Sazón | Santa Fe Chef Receives James Beard Best Southwest Chef Award
Sazon's Chef Fernando Olea at the James Beard Awards

The Oscars of the Food World

On Monday evening, in a gala ceremony at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House, Chef Fernando Olea was named Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Fernando is the chef at Sazón, two short blocks off Santa Fe’s Plaza. His partners in the business, Lawrence and Suzanna Beserra, were there to applaud him. Lawrence said the next morning, “This was many years in the making and well deserved. It only goes to further recognize Santa Fe as one of the top culinary destination resorts in the United States. We wish to thank all of our patrons for helping us climb this mountain, and look forward to seeing all of you at Sazón.”

When Fernando heard his name called at the Chef & Restaurant Awards, he literally danced to the stage. He struck a dashing figure in a black sequined tuxedo jacket, a hit on the earlier red-carpet stroll. Chef Fernando wore his trademark black “evening” cowboy hat, too, decked out with a glittering band for the occasion. He finished his gracious acceptance remarks with “It’s a dream come true! God is amazing. Thank you, God!”

On the morning after he received the award, Chef Fernando told me, “I am one lucky person. I love what I do and I’ve been blessed to be recognized for my contributions. It’s amazing to be awarded the Best Chef in the Southwest by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. I’m still in shock!”

Chef Fernando Chef Fernando's James Beard Award

The Beard Foundation recognized the creativity of the chef’s Mexican cooking, which is grounded in the food he grew up eating as a child in Mexico City. He credits his mother and sister with inspiring many of his recipes. Fernando has been enthralling Santa Fe diners with his interpretation of traditional and contemporary Mexican cuisine since 1991.

His meals start with mini-corn tortillas and a selection of the night’s moles presented dramatically on black slate. His signature dishes include sopa de amore, a soup with crab and the scent of almonds, and a preparation of huitlacoche, the Mexican corn truffle. Chef Fernando offers a show-stopping version of the classic chiles en nogada with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. Recognized most of all are his multiple variations on mole, the complex sauce of chiles, seeds, herbs, and more. There’s a daily nine-course tasting menu option.

The wine list features many top choices from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. Service is warm and gracious. The dining room, designed by partner Suzanna, is as elegantly festive as the food, with striking large-scale works of art.

Beard Back Story

This year was a first, with chefs of three New Mexico restaurants among the five Beard Southwest finalists. And Santa Fe had two of those. The other local finalist was much-respected Chef Martín Rios, of Restaurant Martín, a 10-time nominee. Of course, Martín has to be credited with helping put Santa Fe on the fine-dining map nationally, with his creative cooking, and excellence in both the back and front of the house. His wife, Jennifer, is his partner in the restaurant.

Down in Albuquerque, the Salazar Brothers, of La Guelaguetza, also were finalists. This was the first nomination for the Salazars. I spoke with Roberto Salazar shortly after the nomination. He was dazzled by the attention for the family’s relatively new South Valley café, serving foods of their native Oaxaca.

Since the last Beard awards, pre-COVID, the foundation changed the alignment of regions throughout the country. Changes in the greater Southwest included the split of Rocky Mountain states into one region, and spinning off Texas into another, which seemed only fitting given its size geographically and in population. The Southwest region is now made up of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Oklahoma. The change had the desired effect of elevating more chefs in small markets.

Huitlacoche on tortillas and fried shrimp with chile sauce at Sazon.
Huitlacoche on tortillas and fried shrimp with chile sauce at Sazón.

Tips for Trying Chef Fernando’s Food

Sazón has always been a tough reservation, and the award will create even more demand. Plan as far out as you can. If you can’t get in for dinner, try booking happy hour snacks and drinks in the quaint bar, one of my faves in Santa Fe. If you go, I recommend one of the agave spirits flights. The restaurant has an excellent selection of tequilas, mezcals, and sotols. The well-schooled staff will tell you all about their similarities and differences.

If you’re out of the area, or can’t get in, Sazón ships several of the chef’s signature moles — coloradito, negro, and New Mexican. Find them on the website below.

Salud to Chef Fernando Olea, a very deserving and humble guy!

Sazón
221 Shelby Street
Open for dinner Monday through Saturday
Reservations essential
Sazonsantafe.com
505-983-8604

Cheryl Alters Jamison and Chef Fernando
Cheryl Alters Jamison and Chef Fernando Olea of Sazón.

Story and photographs by Cheryl Alters Jamison.

Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.

Read Cheryl Alters Jamison’s bio here!

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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