It's very rewarding to find that you have the talent to recognize talent in others. When you are the talent, it's equally rewarding to be recognized. That is why 24-year-old Walter Dominguez' recent rise to executive sous chef at the Hotel Santa Fe's Amaya Restaurant is so satisfying to so many.
Walter was raised by his grandparents, in Mexico. The taquería they ran all his life offered him, as a boy, constant exposure to food preparation. Bread dough was a favorite plaything. Grinding chiles was a common pastime. Walter would come to New Mexico periodically to see his mother, and eventually he moved here. Says Dominguez, "When I was little I didn't have that many things like some kids do, so [when I came to America] I tried to say well, it's time for me to show what I want to be."
Walter's latent talents were first noticed by Preston Cox at Embudo Station restaurant who employed him and helped put him through the Santa Fe Community College's Culinary Arts program. Meanwhile, an apprenticeship at the El Dorado Hotel showed the young man's grit and determination. Eventually, Walter's latent creativity was discovered by Martín Rios, who employed him as sous chef at the Old House. Walter recalls, "I remember Preston telling me good things about Martín and how he started and what he became. But I never thought that five years after that I was going to be his right hand." After five years there, Walter's skills were needed at the Inn of the Anasazi, where he continued to develop his unique style.
Now very much an essential component of the Santa Fe restaurant scene, and savvy in his own right, Walter still does not forget his backers. He told me, "Whenever I talk to Preston, or Chef Steven Cooper from the college, they are always happy to see one of the students they had in their restaurant or college be successful in the field...I talk to [Preston] from time to time and always give him the good news and keep him up on what's happening in my career."
Not every culinary arts student becomes an executive sous chef at a major hotel inside of a decade, but in Dominguez' case, his creativity shone through so brightly that he couldn't be ignored. Rios recognized Walter's specific talent right away, always noticing that his young protégé tended to focus a great deal on the appearance of the dishes.
Says Walter, "Everything starts with your eyes. [For instance] when you meet someone. With food, if it doesn't look good, it doesn't please you that much to eat it." His approach is to start with simple foods prepared well, but to add complexity to the presentation with an almost sculptural approach that is one of his distinctive trademarks. Diners will find two luscious guajillo-glazed shrimp standing on end in a base of creamy potatoes, entwined like lovers. They will find a juicy filet mignon topped by an apostrophe of fresh herb sprig that balances upright, somehow defying gravity. Around these creations, herb-infused oils and delicate sauces are delicately applied to the plate in simple swirls, creating a colorful frame.
"One of the things that pushes me is that I'm very creative," explains the chef. "Like I could be almost asleep and my wife says "what are you thinking about?' and I'm thinking about some kind of dish and how to do it. I try to read a lot and then see what's going on in the rest of the world in cooking. Then I fuse those creations and try to give it my style, my technique, my little aspect of me."
Corey Fidler, Amaya's food and beverage manager, received many impressive recommendations for Walter, but when he interviewed the young chef for the position, the face-time sealed the deal. Says Corey, "I was extremely impressed by his excitement. Well, he couldn't sit still. He was talking about the kind of food he wanted to do, and when you see that kind of excitement versus someone who sits back in the chair saying, "well, I've done this and I've done that'.... It's what you're looking for!"
What Corey saw in Walter was not a polished chef who boasts well-honed management skills or knowledge of how to make the perfect beurre blanc or Bordelaise sauce, but a true love of food, a willingness to learn, and a desire to succeed. Amaya was looking for innovation and fresh new energy, and that is just what Walter embodies. Says Fidler, "Technically, he is the executive sous chef, but really he's the chef de cuisine. Walter is basically in charge of the cuisine of Amaya restaurant at night. That's his baby. It's a hundred percent his-working for other chefs he was never allowed to really be his own person, so now he's opening up and trying different things that he couldn't try before."
Owned by the Picuris Pueblo, Hotel Santa Fe's Amaya restaurant is billed as featuring Native American Cuisine. Over time, how that theme is interpreted has differed widely from chef to chef. Walter's approach is to admit it will not be 100% native food, but there won't be pasta; there won't be anything completely off the topic. The idea is to focus on wild-caught and game proteins that fit into the Native American theme-like trout, buffalo, venison, elk, and game hen. Walter enthuses, "If you love meat, yes, game makes us stand out."
In addition, seasonal vegetables essential to Native American life will make a showing, such as butternut squash, squash blossom, sweet potato, and baby zucchini. These basic ingredients will then be given a simple but elegant gourmet treatment that-let's face it, denizens of ancient pueblos would hardly recognize. This approach both plays to the Native American theme and offers exciting challenges to the creative new chef.
Walter is thrilled about his new menu and eager to field responses to it. This man of vision is unafraid to draw on his Mexican roots for inspiration, nor to delve into the latest European techniques. That combination of old and new is constantly contributing to his cooking style and refreshing Amaya's menu. Says he, "It's time for me to pay [my teachers] back and say I'd like to do this. I'm not here to be joking. I'm here to be successful, and I want this place to be successful. I have told my cooks that the only way we're going to do that is we have to believe it. We don't have to compare ourselves to the other restaurants. We are our own style, our own type of cuisine."
That's the fun thing about restaurants, adds Corey Fidler, "It's not like you have this static thing where you shuffle all the papers from the left to the right, then from the right to the top, then you sign all the papers, then you move the papers on. Here every day is a little different. You are presented with a new set of difficulties and challenges. The menu changes. You taste different things. You always make discoveries."
The Amaya Restaurant at the Hotel Santa Fe is located at 1501 Paseo de Peralta in Santa Fe. 505.982.1200.