It’s In The Stars

Date June 30, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty

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Prediction: Fuego's Rahm Fama will be Santa Fe's next nationally recognized, award-winning chef.

Fuego, La Posada's main restaurant, has already earned AAA's four diamond designation. The thirty year old kitchen--whiz combines tasteful innovation with perfectionist sensibilities. His uniqueness arises in the context of his raw materials, and of Fuego as a place and team of people.

After a 1999 remodel, Rock Resorts transformed the downtown hotel into a world-class resort and spa. They kept the majestic, classic Staab residence, but the five-acre property became its own insular world of tasteful buildings, lawns, gardens, and sculptures with a large but understated fountain as centerpiece.

Tammy Hill, now Human Resources director but former Fuego manager, recalls the series of chefs who preceded Rahm, missing the mark with a rotisserie, uninspired, old-style French ("all beurre blanc and potatoes"€), and Cajun. "It wasn't what Fuego needed to be,"€ she frankly observes. Some of the Food & Beverage directors lacked vision as well.

All of which changed when Chef Rahm, followed by F & B director Michael McPhie, came on board. As I talk on the patio with Ken Humes, the hotel's General Manager, I begin to understand one element of the kitchen's success. "No one at the home office tells me what to do,"€ he says. He's got silver hair and small frameless glasses, a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his blue blazer. Like his corporate bosses, he eschews micro-management, helping create an environment in which responsible people strive to do their resourceful best. "The smartest thing I did for the restaurant was to hire Michael and let him run with it."€

So I talk with Michael McPhie, thin, cheerfully fit, and relaxed. He saw Fuego, with its high ceilings and beautiful floors, begging for fine dining. "I thought we should be able to compete with any four star service in the country."€ He and Rahm got the green light for non-southwest cuisine of the highest caliber. "I went on a spending spree,"€ Michael gleefully admits, buying the best of everything. His greatest contribution to the restaurant? "Just a sheer dedication to quality in every aspect, and my ability to get people to buy into that vision and accomplish it."€

His enthusiasm is palpable as he discusses specifics. He (like Rahm) knows exactly where food items come from, how they're grown or raised. Firm, lean Mediterranean red mullet is flown in daily from France. Pennsylvania's Four Story Hills Farm chickens eat a diet of milk-soaked corn. Free range Asian sika deer, raised wild in Texas by Broken Arrow Ranch, makes an exotic red meat alternative. There are heirloom tomatoes from the Farm at South Mountain in Phoenix, flavorful galia melon, organic greens from Rancho Chiruelos in Chupadero, and Kobe beef, the best in the United States, from Snake River Farms in Idaho. And so on.

Before I can even ask Rahm a question, he volunteers, "I don't do half the work around here. I feel very passionate about my crew."€ Menus are a team effort, and he introduces sous chefs Scott Garrett and Francisco Aceves, then pastry chef Maxim Bouneou. The highest quality food doesn't require elaborate preparation to taste terrific, Rahm says. "When you have Copper River salmon, you're blown away. I like to get a great product and let it speak for itself."€ The resulting dishes are so good, "it's like cheating."€

Born and raised in Santa Fe, Rahm worked as a bus boy, then kitchen help, in Coyote Café to cover insurance for his first car. "The varieties of foods and preparation and cultures"€ were "a rush."€ After high school he took a job as a line cook in celebrity chef Todd English's Boston restaurant, Olives. Sharing a one bedroom apartment with four other cooks, he began learning the basics for a few months, and decided on cooking as a career. "I could tell I was good at it. I could think nothing but food forever."€

After a year at West Bank Fish Camp in Austin, "I got serious."€ He started as a line cook in The Phoenician under James Beard award-winner Alessandro Stratta, leaving four years later as sous chef. If Rahm presented Stratta something less than perfect, it got tossed in the garbage. "He drove me to do better and better."€ Rahm followed the chef to Las Vegas but didn't like the city. He left to open a new restaurant in the eleven-restaurant Broadmoor Hotel. While there, he married Kerri, formerly the tennis pro at the Phoenician.

