Chef Martin Rios started his career as a dishwasher at 17 and now is the chef/owner of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo/Courtesy Jennifer Rios)

Chef Spotlight: Martin Rios on gardening and moving Southwestern food forward

Vitals: Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Chef Martin Rios has helped revolutionized Southwestern cuisine beyond the typical standard cheese-smothered, chile-spiked fare. Rather, the use of fresh produce and organic proteins distinguish his cosmopolitan style of cooking at Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which he owns with his wife and business partner, Jennifer. Rios says he’s been in love with food since he was a child, helping his grandmother as she cooked at her restaurant in an open air market back home in Guadalajara. “I would run to the different booths for fruits, vegetables and proteins, which really help me appreciate ingredients,” reminisces the chef. “It was an amazing education.”

Experience: Rios was just 17 when he landed his first job as a dishwasher and years later – with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and apprenticeships under world-famous chefs including Georges Blanc (a three-star Michelin chef in France), David Burke and World Pastry champion Jean Marc Guillot – the Mexican-American is now executive chef at his own restaurant in Santa Fe, Mexico. Rios has competed against Bobby Flay on Food Network’s “Iron Chef” and was even named a semifinalist for the 2011 James Beard award for “Best Chef Southwest.”  

On Progressive American cuisine: “I call my style Progressive American because it reflects everything I’ve been through in my career. I was lucky enough to get classical French training, work for an Italian chef and was exposed to Mexican, Asian and Southwest flavors very early. Now, I combine all of those cuisines and use new tools and techniques to move food forward in a modern way. So instead of doing a braised dish, I’ll use a sous-vide technique or do something with molecular gastronomy to replicate that tender texture.  I like to think outside the box and that’s why I push myself to change our menu 4 or 5 times a year.”

On his favorite hobby: “I love being outside, mostly because I spend a lot of time indoors in the kitchen. It started when I started planting trees in the yard of my house years ago because it looked like a parking lot it was so bare. Five years later we had so much fruit – plums, cherries, peaches and apples – that I was bringing it all to the restaurant for ice creams, sorbets, sauces, chutney, salsa, and just about everything you can imagine. Now I have gardens both at home and at the restaurant. I love doing research to find interesting seeds and year after year, I’m able to create new dishes based on produce that I’ve grown myself. It’s relaxing for me to spend time outside and it’s fun to bond with my staff over time in the garden.”

On his passion project: “I’m currently growing a brand new crop of Asian herbs I’ve never seen before. One of the herbs I can’t wait to try is one particularly interesting variety of chocolate mint that I saw in a book somewhere and just had to have; it’s something that’s not commonly grown in the States. The outside of the leaf is green with a bit of yellow and the inside is a dark chocolate color. It’s a peppery, lemony mint with the sweetness of chocolate that I think will be great for a Southwest inspired, Asian sashimi dish using seafood that will be in season soon.”

His favorite food memory: “My favorite memories are of my family gathering to eat the type of rustic, classic Mexican food that you don’t see prepared as much these days. My mom would make chocolate and strawberry tamales; sopas made from masa and stuffed with fried beans, cheese, chicken, lettuce and tomatoes; and posole made with green chile. Her posole was made with green chile – never red – and she would put braised pigs feet in it. My mother is an amazing cook and that’s the background I draw inspiration from.”

On making the best salads: “We try to maintain a healthy lifestyle as a family and a big part of that is being creative with salads. I’ll try different combinations of lettuces; add chopped avocado, dried fruits, different vegetables, beets. And the best dressing is the simplest – just whisk lemon juice with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. The secret to making great salads is honestly, to never try the same thing twice.”

The three fantasy guests he’d invite to dinner: “I’d love to cook for the chefs I admire most. Alain Ducasse for one, and a chef named René Redzepi. His restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark has two Michelin stars and he’s someone who cooks purely what’s regional; from the produce in his gardens. My third guest would have to be Thomas Keller – I just admire the man. I have all of his cookbooks and I love reading them because I can identify with the way he talks about food; the way he sees and respects it.”

On the dish he’ll never cook as well as mom: “Without a doubt, Mexican-style rice. It’s just rice cooked with tomatoes, chopped onion, carrots, peas and stock but mine always comes out soggy and overcooked. The funny thing is, I always call her as I’m getting ready to cook it and despite everything, I’m always left with mush. So every time I visit her, I let her know that I’ll bring the potatoes, meats, anything she wants – but she has to make the rice! It’s something so simple that I can never get right.”

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