Question: What do the 2012 Best Chef in New Mexico and a former Chicago gang member have in common? Answer: Carmen Rodriquez. The Executive Chef at La Posada de Santa Fe Hotel and Spa is an energetic forty-something man who turned his life around at age 18. His life reads like a Horatio Alger story.
Carmen Rodriquez, of Mexican and Cuban heritage with a little Sephardic thrown into the mix, has a fascinating history. We sat down one summer evening and chatted at the hotel’s The Patio Restaurant, open in warm months. Two hours later, we were still going strong. It felt like 20 minutes.
Gang membership was necessary for survival for this pudgy, bright kid growing up on Chicago’s tough South Side. What saved him were a restaurant job with a man he still calls his mentor, a supportive family and a smart judge. At age 18, he was offered a choice: a stint in the Air Force or one in what is now Joliet Correctional Center. For a bright guy, it was a no-brainer. “I was more disappointed than scared straight,” he shared. He’d disappointed the important people in his life (his mother, his grandparents and Chef Giovanni). He credits the military with turning him around. After a stint as a security agent on a B-52 bomber, he got into food service management. He was, in his own words, “a fixer for the military’s kitchens.”
After leaving the Air Force, he moved to Santa Barbara to become a line-cook at a now-defunct place called Chad’s. When the chef unexpectedly left, someone had to step up to the stove and the ambitious Rodriguez came forward. By age 26, he was a local celebrity. He says the bad boy makes good theme was played to the hilt. “My PR person rode that boat longer than I wanted to ride it,” he said. Everyone wanted to write a story about the ex-gang member from Chicago who became one of the top chefs in California.
He first came to Santa Fe in 2000, for a stint at Mark Miller’s Coyote Café’s Rooftop Cantina. Over the years, he’s cooked in a lot of local kitchens working his way up to Executive Chef at Las Fuentes at Bishops Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa and then La Posada.
His strongest culinary influences were his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. “All the recipes I do here now are memories from when I was a kid,” Rodriguez shared. His enthusiasm as he discusses his culinary roots is contagious. Every menu he designs always includes his nana’s chocolate mousse and his new “Global Latin” menu launched last month in both Fuego and the Staab House, is no exception.
Good news for vegetarians, vegans and the dairy intolerant, all his soups are vegan as are some of his desserts. “I don’t advertise this,” he says, “because I don’t want people to think we’re a health food restaurant.”
The discipline he learned in the military is the key for Rodriguez. He runs a tight kitchen. Working with his staff and teaching them how to do something and make it work gives him great joy and keeps him jazzed every day. He loves his staff and the affection shows. He’s given each of them an affectionate nickname. “When someone believes that it won’t work and it does- it gives me even more joy because they’ve grown,” he says. The kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine; quietly and efficiently. This hands-on chef is in the kitchen from early morning to late at night five days a week. He thrives on this.
His background is always with him in a series of tattoos gotten during gang days. They are all reconfigured but serve to remind him of where he’s come from, where he is today and where he’s going. They help him remember how lucky he is. Very few people who came out of his background made it past age 25.
In his “spare” time Rodriguez teaches at a local cooking school, consults on his wife’s catering business and volunteers with several local charities. He’s involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northern New Mexico, ¡YouthWorks! a non-profit organization that help at risk youth earn their GEDS and The Food Depot (a local food bank). Carmen Rodriquez is a force of nature.
He and his wife want to “retire” in three years and move: to move either to Belize or Ecuador, buy a property and open a small B & B. Will that be enough to keep Rodriquez busy? Only time will tell.
Carmen Rodriguez shares his vegan Sopa de Tres Hermanas recipe with Santa Fe Traveler’s readers.
Sopa de Tres Hermanas
La Posada de Santa Fe
1 cup celery, diced
½ cup shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic
3 cups pumpkin, diced
3 cups butternut squash, diced
3 cups corn
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup cooked white beans
¼ cup agave nectar
1 bay leaves
4 cups water
Kosher salt, to taste
White pepper to taste
To make the soup:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the celery, shallot, garlic, pumpkin, butternut squash and corn in a roasting pan. Drizzle with oil, add bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until pumpkin is tender. Put the roasted ingredients into a large stock pot, reserving 1 cup of the roasted items, cover the remainder with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and add the agave syrup, then puree in small batches, in a blender until smooth. If the soup is too thick thin with hot water, and then season to taste
Green Chile Oil
1 green chile
3 green onions
¼ bunch parsley
1 cup corn oil
To make the chile oil:
Place all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Pour through a fine sieve to remove any large pieces. Store in squirt bottle for later use
Mix together the cooked white beans and the reserved roasted ingredients that were set aside. Ladle soup into bowl and garnish with mixed ingredients. Drizzle with green chile oil.
Author’s note: We were guests of La Posada for dinner. Their generosity has not influenced this post in any way.