Chef Edgar Beas is playing with traditional indigenous cooking techniques and challenging the farmers and producers of New Mexico with his new take on Southwest flavors. Jen Murphy finds the taste (and crunch) irresistible
Photography by Douglas Merriam
Posole, carne adovada, green chile stew, enchiladas. Over the past few days I’ve been eating my way around Santa Fe trying to understand the essence of New Mexican cuisine. I’ve tasted chile in all imaginable forms and have eaten dozens of stuffed and smothered flour tortillas.
After dining at the city’s iconic tables and hot spots like Cafe Pasqual’s, Atrisco Cafe & Bar, Coyote Cafe and La Choza, I’ve finally pinpointed my problem with Southwest cooking. It’s missing texture. Melty, cheese-coated chile rellenos are the epitome of comfort food, but they’re also a bit mushy. Throughout my food crawl, I couldn’t help thinking that my dear denture-wearing grandmother would be in dining heaven. I craved a contrasting crunch.
When I share my observation with Edgar Beas, the young, dark-haired chef at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, he softly chuckles and nods. “Southwest flavors are distinct,” he says. “The textures — well, let’s call them subtle.” Beas arrived in Santa Fe in early 2016 to take over the renowned boutique hotel’s restaurant; his new menus — which fuse modern and old-world techniques with indigenous cooking practices and seasonal, native ingredients — shatter any preconceived notions of Southwest cuisine.
Having worked in Spain during the height of the molecular gastronomy movement, Beas knows a thing or two about playing with flavors and texture. He still keeps a few avant-garde tricks up the sleeves of his chef whites, like extracting melt-in-your-mouth chile threads from a $200,000 machine, but he largely believes molecular gastronomy is obsolete. “Chefs today are innovating by looking at what was being done hundreds of years ago,” he says.
Beas says his family’s Hispanic roots informed his respect for the tenets of indigenous cooking from a young age. He began researching native culinary traditions, like smoking and charring, as soon as he took the job. “A lot of what I’m doing in the kitchen is actually quite primitive,” he says. “I gather rocks and branches and play with smoke and fire.” The result, however, is way more refined than cave man cuisine.
I watch as Beas wanders the mountain trails near his Santa Fe home gathering juniper branches and stones. “The stones have to be flat but not porous, or they’ll absorb all of the flavor,” he explains. After the stones soak he covers them with branches and kneels to light a fire. Someone could easily mistake the setup for a Boy Scouts wilderness survival workshop. Beas places a half-dozen sunchokes atop the heated stones. Once their thick skins are nicely charred, he moves them to a pile of smoking branches to develop flavor and seals it in by poaching the sunchokes in stock.
Beas uses a similar technique to impart an earthy zing to meat and even oils. For example, he’ll fuel the restaurant’s smoker with locally foraged apple and juniper branches, and will place a metal container of olive oil inside so the oil takes on those flavors. Most chefs would simply drizzle the oil atop meat, but Beas gets creative, poaching egg yolks in the smoked oil and then serving them with a venison carpaccio. But he insists, the root of every technique is simplicity, not science. “We grind our own grains, like farro, just like native people have done for years,” he says.
Ingredients are at the heart of Beas’ cooking and having previously worked at Madera, the Michelin-starred restaurant at Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park, he’s had to adjust to seasonal availability. “California’s year-round growing season really spoils you,” he jokes. “I was a little skeptical about what I’d find in New Mexico, but I’ve really been surprised.”
He’s already developed relationships with more than 20 local farmers and foragers, and buys directly from them seasonally. “It was really important for me to reach out to the growers and express the kind of products I wanted,” he says. “I don’t think they’d been challenged like this before. It’s been exciting for both of us.” The heirloom tomatoes featured in a dish of house-cured pork belly, smoked yogurt, squash blossom, cherries and avocado come from Growing Opportunities, a hydroponic grower in Alcalde, 40 minutes north of Santa Fe. And Beas works with a forager out of Taos to source the local morels and piñones that accompany a dish of local lamb saddle.
The dining room at the Rosewood Inn of Anasazi is the perfect backdrop for Beas’ cooking. The intimate space was redesigned in 2015 and melds sophisticated touches like leather chairs and a sleek, backlit tequila bar with subtle nods to Southwestern and native heritage like stone walls and large murals by Santa Fe-based Navajo artist Armond Lara.
Each artisan-made plate displays a Jackson Pollock-esque presentation. Meat seems to play a supporting role rather than be the star. “I have a real love for produce,” Beas confides. “I find seasonal flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries more inspiring. There’s so much variety to experiment with. Last spring, I found six types of cherries I’d never worked with before.”
Santa Fe’s ubiquitous chile is used sparingly, appearing as super-fine threads atop a bowl of venison tortellini and melted leeks. A decadent bite of seared foie gras with candied fig brings a smile to my face. There’s that crunch I’ve been seeking. I look to chef for an explanation. “I’ve been toying with puffed grains,” he says. Toss quinoa in the fryer and the result is a Rice Krispies-like snap, crackle, pop on the plate. “I believe that when you eat, you should get an explosion of flavor from every bite,” he says. “No one wants to eat mush. Sometimes texture is restrained, like finishing meat with very coarse salt, and sometimes it’s surprising, like biting into puffed quinoa with your foie.”