The Artistry of Restaurant Martín

Lynn Cline - March 22, 2017

"There's magic at work in this kitchen..."

In a city renowned for award-winning cuisine, Restaurant Martín stands out, celebrated for its progressive American cuisine and its incredibly creative chef, Martín Rios.

The only chef in New Mexico to earn the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence and a multiple James Beard award nominee who's been named Chef of the Year twice by the state of New Mexico, Rios is famous for innovative dishes spotlighting local, seasonal produce and organic meat and poultry. Just one bite of his Heritage Duroc Pork Ribeye with Sweet Potato-Mustard Dumplings, Prune-Sunflower See Chutney, Crispy Brussels Sprout Leaves and Shallot-Bourbon Reduction; or Pan-Seared Salmon with Warm Blue Lump Crab Salad, Cauliflower and Jasmine Rice, Daikon Radish Ribbons and Mizuna and Tangy Citrus Broth and it's obvious—there's magic at work in this kitchen.

Restaurant Martín opened in 2009, a labor of love for Rios and his wife, Jennifer, who transformed a vacant historic adobe near downtown into a stylish yet comfortable and inviting eatery, with three interior dining rooms, a covered patio, and an annex, enclosed in winter months and open into the courtyard during summer. Inside, contemporary art hangs on the walls, a perfect tribute to the artistry of the chef and his staff. Outside, when in season, herb, vegetable and flower gardens provide fresh ingredients and garnishes for the food. With Jennifer as the general manager and Rios in kitchen, often stepping in to work the line, Restaurant Martín has become one of Santa Fe's most beloved restaurants.

Rios has a long and storied history as a chef in Santa Fe. He moved here in 1979, at age 15, with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, where he grew up as one of eight children in a working-class family. As a kid, he loved playing with food, whether he was rolling out tortillas or helping his grandparents, and later his mother, make and sell traditional flautas, pozole, menudo and handmade candy at the daily market. In high school, he started washing dishes at the Sheraton Hotel, where his brother was a line cook. Soon he was helping to prep in the kitchen and within a year, he dropped out of high school and became sous chef. He worked closely with the executive chef, who gave Rios a copy of Auguste Escoffier's Guide Culinaire, which became a touchstone for him, providing inspiration for recipes and techniques.

When Rios' mentor left the Sheraton, the kitchen went downhill, so Rios got a job at the new, upscale Eldorado Hotel, where he rose through the ranks to become executive chef at just age 28. Here, he met his future wife, who was finishing an apprenticeship at the Eldorado while earning her MBA at Georgetown University. She spent two weeks in the kitchen to learn about the hotel food and beverage management and they had their first date over a meal of green chile enchiladas.

The rest is history. To fulfill his dream of becoming a major chef, Rios went off to the country's top culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and then to apprenticeships at top restaurants—David Burke's Park Avenue Café in New York and the legendary three-star Georges Blanc, in the village of Vonnas in eastern France. When the couple returned to Santa Fe, they had a baby on the way and a job secured for Rios at The Old House in the Eldorado Hotel. In the near decade the chef spent there, The Old House was named the best place to eat in New Mexico by Zagat and the Rios' two daughters were born, Emma and Anneliese.

Rios went on seeking new challenges, as executive chef at the Inn of the Anasazi and Geronimo. But the desire to have a place of their own was strong. When they found the property at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Galisteo Street, they knew it was the perfect spot. They made the purchase in March of 2009 and after intense months of major renovations, opened just in time for their Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta wine dinner in 2009.

Since then, Restaurant Martín has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Dallas Morning News and Rios is featured regularly in Saveur and Bon Appetit. The restaurant was a semi-finalist for the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in the U.S. and Rios has been nominated multiple times for a James Beard Best Chef Southwest award. He was a guest chef at the the James Beard Awards Gala in 2011 and has appeared on two popular Food Network shows, “Iron Chef” and “Beat Bobby Flay.”

A few years ago, the Rios collaborated with James Beard award-winning cookbook authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison to create a gorgeous cookbook, The Restaurant Martín Cookbook: Sophisticated Home Cooking from the Celebrated Santa Fe Restaurant, published in 2015. The book provides a fascinating window into Rios' techniques and philosophy about food.

“My culinary goal has remained the same for almost my entire career,” writes Rios in the book's introduction. “From my earliest days as a line cook, I've wanted to prepare and serve the most delicious and intriguing dishes appropriate to the setting and clientele. What has changed over time are the last two factors, the worldliness of restaurants where I've cooked and the sophistication of their customers. The two together have inspired a major evolution of my cooking, multiplying dimensions of tastes and textures, even though the vision remains the same.”

Restaurant Martín's cuisine reflects Southwestern and Asian influences as well as his training in classic French technique. “I'm solidly grounded in French fundamentals, but I use a global array of seasonings, spices, and ingredients,” he writes in the cookbook. “I'm in awe, for instance, of classic French-style reduction sauces, but not so in awe that I can't add my own twists to the pot, such as star anise, cinnamon, a sprinkle of ancho chile, or maybe a local Nut Brown Ale.”

Although Restaurant Martín is one of Santa Fe's very best restaurants , it's a neighborhood spot, popular with locals who visit regularly for the incredible food and the relaxed ambiance. And though Rios is one of the city's most decorated chefs, he's humble about his success, down to earth and quick to credit the restaurant staff—team players who have become family to the chef and his wife.

The couple is rooted in the community, with Rios volunteering at Cooking with Kids and Jennifer serving as president of The Horse Shelter, a sanctuary for the state's abandoned and abused horses founded by her mother, Jan Bandler, in 2000. It's impressive how the couple has handled fame, raising a family and running a demanding business. Unlike many other top restaurants, Restaurant Martín serves lunch and dinner as well as Sunday brunch, offering Bananas Foster Brioche French Toast, Maple Leaf Farm Duck Leg Confit Hash and other delectable dishes.  And every meal is delicious.

We're lucky to have the Rios family and Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe and now that spring is here, it won't be long before the garden is blooming and the patio filled with happy diners, enjoying the artistry of Rios and his wife.

Photos courtesy of Restaurant Martin