Paper Dosa

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

It’s 6:30 on a Wednesday evening and Paper Dosa is packed. Groups of people stand in the hallway or at the host stand, waiting for a table. The smell of frying onion, cumin, cilantro and mint fills the air while I sip a glass of Vinho Verde. A friend and I are lucky enough to get two seats at the bar, overlooking the kitchen. Our placemats are lost beneath an array of appetizers. We begin with handfuls of crispy pakora: thinly sliced red onion and jalapeño battered in rice flour, which we dip into a creamy eggplant chutney with a heady, earthy flavor. Next comes the cashew calamari, surprisingly not fried. Instead, discs of sliced squid are buried in a thick, spicy cashew curry. The flavor pairs beautifully with the strong, pungent ginger of a cold glass of Thistly Cross Ginger Cider. We lose ourselves in the spicy mango and goat cheese salad, crunching on colorful watermelon radishes and walnuts. Every so often we bite into lusciously ripe cubes of mango coated in spicy red chili.

Chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his wife and business partner, Nellie Tischler, have found a home for their first restaurant and Santa Fe’s only eatery dedicated to south Indian cuisine. The couple spent the last year catering for private events and putting on pop-up dinners across town in an effort to build followers. After several events and an amazing 32 consecutive pop-up dinners at Café Fina, Paper Dosa has earned a reputation for its flavorful cuisine. The pair also received support from BizMIX, an annual startup and business plan competition that teaches aspiring business owners about financing and how to plan and pitch their business. The organization awarded the couple $13,000 towards opening their restaurant and in April they took over the old Mail Call space on Cordova Road, next to Maria’s.

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

Paulraj (or Paul, for short) was born in Tamil Nadu in the south of India. There were no restaurants, so food was a big part of each day—his mother would begin cooking at 5:00 every morning. They lived across the street from a market where his father bought ingredients three times a week. Everything was made fresh from scratch each day and leftovers were thrown out for the dogs, cats and chickens. “Paul’s mom makes food that’s spectacularly bright,” Nellie says with a smile. “There’s always a little punch to everything, so Paul got that from his mom.”

After attending culinary school in India and working as a chef for a cruise line, Paul landed in San Francisco at Dosa, a south Indian restaurant that had just opened up. Paul had never worked cooking Indian food before. “Until I came to San Francisco I was not much into south Indian cooking,” Paul says. But as he experimented with new techniques and spices, he began to miss the food he grew up eating. “I really fell in love with south Indian cooking,” he says. At the same time, he fell in love with Nellie, who was working as a server. They got married two years later and eventually made their way to Santa Fe, where Nellie grew up.

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

The white truffle masala dosa looks like a giant enchilada. But when it arrives at the bar, I can see that it’s delightfully thin, delicate and crispy. Fermented rice and lentil batter is artfully crafted into a giant crepe and then rolled around the masala, a stuffing of spiced potatoes blended with white truffle oil. Across the top of the plate three dipping sauces are lined up: sambar, coconut chutney and tomato chutney. The sambar, a hearty lentil and vegetable stew, is my favorite. I tear off pieces of dosa and dip them into the stew, searching for chunks of crispy vegetables. The coconut chutney sends my palate soaring in the opposite direction, cool yet spicy and chock full of fresh cilantro.

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

South Indian cuisine is distinct from the cuisine in the north of the country. In the south, the climate is tropical and hot, so the food is based on rice and lentils, instead of the wheat-based dishes found in the north. The food, cooked in coconut and gingelly oil (Indian sesame oil), is light and fresh. Whole or ground spices and herbs are heated in hot oil or ghee and added to a dish, a process known as tempering. The hot fat of the oil extracts the aroma and flavor of the spices and herbs, enhancing their presence in a dish.

The couple envisioned a menu that was simple, streamlined and reasonably priced, so they included street food like dosas, vadas (doughnut shaped lentil fritters) and pakora. Prices range from $4 to $9 for appetizers, $9 to $13 for dosas and $13 to $18 for curries. Each dish is powerfully flavored and some are very spicy. “Heat is a big element in south Indian cuisine,” Paul explains. He uses an array of ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves and Thai chili in addition to generous amounts of ginger, garlic, onion and tomato.

