Santa Fe is world-renowned for its culinary arts, and Santa Fe School of Cooking is a one-stop destination where you can experience and learn about unique Northern New Mexican and Southwestern cuisine with myriad cooking classes, restaurant tours, and culinary demonstrations.
I love food, but I can’t say I’m a true foodie, and I’m not a culinary talent by any stretch, so I was more than a little curious to see the effect a few different activities at the top cooking school in New Mexico would have on me. I decided to dedicate enough time on three different days to take a restaurant tour, a demo class, and a hands-on experience. I expected to be the only local among many out-of-towners, but I was surprised to find I wasn’t, and glad I wasn’t the only glutton among them with a multi-day plan.
Santa Fe School Of Cooking is the oldest and most popular school of its kind in New Mexico. It is located on the corner of Johnson and Guadalupe Streets. A culinary school is the latest of many incarnations this wonderful atelier-like space has undergone since its beginnings as a Packard dealership in 1948. In the 1980s; it was a night club, in 2002 it became a private museum called “The Awakening,” which closed in 2006. In 2012, SFSC revived it with extensive renovations, creating the ideal space for classes, demos and private events to “awaken” taste buds.
You could spend a good hour in their specialty market, browsing through shelves filled with all things culinary – from packaged local produce, books, equipment, and clothing to chile seeds for your own garden.
My first actiivity was one of SFSC’s well-known restaurant tours. In a little over three hours, we experienced three top restaurants and a distillery tasting room. It’s not often that professional chefs are the guides for restaurant tours, but it’s a regular occurrence at SFSC. Chef Allen Smith is a Certified Culinary Professional, and the school’s Lead Instructor.
He first worked with the school in 1998. He has since taken his talents to New York City and Dubai to apply his expertise in starting culinary schools and specialty markets. He returned to Santa Fe in 2012, ready for a quieter pace, and was happy to return to SFSC. Before we set off on our tour, he whetted our appetites with a delicious sample of Duck Tamale with Asian Sauce.
We stopped at Restaurant Martin, Santa Fe Spirits, Terra Cotta Wine Bistro and Georgia. At each location we were treated to samplings of chef-made culinary delights. The chefs were generous with their time, sharing insights into their unique methods and culinary ideologies.
Santa Fe Spirits Tasting Room was as much a treat for the taste buds as for any lingering tensions we may have been hanging on to. Their artisanal creations are made from a variety of locally sourced botanicals. Things got nice and relaxed after a lineup of six small taster shots of their hand-crafted liqueurs.
“Molé and More!” was held in the school’s large dining/classroom. (Molé is pronounced mo-lay.) Our hosts were Chef Allen, accompanied by Chef de Cuisine Noe Cano, who has been with the school for seventeen years.
The hanging mirrors and monitors above the workspace give everyone an unobstructed view of Chef in action. With a healthy mix of educational instruction, dry wit and personal anecdotes, Chef Allen brought his worldly expertise to the counter. As aromas wafted through the air (triggering the impulse to drool onto our notes), Chef worked the alchemy of ingredients into a delicious three-course lunch.
Chef Noe Cano keeps the wheels spinning in the back and front kitchens, making sure the demonstration runs smoothly and the large lunch portions are prepped and ready to eat on time.
The School sources locally grown, organic ingredients, many from their own gardens, the gardens of their staff, and the local Farmer’s Market.
I’ve lived in Santa Fe for almost thirty years and perhaps I can blame my English heritage for being born with the weakest taste buds ever – pathetically unable to tolerate much in the way of hot spice. So I was a bit nervous about my ability to handle the chile element in the meal, but Chef Allen deftly applied just the right amount to each dish. I was thrilled as my taste buds were gradually woken up from their bland English sleep.
At last, I was able to understand what all the New Mexican-chile-lover fuss is about. The Perfect Protein Salad, Smoked Chicken Molé with Arroz Verde, Red Chile Glazed Carrots with Sweet Pickled Onions were followed by a crescendo of spice in the Flourless Spicy Mexican Chocolate Torte with Raspberry Glaze.
The heat level was perfect: it coddled my tongue and taste buds to appreciate the enhanced flavors of each ingredient and left a lingering tingle. YAY! And all served with options of local wines and beers.
Day three, and it’s time for the Red Chile Workshop taught by Native American Chef Lois Ellen Frank. Chef Frank is an acclaimed Native American Chef, Native American foods historian, culinary anthropologist, and James Beard Award winning author.
I was intrigued to learn that chiles, which we frequently refer to as “chile peppers,” are not of the pepper family, and we have Columbus to thank for the confusion. He used the word “pimiento” to describe the spicy fruit, based on the peppercorns he knew. The word became “pepper” in translation. Chef went on to tell of their history, excellent medicinal and antimicrobial qualities, and the fact that they stimulate a wonderful endorphin effect on the brain – right up there with chocolate, exercise and sex!
Next came roasting our own chiles and tomatoes and preparing the day’s menu: Handmade Corn Tortillas, Red Chile Sauce from pods and powder, and Roasted Tomato and Chipotle Salsa. Under the watchful eye of Chef Frank we overcame our initial inhibitions and were quite proud of the delicious results. This and any of SFSC’s many hands-on experiences are must-dos for anyone wanting to bring the flavors of the Southwest home.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The idea to create the school was inspired by Susan Curtis’s desire to change her business direction, and fill the nest left empty when her two daughters headed for college. Susan’s eldest daughter Nicole laughs as she tells of how her mom had made a list of things she’d like to do to. “Based on her upbringing on a ranch, her love for winter sports, and the connection with her family at the dinner table, her list consisted of being a ranch hand, a ski instructor or opening a cooking school.” And so it was to be…but the first day the school opened, Susan was too sick to be there. Nicole opened the doors and when she graduated, she soon brought her business degree and retail experience back home to work with her mum, developing what has become a much-loved Santa Fe institution.
For over 25 years, Santa Fe School of Cooking and its highly qualified, loyal staff (some of whom have been there for almost 20 years) have been imparting culinary wisdom to fans from all over the globe. Shattering any preconceived notions you may have of strict and intimidating cooking schools, Susan, Nicole and the staff enjoy keeping things light hearted. Classes are often personally introduced by Nicole, which sets the tone of a relaxed family atmosphere. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously here,” Nicole says. “It’s more like a show you learn from, than a classroom.”
If you’re a devoted foodie, a hobbyist, a pro chef, or if (like me) you just love to eat good food, there’s no doubt, you can spend a few hours, or as much as a week at Santa Fe School of Cooking. You’ll be entertained, you’ll be educated and you’ll eat like a king.
There are many classes, tours, and demonstrations to choose from, and customized group and multi-day options are also available. Prices are reasonable, ranging from $78 to $115 per person. (see this link for updated classes, rates and schedules.)
I admit, I felt a bit bereft when I returned home with a considerably more sophisticated palate after all these wonderfully flavorful awakenings. I took one look at my little ol’ kitchen and knew – the unmonitored experiments were about to begin!! Does this make me a budding foodie? I’m willing to take the risk.
For more information on Santa Fe School of Cooking, class schedules and rates etc., please go to: http://santafeschoolofcooking.com/ and http://santafeselection.com/classes-workshops/santa-fe-school-of-cooking
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