dishes and outstanding wine lists. This year, Localflavor wanted to discover the best dishes in Albuquerque, but instead of leaving it to the journalists and food writers, we decided to ask some of the city’s most illustrious chefs and restaurateurs to give us their favorites.

Not only do these powerhouses dish on their most beloved eats, but they also give us some insight into what’s in store for the Duke City’s culinary scene in 2013. In line with the season—and the economy—these chefs and restaurant owners all agree that local ingredients are one of the new hot trends for the coming year. This is clear from the success of places like Los Poblanos and Skarsgard Farms. I recently signed up for Skarsgard’s Harvest Box Program, a cooler full of my “share” of the season’s fresh fruits and vegetables delivered each week. I couldn’t be happier with my box full of sweet potatoes, winter squashes and fresh fluffy spinach.

What’s the exciting technique for these foods? Another trend for the coming year is homestyle, rustic meals that get back to the basics: preserving produce (i.e. your grandmother’s apricot jams and jellies), using the whole animal (forget about tenderloins) and an emphasis on the true flavor of the food—let’s taste the lamb, not disguise it with complicated sauces! Who wouldn’t agree that some of the best meals in life are the simple pot roasts and chicken dinners of family gatherings? So put your best linens away and leave the foams, syringes and spherified strawberry bubbles of food chemistry on the back burner—let’s get down to the business of savory. Who knew you’d find a bit of your grandmother’s kitchen in your favorite Albuquerque restaurants?

My own weekly delivery from Skarsgard Farms

My own weekly delivery from Skarsgard Farms

1. Jennifer James, Owner/Chef of Jennifer James 101

You can’t talk about homestyle cooking without considering soup, especially during the winter season. One of Jennifer James’ favorite dishes is the beef pho at Pho Nguyen (specifically the “B2” pho menu option). Jennifer’s choice has to do with the quality of the food as well as the ethics of eating locally. She says, “The beef pho is clean, fresh and invigorating, and this is a small, family-run business that is consistent and conscientious.” Jennifer emphasizes that the trend moving forward will be a commitment to local food—not just farmers but independently owned restaurants as well. “When you eat locally, a little goes a long way,” Jennifer points out. “The $50 you spend on a local business touches a lot of fingers. People think they can’t do much but they really can—and if they don’t, these local places will disappear.”

Jennifer explains that with the current state of the economy, folks are staying closer to home and craving foods that fulfill them in a different way than the foams and pearls of molecular gastronomy. The trend for rustic simplicity in food springs partly from chefs needing to preserve local produce and this means jams, jellies, pickling and canning. Jennifer says, “I’ve been preserving foods since I’ve been cooking. When you take in local produce you want to keep it around for the winter. It’s something everyone used to do, and it provides this great burst of flavor on your plate.” Jennifer is currently serving dishes with preserved green tomatoes—yum!

Pho Nguyen, 7202 Menaul Blvd. NE, 505.830.6554

2. Pat Keene, Owner/Executive Chef of The Artichoke Café

They’re served all over the world and made with an array of different ingredients: buttermilk, blueberries and in our neck of the woods, blue corn. No matter the style, pancakes are a classic breakfast item. Pat Keene of The Artichoke Café is a fan, and her favorite are those at The Grove Café & Market. She loves the lighter, cleaner version of these French-style pancakes. “They’re thin, like a cross between a crepe and a pancake, and served with crème fraîche. With other pancakes it feels like you’re eating pure carbs, but these are more substantial.”

Pat includes crepes on the lunch menu at The Artichoke Café and says that this type of light but savory dish is one of the trends she sees moving forward. These days, focus has shifted to healthier, fresher, local ingredients, especially an array of different greens. Pat says, “I think super greens like kale, Swiss chard and collards are going to be huge this year. We’re seeing people eat them in salads, stuffings, soups and braised. You can eat them and feel good about what you just ate!”  Pat, who is committed to serving sustainable and organic foods, says Albuquerque consumers and chefs are becoming more aware of this type of fare and it shows in the quality of the food. “Eating foods that are in season and fresher is important—it’s how we ate before the industrialization of our food supply. If you eat clean, healthy food, you don’t have to ‘diet’ because the food is more nourishing.”