The list of ingredients for the chicken curry alone is impressive: cilantro, mint, ginger, garlic, Thai chili, habanero, cumin, coriander, poppy seed, peppercorn, garam masala, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom. The restaurant goes through an incredible 60 bunches of cilantro each day. The food is made from scratch and can easily accommodate vegetarian, vegan and gluten free customers. “For south Indian cuisine you need spicy, tangy, bitter, salty and a little bit of sweet,” Paul says. “You’ll find those five flavors in multiple dishes.”

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

It has always been the couple’s dream to open their own restaurant. “I know the kitchen,” Paul says, “and Nellie knows the floor.” But Paul was hesitant about opening a business in Santa Fe, where no one has exclusively offered south Indian cuisine before. The market is also much smaller than in San Francisco. “It’s hard to sell this business,” he explains. “People don’t know what south Indian cuisine is. If I can get them to try it once, they’ll become a fan. But how can I get them to try it?”

“We knew that once people tried the food, it wouldn’t be hard to sell,” Nellie says. “If you have a good product, all you have to do is get it out into the market.” Paul agrees. “Pop-up dinners and support from BizMIX really gave me the chance to get my product out to a lot of people.” The two have been surprised by an outpouring of support from the community and especially from other business owners who have brought the couple in for pop-up dinners and events, including Murphy O’Brien of Café Fina, Soma Franks and Fiona Wong of Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen and Mu Jing Lau of Mu Du Noodles.

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

Support from these members of the culinary community shows an eagerness for the continued expansion and growth of Santa Fe’s culinary scene. “Other business owners have really supported us,” Nellie says. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” Customers have also contributed to the initial success of Paper Dosa, filling the restaurant every night. Paul says, “People are welcoming and grateful and really supportive. It’s just amazing.” The addition of Paul’s south Indian cuisine to the Santa Fe dining scene is a definite sign that our culinary community is maturing.

Back at the bar, we’re on the last course: tastes of three different curries. We begin with the vegetable curry, made with coconut milk and tomato and spiced with chili powder. I wrap pieces of uttapam, a thick south Indian pancake made from rice and lentil dosa batter, around crispy cauliflower, carrots and parsnips. The chicken curry with its long list of ingredients is one level up in heat, spiced with Thai chili. But my favorite is the very spicy lamb curry. Local lamb is seasoned with red chili, green cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves and peppercorn. The result is an irresistibly pungent, earthy curry with a deep, broody flavor and lots of heat.

Paper Dosa of Santa Fe

“This food makes people feel alive,” Nellie tells me, and I agree. “Life can be difficult and sometimes our day-to-day life can run us down. People come here and for that hour and a half life is driven by food and the senses. That to me is fun—it’s exciting.” For Paul, sharing his cuisine is the most rewarding thing about his new business.

“When I’m cooking, when I see that people are happy with that first bite, that makes my heart happy.”

Paper Dosa is located at 551 West Cordova Road in Santa Fe. 505.930.5521. paper-dosa.com

Originally published in the May, 2015 issue of Local Flavor Magazine. Photography by Gabriella Marks.

Chef Andrew Cooper of Terra

Andrew Cooper always dreamed of becoming a chef. Although he’s worked with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for 14 years, recently he has been awarded his first executive chef position at the company’s five-star resort at Rancho Encantado. But cooking for Terra, the gorgeous restaurant on the property, isn’t the only thing he’s been up to. Since moving to Santa Fe a year ago, Andrew has been busy working with organizations like Cooking with Kids and The Food Depot, implementing his philosophy of organic, local and sustainable foods within our community. He’s also busy raising his one- and three-year-old sons. It may sound like a lot for one person, but this is one chef full of energy and an insatiable appetite for all things cooking and community.

AndrewCooper1

As with many chefs, his love of food began with his grandmother, who made special meals for him and his family when they visited her in Brooklyn, New York. He cooked during Boy Scouts (once cooking over a campfire with a Danish cookie tin that exploded). In high school, he got a job at a country club where he cooked hot dogs, chicken and fish for golfers. When it came time to think about college, Andrew decided to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. “I spent more than eight hours a day thinking about food,” he says. “I wanted to get paid for it.”