His next move, to The Sierra Grande Lodge in Truth or Consequences, "was a chance to design a kitchen and restaurant by myself from the ground up."€ Condé Nast Traveler placed it among the country's top fifty restaurants. When some Rock Resorts exec's visited, they liked the food so much they offered Rahm a job at La Posada. He and Kerri had two children by then, he felt done with Sierra Grande, and he jumped at the chance to return home. "It's the best thing I could have done."€ His creativity has blossomed under Michael, "a food and beverage manager who wants nothing but quality stuff. You think he's going to yell at me for using the best butter I can find?"€ (It's Beurre de Baratte, from Normandy.)

When Thérèse, my dinner companion, locates me in the rear of the kitchen, we walk through The Staab House to the front entrance to start the dinner experience fresh. Timothy Mitchell, a restaurant captain, greets us, wearing a dark suit and tie, smiling as we shake hands. He seats us side by side on a comfortable sofa at a large table (no two tops here) from where we can survey the open room: wood over large beams on the soaring ceiling, tables set spaciously apart, contemporary sculpture by local artist Mark Harris, paintings from Waxlander Gallery by Marshall Noice. Our table is covered with subtly-patterned white French linen by Garnier Thiebaut, decorated with Rosenthal lead crystal vases. We eat from richly-lustered Bernardaud china, hand-crafted in Limoge, France, and use Guy DeGrenne silverware.

Dinner is a major culinary event, a four course tasting menu, and Rahm's keep-it-simple philosophy belies his inventiveness. Thérèse and I share everything. First courses: a layer of vanilla chiffon parfait tops tiny melon balls, which cover delectable Maine peekytoe crab. A custard sauce with chive oil comes on the side. There's also a breakfast dish-sort of. Seared Sonoma foie gras sits on French toast, topped with a rhubarb compote, served with a sunny side up quail egg and crispy duck bacon. Rahm comes to our table, explaining that the idea for this came to him while eating breakfast at Tia Sophia's. Second courses are veggie choices. We order the "tomato symphony,"€ (Rahm said we had to) with four imaginative tomato preparations, and cauliflower-roasted garlic soup with a Roquefort and membrillo ravioli. Thérèse is ecstatic over the rich, pleasing soup "with a hidden treasure that's an explosion of flavor."€

All this time, we're nurturing a split of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Diane Herbert, the highly personable, attentive wine steward, is a knowledgeable eighteen-year veteran of restaurant hospitality who's been carefully building the wine list, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. She brings us a highly rated Oregon Siduri single vineyard pinot noir before our entrées. Wine pricing beats most restaurants in town-from haute cuisine to humble-for value.

The layered chicken dish comes with morel mushrooms and a light sauce. Rahm appears again, this time to spray white truffle essence over the food ("Have as much as you want."€) and to ask if I can taste the difference between this chicken and the delicious, superb organic chicken raised in New Mexico. I can. It's even more delicate and richer in flavor. And the Sika Deer medallions are tender in the mouth with a delicate flavor all their own.

Fuego's two Captains, our waiter Timothy along with Matthew Merrill, have assembled an artisanal raw milk cheese cart, one to two dozen selections depending on time of year, unlike anything in the state. "We're strongly behind the health benefits of eating living enzymes,"€ which help digest food instead of making you fat, explains Timothy. At 28, he's a voracious reader and St. John's student in his spare time. Thérèse and I select five cheeses, following them with a rich and wonderful Valrhona chocolate dessert.

We've been here four and a half hours. The restaurant's deserted, but Timothy continues treating us like royalty. What sounded like bragging from Ken Humes earlier now makes sense: "We have incredibly sophisticated cuisine. It's the whole presentation, the absolute perfection of service. Eat here and it's a meal you'll never forget."€ In Europe, the place could earn two Michelin stars. Here, Rahm will have to content himself with the American accolades sure to come.

Fuego is situated in La Posada at 330 East Palace, Santa Fe. 505.986.0000.

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