The Grove Café & Market, 600 Central Ave SE, Suite A, 505.248.9800

The Artichoke Cafe

The Artichoke Cafe

3. Chris Pope, Partner/Executive Chef of Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro

Arguably one of the strongest attractions to food stems from childhood memories, and for Chris Pope one of these is salt cod. “One of my favorite dishes is the baccaloa at Torino’s @ Home. It reminds me of my mother’s cooking—she used to cook with salt cod.” Chris says the appetizer, served with bread and salad, illustrates what our other powerhouse chefs have confirmed: in 2013, it’s all about simple, homestyle food. Chris says, “The baccalao is indicative of trends going forward—rustic, homey, affordable.” He also believes in supporting local businesses. “In Albuquerque, what’s exciting to me are the smaller scale, independently owned restaurants like P’tit Louis Bistro and little burger places. These are the places I want to eat, not the commercial chain restaurants.”

Chris points out that in Albuquerque, there has been an increase in local suppliers as well as more interest from patrons, and that opens up the opportunity to experiment. For example, if you buy local meats, you’ve got to find ways to use the whole animal, and this includes cuts like pork belly, ox tail and offal. He explains, “As restaurateurs, we have to keep our price points from rising, so we can’t serve only tenderloin. We have to find ways to be creative with our cooking and also bring people value.” Right now, Chris is enjoying experimenting with sausage in his dishes, and he says that these more cost effective side cuts naturally lend themselves to simple, homey, rustic dishes.

Torino’s @ Home, 7600 Jefferson St. NE, 505.797.4491

 4. Cherie Montoya Austin, Owner of Farm & Table

When you’re traveling, the best food spots are always the tiny local restaurants you stumble upon by accident. But if you’re lucky enough to live in Albuquerque, you don’t have to go searching for these places, as Cherie Montoya Austin, founder of Farm & Table, is quick to tell you. One of her favorite dishes is the moules Roquefort at P’tit Louis Bistro in Nob Hill. Her description of the dish piques my appetite. “The mussels are so delicious, so homey and comforting. They’re in a white wine and blue cheese broth, and I can go through a whole bowl and be perfectly satisfied.”

As with our other restaurateurs and chefs, Cherie places huge importance on local food. She reminds me of a key aspect of Albuquerque that can easily be overlooked: 300 days a year of sunshine! “Albuquerque has a vibrant farming community and with the use of greenhouses, we can grow food year round.” Farm & Table grows an abundance of produce for the restaurant on their 1.5-acre farm, with broccoli, cabbage, carrots and turnips in season right now, to name a few. Like Jennifer James, she grew up preserving food and eating the produce grown by her family. “My grandparents grew all their own food. That’s the way we were raised, and food tastes better when it’s fresh.” Currently, the restaurant is in the midst of preserving quince, a highly aromatic, pear-like fruit, by turning it into membrillo paste, which is especially suited for holiday dishes.

P’tit Louis Bistro, 228 Gold Ave. SW, 505.314.1111

Moules Roquefort

Moules Roquefort at P’tit Louis Bistro in Nob Hill

 5. Claus Hjortkjaer, Chef at La Provence Brasserie Restaurant

At La Provence, Claus Hjortkjaer says that after 40 years of being a chef, he still gets excited about foie gras. His favorite dish pick brings us full circle to Jennifer James 101: he absolutely loves the foie gras there, as well as the atmosphere and concept of Jennifer’s restaurant. “I like the foie gras because it’s never prepared quite the same. The restaurant has a great atmosphere and attention to detail. The menu isn’t large, but what’s included is very well prepared.”

Claus concurs with his colleagues about trends for 2013. He feels that with the economy in its current state, people are becoming more aware of and more critical of what they eat. He says, “People may not eat out as often as they used to, but when they do they want top notch, homemade meals.” He also believes that simplicity is key. “I’m of the opinion that you don’t cover up the food with flavor, but you enhance the food with flavor. I never serve cocktail sauce with oysters—that covers up the flavor of the oysters!”

Claus says people are looking for the same thing in wine as they are in food. “If people go out and order a bottle, they’re more inclined to have something special, above and beyond, more of a handcrafted, flavorful wine from a small winery, not something mass produced.” This is why he likes Gruet. “When I go to Gruet, the winemaker isn’t sitting in his office. He’s in the vineyard, standing between the vines.” Cheers to that!

Jennifer James 101, 4615 Menaul Blvd. NE, 505.884.3860

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