He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. When it was time for his required internship, he decided to apply at Bouley Restaurant, in New York City. Dressed in his best (and only) suit, he knocked on the back door of the restaurant and told David Bouley that he wanted to be a chef and wanted to intern with him. Bouley asked him to start immediately—by making pasta with his sous chef.

“The first thing the sous chef did was take a whole handful of pasta and throw it across the table to me,” Andrew remembers, smiling. “I looked down at my suit and thought, ‘Oh well.’ I worked the rest of the day there. Bouley was so impressed that he took me under his wing and trained me.”

Andrew has traveled the world, learning about and teaching cooking in Switzerland, Italy, Australia and even Taiwan. In his 14 years with Four Seasons, he’s worked at hotels in New York, Hawaii and West Lake Village, California. One of Andrew’s strengths is his varied experience and willingness to learn from each new place he goes. When he worked for Four Seasons in New York, the food was all about indulgence: duck fat, butter and foie gras. But in West Lake Village, he had to relearn his techniques in order to make more healthy food that still tasted indulgent, like mayonnaise made from avocado. On the Big Island in Hawaii, Andrew’s focus shifted to what would become an important part of his personal philosophy as a chef: sustainable cooking.

“When you’re on a rock in the middle of the ocean,” Andrew says, “you have to be as sustainable as possible. You can fly food in, but it costs an arm and a leg.” When asked to write a sample menu, the resident chef responded by highlighting all the items that weren’t local—over half the menu. So Andrew started touring the island, visiting the more than 160 local farms that sold produce and meat to the hotel. He enjoyed getting to know the farmers and their families, as well as learning how they grew and prepared their produce—even how it was delivered. “It really made my love of cooking even more special,” Andrew explains. “I started to understand how and why something is grown and associate the produce with the farmer. So a tomato wasn’t just a tomato—it was Dave’s tomato.”

AndrewCooper3Andrew has brought his knowledge and passion for local, sustainable food to Santa Fe. When he arrived at Four Seasons at Rancho Encantado, he asked the folks in the kitchen where they got their apples. No one knew, and Andrew discovered that there weren’t many local ingredients on the menu. He took his kitchen crew to the farmers’ market, and they’ve been going every week since, buying as many local ingredients as possible to incorporate into the menu at Terra. He spends time getting to know our local farmers and learning to make the best use of local ingredients, especially green chile. “When I first came across Romero Farms and experienced the chile roasting,” Andrew exclaims, “the smell was intoxicating! The flavor, the taste—I fell in love!”

Andrew wants to share his excitement for local ingredients and sustainable food with the community, and he also wants to show people what Terra is all about. “People tend to avoid coming out here because it’s ten minutes out of town,” he explains. “Four Seasons is fine dining–focused, but I want to show people that we can be fun, down-to-earth and affordable.” Andrew took advantage of the Four Seasons taste truck, a food truck manned by different Four Seasons chefs across three states, to showcase “gourmet meals to-go.” Upon its arrival in Santa Fe, he took the taste truck to Tesuque Elementary School, where more than 130 kids were served homemade tamales, enchiladas and churros. He’s very excited to work with kids, especially after seeing his own three-year-old son’s excitement for what goes on in the kitchen. “He wants to be involved when I’m cooking,” he says, grinning. “It’s messy, but he’s so interested!” Andrew also participated in this year’s Souper Bowl and Pie Mania events for The Food Depot. “I want to share my passion and love for what I do with the community,” he says.

To show people what Terra is all about, he has created chef’s table dinners, where people can dine in the kitchen. “People told me I couldn’t do it,” Andrew says, “because it gets so crazy in the kitchen. But I said, why not? It’ll be like watching a Broadway show, but they’ll be in it.” He set up a table in the kitchen, and when a local family made the first reservation, no one quite knew what to expect. At the last minute, Andrew grabbed eight aprons and decided to get the family involved in the action. Instead of simply eating dinner in view of the kitchen, the family was able to help plate food and call out orders. Everyone had a blast, getting to experience the crazy dance of cooks and servers at work on a busy night. Andrew points out that these days, with the Food Network and the popularity of cooking shows, people are much more aware of food than they used to be. Now, at Terra, people will have the opportunity to get a real-life peek behind the scenes.

