Vitals: Born in Massachusetts, Chef James Campbell Caruso grew up in a large Italian-American family with Spanish-Basque roots – and an affinity for cooking and food. He left home to study anthropology at the University of New Mexico and enthralled by the local food scene with its emphasis on Latin cuisine, slowly began to research and learn more about its Spanish roots. A self-described Spanish food and sherry aficionado, Campbell Caruso has traveled extensively in Spain in order to bring patrons of his restaurants the best in traditional Spanish cuisine.
Experience: A five-time James Beard Award nominee, Campbell Caruso is entirely self-taught – or “homeschooled,” as he calls it. After graduating from college, he decided to pursue a restaurant career in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he worked at restaurants like La Boca . Campbell Caruso went on to become the Executive Chef at Spanish El Farol and in 2006, opened La Boca, a Spanish restaurant specializing in tapas. The 50 year-old – who is married to a pastry chef, with whom he has two children – now has two restaurants in Santa Fe and as a third in Albuquerque that will open in November.
On his best advice for your chefs: “I tell young chefs that this career is a long race, not a sprint. You have to work really hard and be open to learning new things when you work under a chef. Absorb everything you can from him or her and take the time to digest it, celebrate it and then create your own path.”
On his proudest moment to date: “It has to be the evening after we opened La Boca in 2006. There was a moment when the chairs were all put on the tables, everything had been cleaned and I was able to look at my wife and think ‘we did it.’
On his favorite foodie memory: “I met up with an English friend – a fellow chef – in a town in southern Spain that smelled of sherry in the air. He was doing some cooking classes and I tagged along. We made some salt cod croquetas, with a little chopped Serrano ham mixed in. When class ended, we fried up the last of them, wrapped them up in a warm towel and headed to a private tasting room at a local bodega. Tasting some of the sherries and enjoying those salty croquetas was a beautiful moment.”
Why sherry should be the next big “thing”: “Spanish cuisine and wines have had their moment, but now I think it’s time for sherry to become big – it’s largely undiscovered here in the U.S. When you taste the food of Spain, especially in the south, you realize that those foods were meant to go with sherries. It’s just takes it to another level as far as combinations go. My suggestion is for folks to try a bottle of manzanilla, which is super dry, and pair it with something salty like olives or a bit of fried fish. Then it starts to make sense – if you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself in a little sherry bar with the sea breeze blowing in.”
On his drive to continue working: “I think what makes you good in any industry is tapping into your passion. When I started cooking professionally, it didn’t feel like a job. I didn’t count the hours or mind how little money I was making. I was on a path and I still am to this day. Retirement is for people that don’t like what they do – I’ll be doing this until I am in a wheelchair or with a cane.”
Current passion project: “In downtown Albuquerque, there’s a great place called the Hotel Andaluz. It looks like you are in southern Spain! I’m currently changing the existing restaurant and making it into one of my own, which I’m going to call ‘Mas.’ It’s going to be bigger than any of my existing restaurants and the menu will be very cutting edge, a total juxtaposition to the hotel itself. One of my favorite dishes that I’m working on is a duo of soups called salmorejo. It’s like a thicker version of gazpacho, a tomato and bread puree. One will be very traditional, topped with a scoop of cold, chopping jamón Serrano and egg. That will be paired with a modern version on the same plate – a puree of sweet peas, mint and bread stopped with a bit of house-smoked New Mexico trout.”