Celebrating 25 Years of New Mexico Cuisine with the Santa Fe School of Cooking

Gourmet Girl - March 16, 2016

Devoted to the food and farming of New Mexico

More than 25 years ago—well before the start of the Farm To Table movement, the rise of the Food Network and America's obsession with food—Susan Curtis decided to leave her career in real estate appraisal to open the Santa Fe School of Cooking. And while some date the origins of the city's vibrant culinary scene to 1987, when Mark Miller founded the Coyote Cafe, the opening of the cooking school in 1989 played an equally, if not more, significant role in nurturing Santa Fe's thriving food scene.

Susan had grown up on a ranch near the banks of Idaho's Snake River, hunting fishing and foraging for wild foods, which filled her family table, along with fresh food the family gathered from their garden and meats they home cured. She developed a strong appreciation for good food, made from scratch, ans well as its connection to its source. She raised her family in Santa Fe to share that same appreciation. Opening the school was a natural extension of her beliefs, and it resonated with locals and visitors eager to learn how to make northern New Mexico's distinctive cuisine themselves.

Right from its opening day, the cooking school was a big hit, both with locals and visitors to the city. “Our mission has always been to celebrate food and farming of New Mexico,” says Nicole Curtis Ammerman, director of the Santa Fe School of Cooking and Susan's daughter. “When the school opened, the local movement was not yet happening, so my mom's idea was way ahead of its time.”

The idea was to teach people how to make one of the world's most unique cuisines, with classes devoted to tacos and tamales, burritos, green and red chile sauces, salsa, moles and more. The focus was also on contemporary Southwestern fare, which melds traditional foods and traditions with new ideas in dishes such as grilled salmon filet with poblano-lime jam; smoked pork tenderloin with red chile cider glaze and coconut flan with salted caramel.

Classes are taught by six chefs, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and chef Lois Ellen Frank, Michelle Chavez, Alan Smith, Pat Mares, Alex Hadidi and Noe Cano. The school also includes a market, offering chile, herbs, spices, jams, cookware, clothing, cookbooks and much more.

Nicole was a sophomore studying business at the University of Arizona when her mother made the decision that transformed their lives. “Whenever my mom traveled, she liked to take cooking classes because she thought it was a great way to connect with the community and local culture,” she says. “She would mail me letters, because this was before email, asking 'What do you think of this logo?” and “What about this idea for a class?”

When Nicole moved back to Santa Fe in 1993, and joined her mother at cooking skill, she applied her business and marketing skills to the school, creating the three-day Southwest Culinary Boot Camp, an intensive hands-on experience covering cooking techniques, history and tips from top chefs. She also created the school's beloved Restaurant Tours, the only tour of its kind in New Mexico, which take visitors on a guided walking tour of the city's prestigious restaurants for private tastings and an audience with the chefs, owners and other restaurant industry professionals.

Despite the popular additions to the Santa Fe School of Cooking's menu, the original concept remains the same. “We still have the original classes and menus for Traditional New Mexican I, II and II, featuring tortillas enchiladas and tacos,” Nicole says. The school's original mission remains the same, too, though different cuisines are featured every few months, like the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tasting Dinner prepared by guest chef Hue-Chan Karels to celebrate The Year of the Fire Monkey. Jambo Cafe's owner/chef Ahmed Obo will teach a class on African cooking this summer. “I like to add these occasionally to bring locals in and offer something new and different,” Nicole says.

The school has other events planned for this summer, with two Spanish classes and the annual Merging Taste and Sound with the Santa Fe Opera, a five-course dinner featuring flavors from the opera's coming season along with music by soprano Ingela Onstad and conversation with the Santa Fe opera staff to put it all in context. There are classes for art aficionados, too, including Cooking Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe led by the artist's personal assistant, Margaret Wood, and At the Artist's Table, a collaboration between a renowned artist and chef that's a fundraiser for the Partners in Education Foundation for the Santa Fe Public School.

One of the school's newest programs, the New Mexico Culture & Cuisine Tour, a five-day event that explores the cultural influences of the region, from native traditions to the contemporary food scene. Guests will tour Puye Cliffs and learn about bread baking in an horno, pick produce from a farm in northern New Mexico, enjoy an outdoor cooking class in Chimayo, visit a New Mexico winery and more. “Every day there's a different cooking class,” Nicole says. “Each day there's a combination of cooking with other activities that are food-related. This exactly the way mom and I like to do things when we travel, a combination of experience with a cooking class.”

While the Santa Fe School of Cooking is popular with visitors to Santa Fe, it's also a favorite with locals. “We didn't open thinking we 'd be a tourist destination,” Nicole says. But 5% of our business is visitors. That being said, we love locals. Every winter since we've been open, we've offered bonus classes, once a week at half price, during January and February. It's a full house of primarily locals.”

Since the Santa Fe School of Cooking opened, Susan and Nicole have authored four gorgeous cookbooks that feature the school's recipes, including The Santa Fe School of Cooking Cookbook and Celebrating the Foods of New Mexico. Four years ago, the school relocated from its location on The Plaza to a much larger space at the intersection of Johnson and Guadalupe streets, with the ability to handle much larger classes.

Susan is now a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and of Les Dame d'Escoffier, and she and her daughter have established longtime relationships not just with the chefs and vendors they work with, but with their clientele, who keep coming back for seconds, thirds, and more.

“I love my job and I love to come to work every day and part of it is because our staff is so wonderful and our customers are so wonderful,” Nicole says. “When I got married, many customers sent me wedding gifts and they sent me baby gifts when my children were born.There's a real sense of family here.”