AndrewCooper2If you haven’t been to Terra yet, you should go. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, with a clean, modern feel and a cozy fireplace, behind which is a gorgeous glass-enclosed wine cellar. The restaurant has an open feel, with several windows that look out on a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. With Andrew’s creativity and faith in all things local, his food—which he calls American regional with Southwest influence—is some of the most exciting in town. He told me about one dish he recently created using what was available at the farmers’ market—and green chile, of course, which he used to marinate some short ribs. He had pumpkin and chard from the farmers’ market and some local mushrooms. Thinking of ideas in the dining room at Terra, his eye fell on the fireplace, and he decided to smoke the pumpkin with piñon wood. He was also drinking coffee, and so he finished his dish with coffee syrup. The result? Green chile–braised short ribs with a smoked pumpkin purée, wilted Swiss chard and sautéed mushrooms with a coffee reduction. Are you getting as hungry as I am?

I ask if it’s easier, living in Santa Fe, to cook using local and sustainable ingredients. “It’s not easier, but it’s more important,” he explains. “Here in Santa Fe, people really care about their food and they ask where it’s from and if it’s organic.” He points out that what we eat really affects us and that we should have a say in what we eat. “We have a choice to know where our food is coming from and to understand what we’re eating.” Having his own kids has also changed his perspective on the importance of eating local, sustainable food. “Being a parent now, I’m very aware of what my kids are eating.”

To raise awareness about his own cuisine at Terra, Andrew lists on the menu several of the farms he sources from, including Old Windmill Dairy, Romero Farms, Pollo Real, Rancho Chonito Orchards and several others. “I want my food to be from here,” Andrew says. “I want that story.” By engaging with chefs, farmers and organizations within our community in an effort to create change and awareness, he’s now part of that story himself.

Terra restaurant at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado Resort is located on State Road 592, just outside of Santa Fe. 505.946.5800. fourseasons.com/santafe.

Originally published in the December, 2013 issue of Local Flavor Magazine. Photos by Gabriella Marks.

Cheesemongers of Santa Fe

The small adobe building on East Marcy Street, previously home to an office space filled with cubicles, now houses the very last thing you might expect and something you’ll be delighted to discover: several enormous deli cases soon to be filled with more cheeses than you can name. I’m surprised by the large, open room, saturated with sunlight from rows of windows and skylights that cast reflections off the glass case fronts and light up the pale mint-colored counters. When I arrive to meet John Gutierrez, one of the partners behind Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, he’s moving from case to counter and back again, grabbing different cheeses and expertly slicing them into an array of shapes.

My mouth is watering while I open the bottles of Valpolicella Ripasso and Albariño I’ve brought along. John is putting together a beautiful cheese board with seven different cheeses and an array of condiment dishes filled with fresh persimmon, chestnut honey, grain mustard and pickled beets. Suddenly, he pulls out an enormous leg of jamón ibérico, slicing it by hand to add to the board. In anticipation of the shop’s grand opening in early November, John and I sit down for a tasting to talk about what we each know best, cheese and wine.

Before we dive into our feast, I ask John about his background and how he became an expert in cheese. “In 2006, I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. I got a job at a sandwich shop to help pay for school,” he explains. “I ended up being a regular customer there. I’d come in with my paycheck and sit in front of the cheese case for hours, tasting though all the cheeses.” Eventually he was hired at a cheese shop nearby and he’s been hooked ever since. From Oklahoma, John moved to San Francisco where he helped a colleague open a cheese shop and worked as a cheese buyer. “I fell head over heels into the world of cheese,” John says. “I can read scientific documents about cheese and dairy science more easily than I can sit down and read a novel.” His family is from Taos and John decided to move back to New Mexico to open his own shop. “I’m really happy to be here,” he says, smiling, “because it’s what I’ve always envisioned.”

John believes Santa Fe is a great place for a venue like Cheesemongers because there’s already such a rich food culture here. He explains that the city’s isolated location has been the main obstacle for shops like his. “We’re not along the main distribution paths for cheese in the U.S.,” he explains. “A lot of my work with the shop has to do with logistics. I have to plan orders six to eight weeks in advance.” Cheesemongers will carry about 200 different cheeses during peak season, half domestic and half international, as well as several cheeses made here in New Mexico, including selections from Camino de Paz in Santa Cruz and The Old Windmill Dairy south of Albuquerque. Another deli case will hold a variety of cured meats, pâtés, terrines, galantines and mousses. The shop will also offer crackers, which John plans to source from local bakers, and artisanal mustards, olive oils, chutneys and vinegars.

