This week’s chef interview is with Taos dining scene veteran, Fred Muller. Chef/owner of the popular El Meze.
It’s clear when you taste Chef Frederick Muller’s food that he is a master of flavors. Muller and his partner, Annette Kratka, own the delightful El Meze in Taos. He works the kitchen and she runs the front of the house and tends to all the behind the scene details that make for a successful eatery. The restaurant, serving what he calls “La Comida de las Sierras,” regionally inspired cuisine from Spain and Northern New Mexico, opened January 2008, a mere nine months before the economy tanked. It’s a testament to this talented chef’s food that they survived.
Muller, who calls himself a “very creative person,” says he was a natural at cooking. His training came in the restaurant of a family-run (since 1760) Swiss hotel. In the early 80s, he headed to San Francisco where the modern American food scene was being born. Names like Alice Waters, Mark Miller, Marian Cunningham and Jeremiah Tower were recreating the way we all ate. From there he went to Chapel Hill, NC and worked under iconic chef, Bill Neal. The late chef was a pioneer of contemporary cooking at the James Beard American Classic restaurant, Crook’s Corner. Muller, a food historian, took what he learned from Neal, combined it with his love of chiles and took off for the southwest. After a stint in Boulder, Colorado he landed in Taos. While working at the popular Graham’s Grille, he met Annette, the General Manager there at that time. He shared his vision of a restaurant with her and she was impressed. The rest is Taos culinary history.
As if what Muller calls, “the worst recession to hit Taos and the US,” wasn’t enough, fire shut the restaurant down in early August 2010. It took until December 13th to reopen. They used the time to hone the menu. It’s a small menu, changing seasonally. Everything on it seems to be delicious. Muller calls his food “rustic and clean.” It’s the kind of fare he says, that you’d find in Spain, Italy or Northern New Mexico. He calls it “homey food with some sophistication.” And, he adds, “You are going to feel good when you leave the restaurant.”
Muller sums up what he’s doing eloquently. “I am a food historian. Santa Fe was established as the capitol [of New Mexico] in 1610 – 10 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The Spanish presence has been in North America a long time. Southwestern cooking began here in Northern New Mexico. I try to represent that in my cooking. El Meze is Spanish cooking that is uniquely American.”
Grilled Trout with Cilantro Sauce
Make 8 Servings
1 preserved lemon
2 bunches fresh mint (approx. 6 oz.); roughly chopped
1 bunch cilantro; roughly chopped
2 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ cup olive oil
5 lbs trout (8 trout approximately 8 to 10 oz each)
Quarter preserved lemons, cut away the flesh and finely dice the lemon rind. Place in large stainless steel bowl and add mint, cilantro, garlic, red pepper, salt, pepper and olive oil. Combine thoroughly.
Rinse trout under cold running water. Place one trout skin side down into the mixing bowl and coat. Place approx. 1 Tbsp of herb mixture into trout cavity. Close trout and place in 2-1/2 deep roasting pan. Repeat process with all the trout.
Fire up grill. When very hot, place trout at a 30 degree angle on grill. Cook for 3 minutes then reposition (same side not flipping yet) at 60 degree angle which will create hatch grill marks and crisp up the skin. Cook for another 3 minutes and then flip and cook for 6 minutes or more. To make sure trout is done, open up the cavity and meat should be white and moist and firm to touch.
Remove from grill and drizzle cilantro sauce (see recipe below) over the top. Serve with a watercress or arugula salad.
Makes 8 ounces
4 cloves garlic
1-1/2 large bunches cilantro; roughly chopped
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
1/8 tsp black pepper
1 cups olive oil
In a food processor mince garlic. Add cilantro, salt, red pepper flakes and pepper. Blend until finely minced then add olive oil with pulse action.
Editor’s note: preserved lemons can be made at home, found at markets that specialize in Spanish or international foods or purchased online. Chef Muller says that you can substitute lemon zest.
We were guests of El Meze for dinner. Their generosity did not effect this post in any way.