In the movie version of the Violet Crown Cinema’s restaurant story, Daniel Grimaldo’s the star: the reluctant hero with just the right mix of experience, skills and calm leadership needed to save the day.
“I was done cheffing,” said Grimaldo, 41, with a chuckle. He’d led the kitchen at Junction (now Boxcar) and at Creole Nouvelle in Los Alamos. But he left all that behind in May 2015, when he took a less stressful gig as a line cook for the then-new Violet Crown cafe in Santa Fe.
Two months in, though, he was promoted to lead line cook; two months after that, he became sous chef.
Then in early 2018, Violet Crown’s original chef, Tim Lopez, departed. The ensuing scene was nothing less than cinematic: Grimaldo was summoned into a meeting only to find both the morning and night kitchen staff there, asking him to take over as chef.
He was the hero they needed — and the one they deserved.
Insert your favorite Stallone, Schwarzenegger or superhero epic moment here, and maybe a “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” line for good measure. But more than a year later, Grimaldo has had a chance to settle into his starring role, bringing fresh additions to the menu and with more on the way.
“Promoting Danny was one of the best moves our kitchen could have made,” said Violet Crown General Manager Peter Grendle. “He has, in a very short time, completely reinvigorated our offerings by adding flavor and attitude we never knew could exist, all while gifting our kitchen a calm, even-keeled vibe that is incredibly rare in our industry.”
Grimaldo’s calm demeanor is extra critical in a movie theater restaurant, where the chef must take into account a whole host of unusual considerations when plotting out everything from kitchen operations to the menus. That’s primarily because some diners want the full dining room experience, some are in a rush to eat before their show starts, and still others want to carry their food and drinks into the theater. So Grimaldo has to think about everything from blockbuster opening weekends to what sorts of foods are easily eaten in the dark.
Oh, and smells.
A seafood entree one row back, for instance, might ruin your Aquaman matinee. Grimaldo once recommended pulling the Brussels Sprouts dish — lightly fried with a sweet-and-savory complement of garlic, red onion, apple cider gastrique and optional bacon — from the menu precisely because of the smell factor, but loyal patrons missed the popular dish so much that the staff brought it back. Now, it’s even on the menu at the Violet Crown outpost in Austin, Texas.
Grimaldo tries to read early movie reviews to help gauge both the size of his crowd — and the demographics. For 2018’s The Incredibles 2, he added a mac-and-cheese pizza special for the crush of hungry kiddos. For the live-action Beauty and the Beast, customers could try the kitchen’s take on the iconic “gray stuff” — it’s delicious — chocolate mousse with Oreo pieces folded inside and topped with candied white pearls. The kitchen pumped out an endless supply of catchphrase chimichangas for the Deadpool movie.
And just as traditional restaurants can fall prey to the whims of bad weather and big events happening elsewhere in the city, Violet Crown also must deal with the ups and downs of the box office. Grimaldo remembers helping to order plenty of extra meal ingredients ahead of Batman v Superman — only for the film to flop.
“It’s a lot like chess strategy,” he said. “You never know, but you try to plan for what might happen.”
Part of the strategy is dealing with customers in a rush — Violet Crown’s website advises arriving at least 45 minutes before your show if you want to bring dishes in with you to the theater, but Grimaldo said customers frequently expect faster service. But food here is cooked from scratch: Pizzas are fired fresh in the oven, and even the hot dogs are boiled to order, not idling on a warmer. The grab-and-go options — such as wraps, spring rolls, hummus and desserts — that are sold alongside more traditional movie theater offerings such as popcorn and candy give the kitchen a bit of relief.
In addition to his inventive specials, the Grimaldo has been tweaking the restaurant’s menu, adding items — including the wraps and the now-popular Buffalo Wings with housemade blue cheese dressing — alongside a broad but refined menu of American and New Mexican small plates, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, salads, desserts and entrees, which the restaurant recommends eating at the table, not in the theater. He hopes to launch a revamped menu in January focusing more on tapas, finger foods and items that will pair with the restaurant’s impressive 46 taps of beer, wine and cider.
As Grimaldo helms the biggest kitchen of his career, with its staff of 25, business is only growing.
“It’s been getting busier,” he said. “I think people are starting to realize it’s an actual restaurant, not just a movie theater.”
The marriage of the two, though, is a delight for Grimaldo, a movie fan whose favorite flicks include The Crow, Point Break and Forrest Gump. His own life has the whirlwind feel of an adventure movie, having been born in Germany as the son of an Army dad and moving around the U.S. as he grew up. He started his culinary career at 17 as a line cook with the Village Inn in Lawrence, Kan., working his way up during a seven-year stint with the company. A father of three, he’s been in Santa Fe for the past 13 years and loves watching scary movies with his youngest child, 11-year-old Athena — but not, as it turns out, in the Violet Crown theater all that often.
Even though he and other employees score plenty of free passes, the restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. That makes for a long workday.
He does, however, find time to participate in the area’s many culinary contests and celebrations. Recently, his burger was chosen as one of just 15 contenders in the Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, and he loves seeing repeat tasters stop by his table at the annual Wine & Chile Fiesta for just one more bite. The events, he said, are invigorating — so don’t expect to see Grimaldo saunter off into the sunset before the closing credits anytime soon.
“That’s why I do this,” he said. “It makes you so proud when you’re seeing people coming back for more.”
IF YOU GO
What: Violet Crown Cinema
When: 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Where: 1606 Alcaldesa St., Santa Fe
More info: Call 505-216-5678 or visit violetcrown.com