The integrity and sourcing of products at Cheesemongers is hugely important to John, who points out that farmstead cheeses are the real focus of the shop. “We are really committed to working with smaller producers,” John says. “There’s a big difference between small, farmstead cheese and big, commercial cheese. I’m really big on small cheese and I believe in the power of small farming and sustainable agriculture. I want to be the mouthpiece for the small farmers we represent and tell their story.” Cheesemongers will provide small dairies with venues other than farmers markets and grocery stores to sell their products, as well help local chefs get their hands on cheeses that are difficult to find. “I’ve spoken with several chefs who are very excited,” he tells me. “We’ll be working with local restaurants to get them products that are really hard to find in New Mexico.”

As a sommelier working in the thriving food and wine business in Santa Fe, I believe Cheesemongers will be a fantastic complement to our local culinary scene, especially when you take into account the similarities between fine wine and fine cheese. The amazing thing about cheese is that, like wine, it encompasses a variety of different fields, including science (think mold, bacteria and the process of aging), geography and history. The craft of making cheese begins with the quality of the milk and involves many steps along the way, each of which has an impact on the final style and flavor of the cheese. This, to me, sounds just like the process of making wine, although the main ingredient in wine is, of course, grapes. They are both ancient processes. As John points out, “Some of the cheeses we’ll sell in the shop have been made continuously with very little recipe change for up to 6,000 years!”

In fact, what John does with cheese is very similar to what I do with wine: we both use our knowledge to help customers find something they’ll love. “I want to demystify cheese,” he says. “I abhor the cult of the expert and lording your knowledge over people to make them feel intimidated about the complexity of what’s in front of them. I want people to be inquisitive but to feel comfortable, instead of being afraid and just asking me to tell them what to get.” He points out that although there are tens of thousands of cheeses in the world, there aren’t that many different styles of cheese. “I want this to be a conversation with people. I want you to go home with a cheese that you love.”

That shouldn’t be difficult with the large selection at Cheesemongers and John’s willingness to talk cheese with his customers. During our incredible tasting, he took me through seven very different cheeses, explaining where each one comes from, how it’s made, the aging processes involved and what each cheese might pair well with. We tried a broad range of cheeses from all over the world made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, including Caña de Cabra, Robiola due Latti, Cabra Blanca, Tomme de Savoie, Comté, Fiore Sardo and the elusive Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue cheese from the south of France targeted by the FDA for high bacteria levels. Don’t worry, I ate plenty of it during our tasting and felt just fine!

I was surprised to find that the Albariño was very cheese-friendly—Albariño and Roliola due Latti is my new favorite pairing! The two came together beautifully, with the wine bringing out the unique goat flavor of the cheese (it’s made with cow, goat and sheep’s milk), and the cheese highlighting a gorgeous, creamy mouthfeel that wasn’t apparent in the wine at first sip. The Ripasso was pure heaven with a bite of Tomme de Savoie and jamón ibérico. The wine brought out the cheese’s rich texture and the savory, umami flavors of the thinly sliced meat. There were endless flavor combinations laid out before us. Each cheese showed different nuances depending on which wine we sipped and which condiments we added.

I asked John if he believes there’s such a thing as a perfect pairing. He explained that while there are classics like Roquefort and Sauternes, Gruyere and Champagne and Côtes du Rhône with Brie and Camembert, cheese and wine pairing is, like any pairing, ultimately subjective. “There are very few hard and fast rules,” he explained. “You can have a bad pairing that makes you want to pull your tongue out of your face. Then there are pairings that don’t just compliment each other, but bring out flavors and nuances that you wouldn’t otherwise achieve.” The bad pairings can be just as important as the great ones, because they remind you why you’re putting together cheese and wine in the first place.

After making our way through the beautiful cheese board, John and I agree that pairing is less about searching for one fabulous combination and more about the process of trying many different wines and cheeses together, paying attention to all the nuances of flavor. “Tasting cheese is just like tasting wine. It has so many flavors and you experience it with all of your senses.” For a sommelier, introducing someone to a wine they love is a great moment. The same is true for John, who can’t wait to teach people about why cheese is so special. I look forward to attending classes hosted by Cheesemongers, where John will talk about pairing cheese with wine and other beverages. “There’s very little in the world that I value more than food,” John says with a smile. I think he’ll find that many of us in Santa Fe agree.

