Like most kitchens at dinnertime, it’s a sea of contained chaos.
But in this seemingly free-for-all setting, chef Fernando Olea is the rock that separates the sea. At Sazón, he’s the boss.
You’ve probably heard of the restaurant, even if the name Oléa means nothing to you. That’s because Sazón garnered rave reviews in international lists such as Fodor’s Travel and Tripadvisor even before Olea, 71, received the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Southwest on June 5. at the Chicago ceremony.
On this summer day, nothing about the 30-year veteran of the Santa Fe restaurant scene suggests he’s feeling any pressure. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising element of Olea’s personality is not his humility – he peppers his speech with words like “lucky” and “fortunate” – but his meditative calm. Still, the executive chef is more than busy.
“You know, I coordinate the whole operation. I develop my recipes. I watch the band in my kitchen, the front of the house, the bar, everything. I am ready to intervene for whatever is necessary. It is no different from the captain of a ship. I try to train people for different positions so that they are able to cover the needs of the company with or without me. »
Last year, Olea spent the holidays with her family. He doesn’t remember the last time this happened.
As you climb the narrow stairs, the sounds of silverware on the plates and the chatter of the dining room fade away. Olea takes a seat at her desk. There are few testimonies of his life in restaurants. No personal photo on his desk. No sign, in fact, that anyone had visited the room in weeks.
“The secret in a restaurant isn’t how good or bad you are,” says Olea. “The secret in a restaurant is how consistent you are. Often times, laid back places are very successful because they are cohesive. And there’s nothing worse than going somewhere, and today is fine, but tomorrow isn’t good. You don’t build a clientele like that.
On a balmy July night, a breeze wafts into Sazón’s kitchen from an open door overlooking Shelby Street. A single pedestrian passes, unaware of the commotion just 25 meters away.
Cans of sauces are the first thing you see when entering the kitchen, which is little bigger than a one-car garage. That’s no surprise, given that mole — a sauce used in some Mexican cuisines made with ground red chili — is one of Olea’s specialties. And don’t suggest to Olea that the mole is made with chocolate because he’s on a crusade to correct that little sauce misconception. It’s not chocolate-based, he says, leaning in to make his point. It’s essentially the non-condimental cousin of salsa. Salsa is added to a complete meal, while mole is part of it.
In a way at least, Sazón’s cuisine is larger than life: the salsa that is served in small containers on tables is always in large tubs. A 50 pound bag of jasmine rice is waiting to be opened. Two 7-foot-tall refrigerators dominate the proceedings. And there is a sound like a distant waterfall which is, in fact, employees washing their hands.
Above their heads, the ceiling is painted gold, suggesting sunlight.
Olea is dressed simply, in jeans, a chef’s shirt bearing his name and a white apron at the waist. He stands by the dining room door. Above the din of the kitchen, he offers a simple explanation of the scene in his taciturn way.
“Everyone is working all the time.”
road to success
Olea, who was born and raised in Mexico City, previously owned Bert’s Burger Bowl and Epazote on the Hillside, both of which have since closed.
In a 2014 Bert’s review, the Santa Fe New Mexican wrote: “With a little imagination, the experience becomes something akin to time travel, taking you back to your first burger, enjoyed probably long before you were old enough to drive. “
Olea kept the name Bert after buying the burger, even though he knew well-meaning customers would call him “Bert”. Sazón is his creation, but he’s not interested in seeing “Olea” in big letters above the entrance.
Olea met his now ex-wife, Debra, in Mazatlan. Then they moved to his hometown of Minneapolis in 1983 and in 1991 to Santa Fe. Although Mexico City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, there wasn’t much diversity in the cuisines at the time, says Olea. He was therefore unfamiliar with French, Asian or Italian flavors growing up, but has since rectified this on trips abroad.
An example of the chef’s convergence of flavors: the first item on Sazón’s menu is the Camaron-Tini, described as a colossal white shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico served in a light, crispy batter with a sweet Thai chili aioli.
For Olea, Sazón is a magic word with multiple meanings. This translates to “seasonings” in Spanish.
“But the real meaning of the word sazón in Spanish is that personal touch that … means that you are good at something, or that you can do something well.”
Flavors aren’t Sazón’s only personal touch. The restaurant is colorfully decorated; those waiting for a table are seated on a tile-covered bench, with artwork visible in almost every direction, including upwards, where lamps of various shapes and designs hang overhead.
Service and Inspiration
Sazón’s reputation has made it a tourist attraction. Olea estimates that they represent 70% of its clientele. He is unequivocal about what he considers his audience.
“What we serve in Sazón is not [just] made for American palates. It is made for all palates in the world. I incorporate flavors from all cultures of the world into my cooking. That way, my cooking isn’t what you would call 100% “Mexican” or “authentic” or, you know, those words that are used so much. »
Inspiration for possible flavor combinations can arise at any time, says Olea.
“Sometimes I fall asleep with an idea. Then I can’t wait to be at the restaurant to start assembling ingredients.
Olea usually shows up in Sazón in the early afternoon. Like many people, he is having dinner as his day draws to a close. Unlike most, dinner time is between 11pm and 2am.
Lawrence Becerra, co-owner of Sazón, says he met Olea 15 years ago, when the chef owned Epazote on the Hillside – where he also experimented with mole in dishes. Olea was an attractive business partner for several reasons, says Becerra, who also co-owns Sassella in Santa Fe.
“Having lived in Mexico City for a while, I know good Mexican food. Fernando’s food was the real deal,” he says in a text from London. “I also loved how he interacted with people. He visited every table, making sure they had a great experience.”
Sazón’s menu doesn’t rotate, which helps with the consistency of the food, says Olea.
“You know, there’s nothing more disappointing than going to a restaurant, and when you come back another season, you don’t find something you really enjoy.”
That said, the ingredients are unpredictable, says Olea. For example, chili peppers are a key ingredient in Sazón and can be hot or mild, depending on the season. Luckily, Olea has a finely tuned flavor detector: its tongue. This comes in handy, especially for dishes that specifically list the spice as an ingredient, like Xochimilco corn truffle on mini tortillas and Popocatepetl angus beef tenderloin.
Also unpredictable: local food supplies. Due to supply shortages, Olea says, he sometimes has to shop elsewhere.
“The droughts we have in New Mexico are affecting everything [ingredient] it’s high risk. But at the same time, we’re so lucky in the United States that even though we have seasons for some things, most things are available year-round. If we can’t find it here locally, we find it in Florida, we find it in California, or we have other sources.
COVID-19 uncertainty may no longer be a priority for diners, but it continues to upset restaurant owners and operators. “Before COVID, we knew what we were going to get and when we were going to get it. Nowadays, we don’t know. You know, some companies are understaffed, so they can’t hire – so I can’t sell their products.
Despite such challenges, Olea has no intention of backing down or slowing down. Asked what made him soar in the culinary world, Olea says he listens intently and doesn’t lack inspiration. He rejects any mention of “hard work”.
“You know, I don’t work,” he said. “I come and do what I love to do. “Work” is not a word I apply to myself.
He has simple advice for anyone pursuing a similar career path: inflexibility harms both a restaurant and its health. To stay flexible, you have to learn from failure, says Olea, without obsessing over it.
“Sometimes we don’t hit the mark. The important thing is to be there to try to rectify whatever is wrong. It’s nice to hear compliments that people love everything, but what really enriches us is knowing what we’re doing wrong, because we can fix our flaws.