Cheesemongers is located at 130 East Marcy Street in Santa Fe. 505.795.7878. cheesemongersofsantafe.com. Be sure to call ahead to confirm that they are open!

Originally published in the November, 2014 issue of Local Flavor Magazine. Photos by Gabriella Marks.

Chef Carmen Rodriguez

Chef Carmen Rodriguez

Chef Carmen Rodriguez

Story by Erin Brooks. Photos by Gabriella Marks. To see more of Gabriella’s work, visit http://gabriellamarks.com. First published in the November issue of Local Flavor Magazine.

Korean Tacos

Korean Tacos

I make my living from food. As a server at a local restaurant, I spend several nights a week talking to customers about particular dishes, making recommendations and bringing food from the kitchen to the table. As a freelance food and wine writer, I spend lots of time writing about food and eating at restaurants. You, as a reader of this magazine, are probably also part of the food industry in some way, or perhaps you’re simply passionate about cuisine. Santa Fe is home to a thriving culinary community.

But what if you didn’t have enough to eat, or you had to choose between buying groceries and getting medical treatment?

Hunger is something that Carmen Rodriguez, executive chef of the Four Diamond award-winning Fuego at La Posada, thinks about often. His experience, if laid out in miles, would span the width of an ocean. As a poor young man growing up in Chicago, he was a gang member; nowadays he’s a successful chef who was voted New Mexico’s Chef of the Year in 2012. It goes without saying that his food is delicious. He’s created a unique “global Latin” menu with Santa Fe flair at Fuego. Carmen’s dishes are a fun mix of interesting and sometimes unexpected ingredients, like the marinated flank steak with Gochujang-avacado sauce and Napa cabbage in the Korean tacos or the yam and plantain fufu, chipotle-tamarind sauce and fresh vegetables that accompany the grilled rib eye. But Carmen wasn’t voted Chef of the Year just for his skills in the kitchen; he’s earned his status by giving back, tremendously, to our community.

Carmen tells me he’s been involved with food his whole life, and he’s not just referring to working in a restaurant. “I was born and raised in Chicago. I’m half Cuban, half Mexican. I was a migrant worker with my parents at a very young age. My mom was pregnant with me in the fields, and my grandmother used to carry me around in a makeshift carrier while she picked.” Carmen’s mother worked three jobs, and the family depended on welfare and food stamps to get by. Carmen says, in a matter-of-fact tone, “I grew up poor and I grew up hungry. Sometimes our dinner was candy from one of my mother’s jobs.” At fourteen, Carmen went to work as a dishwasher to help support his family. Because life was tough in inner city Chicago, he also joined a gang.

Two things happened to the young Carmen that profoundly affected his life. First, he met the man who would become his mentor, Chef Giovanni of Giovanni’s in Chicago. “My true cooking ability came from my great-grandmother and grandmother,” Carmen explains. “I learned the old-fashioned way, from family recipes and hands-on apprenticing, like Mexican sauces and my Nana’s chocolate mousse. But Giovanni taught me a lot of what I know about the business.”

Next, although Carmen had found a mentor, he later got in trouble with the law. A judge gave him a choice: join the air force or go to a correctional facility. Carmen took the first option and became a kitchen fixer, working with the civilian organizations that run military kitchens to get them back in order if they are failing. Later, he moved to California, where he became widely recognized for his cooking abilities and made a name for himself as a chef. His menu at Fuego is a result of both the influence of his family and of his travels in the Air Force, where he learned to prepare ethnic foods.

Penny and Carmen

Penny and Carmen

But his story doesn’t end there. Although he had found success as a chef, Carmen wasn’t happy. “Growing up in the inner city, I always had a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I was always watching my back, because there was no one else there to watch it for me.” After moving to Santa Fe, in 2000, he met Penny, who became his wife. “When I met Penny,” he remembers fondly, “she brought the balance back to me that I needed. She rejuvenated my cooking career. She made me realize again the talent that I had. And she believed in what I did. When we started working together as a team to give back to our community, I knew it was meant to be.”

Penny, who runs a full-time medical practice, was also searching for something more. She’d worked with several nonprofits and volunteered for three years for the Buckaroo Ball. She even considered bigger organizations like the Red Cross. “I always wanted to join the Red Cross,” she says, “but I never did. I could never find a real connection with any of the organizations I worked with.” But when she and Carmen had an unrelated meeting at the Food Depot, she knew it was just what she’d been looking for. “Things like the Buckaroo Ball were doing great things in Santa Fe County by raising and distributing funds to many nonprofit organizations that serve at-risk youth, but they also threw glamorous events (to raise money) and it just didn’t feel as hands-on and essential as feeding people.” A few weeks after their meeting at the Food Depot, Carmen and Penny were on the board of directors.

Chef Carmen Rodriguez - Fuego

Penny points out that people don’t always realize there is a real problem with hunger here in New Mexico. I decided to do a little research and discovered some startling facts. According to the New Mexico Association of Food Banks (NMAFB), almost 40,000 New Mexicans seek food assistance every week. Large percentages of people requiring food assistance have to choose between paying for food and paying for other necessities—like utilities, rent or mortgage, and medicine or medical care. Food banks like the Food Depot are integral in providing food for those who need it. The Food Depot collects food through collaborative relationships with the food industry, our government and the community. It then distributes it to 135 partner agencies, including food pantries, youth programs, senior centers, shelters and hot meal programs. The NMAFB also states that 83 percent of the food distributed by food pantries in New Mexico is provided by food banks like the Food Depot.

Listening to Carmen and Penny talk about their work over tea in the library room of La Posada, I can hardly keep up with the charitable organizations they’ve become involved with. Along with the Food Depot, they’ve worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Mexico, ¡YouthWorks!, Gerard’s House, Delancey Street Foundation and Salaam Zindagi in Chandigarh, India. This month Carmen and Penny collaborated with their good friend Chef Ahmed Obo, of Jambo Café, on a fundraiser for his new Jambo Kids Foundation, an organization that will work to raise money for new health care facilities on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, where Ahmed is from. Although Carmen cooks at many charitable events, for him it’s not about the cooking or the status of being a successful chef. “It’s about what my great-grandmother taught me, ‘con amor y respeto en tu corazon, siempre vas ha tiener alegria en to vida.” I truly love and respect every person we try to help, and we are happy doing the work that we do. Being poor, growing up in inner city Chicago in a poor Hispanic family, we always got help from somebody, whether it was the church, a neighbor or family members,” Carmen says. “I realized that as a chef, I can do something for my community.”

Carmen points out that he is one of only a handful of Hispanic executive chefs for a resort in New Mexico. Besides engaging with a multitude of charities, he works hard to encourage Hispanic chefs in the industry. “When you put that chef’s coat on, you’re not Hispanic, you’re not Anglo, a man or a woman. You’re a chef. Period.” He believes in teaching others to believe in themselves, just as Giovanni did for him. “Thirty-one years ago Giovanni took a little snot-nosed gang member off the streets. Just because you make one mistake doesn’t mean your life is over.”

Chef Carmen Rodriguez - Fuego

I ask Carmen what it means to him to be named New Mexico’s Chef of the Year for 2012. His answer catches me off-guard. “It means nothing—at least, the food part means nothing. Knowing my peers thought I was good enough really surprised me. And it showed me how much my community was watching me,” he says. “I didn’t know that. But I didn’t win because of my food. I won because I was giving so much back to my community.”

For Carmen, being a successful chef is just another tool to give back to our community. “I was one judge away from the fate of some of these people I’m trying to help,” he explains solemnly. “That’s why I do it. That’s why sometimes I work seven days a week, even when I’m dead tired. I see the love of people like Ahmed, of Jambo Café, who cares so much about his cause. It fuels me.”

During a time of crisis that was thousands of miles away a stranger, now a dear friend, once told them, “It’s our duty in life to take care of each other,” and Carmen and Penny believe this with all their hearts. Smiling, Carmen reminds me that La Posada donates one turkey for each confirmed Thanksgiving Day reservation at Fuego. “We’re not trying to save the world,” he says. “Penny and I are just trying to make it better, for those that we can.”

Fuego is located in La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa at 330 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. 505.986.0000. laposadadesantafe.com.