Last Wednesday, Martín and Jennifer Rios sat down for lunch in the lovely patio of their restaurant and did something they haven’t done in years.
Well, not strictly speaking — this is the restaurant business, after all, and so Martín still popped up to work with the stove repairman in the kitchen, and Jennifer had to hand a check to the seafood delivery person. But they didn’t need to field questions from the staff or handle calls from beverage reps or deal with the hundreds of bits of daily business that Jennifer refers to as the “minutiae” of their busy jobs running Restaurant Martín.
That’s because, on the heels of celebrating the lauded Santa Fe restaurant’s 10th anniversary since it opened at the corner of Galisteo Street and Paseo de Peralta, chef and owner Martín Rios and owner Jennifer Rios decided to end their popular lunch and Sunday brunch services.
“I think we’ve done a very good job of maintaining excellence in what we do, but it’s been running the treadmill, holding on to the handles,” Jennifer Rios said, sitting with Martín at a table in their airy, elegant dining room. “When we sat outside and had lunch, I said to Martín, ‘Any other week we would have had a hard time finding the time to sit down eyeball to eyeball and discuss things conceptually.’ ”
And that’s the more important part of that lunch together, something that’s the driving factor behind the decision to focus solely on dinner: They had a chance to talk, to plan and to imagine.
Eliminating the grind of the Tuesday through Friday lunch service gives the couple time to think big about their next steps — and gives Martín space to focus and explore his creativity.
“He is an incredibly creative chef, and when he has to come up with his menu changes between 10:30 at night and 1:30 in the morning, it’s not that he’s any less creative, but he’s depleted,” said Jennifer, who with Martín will celebrate 24 years of marriage in November.
Added Martín: “This restaurant needs time for a chef to be able to create in order to continue moving us forward. But when you’re running around day in and day out, it’s very difficult. You just don’t want to be just another restaurant chef or just another restaurant. You want to be able to continue setting those high standards.”
More creativity from Martín Rios? That’s saying something for a chef who nearly never does anything the same way twice. In fact, there are just two recipes from the restaurant’s expansive 2015 cookbook that remain on the menu unchanged: the molten chocolate cake and the truffled orzo mac and cheese, made with a decadent blend of marscapone, asadero and ricotta cheeses.
In short, Jennifer Rios said, Restaurant Martín is not a laminated-menu sort of place, because Martín is not a laminated-menu sort of chef.
“When I go certain places, I’m going to get the A65, and that’s why I’m going there. That is never who Martín has been,” she said. “He’s going to do scallops — we’ve had scallops 20 times or more on our menu — but never the same dish. He never looks back.”
The specifics of what comes next for one of Santa Fe’s most celebrated restaurants are vague — but only because the range of possibilities is so broad. They’re planning to refresh the physical space, but other changes could range from special menus to special-occasion events to “doing things Santa Fe has never seen” in terms of food, presentation and service, the couple said.
Martín Rios has spent the past year amassing research culled from sites around the web and restaurants around the world. He’s ready to put some of that inspiration into practice.
“My goal is to continue bringing something fun and entertaining, for customers to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this.’ That’s where we’re going to go.”
Expectations already are high for Martín, who has been a Best Chef semifinalist eight times in the prestigious James Beard awards. Although they’re grateful for the accolades, which have earned the restaurant and its chef a reputation for destination dining, Jennifer Rios admitted coming so close so many times has been bittersweet.
“It has been such an honor to be on that list for so long, but for sure it’s our greatest heartbreak professionally,” she said. The six-state Southwest category pits New Mexico against Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah and culinary behemoth Texas. Starting next year, Texas will be in its own category, Colorado moves into another region, and Nevada (and its celebrity Vegas chefs) will be added to the Southwest region.
The upper-echelon losses sting especially given Martín’s background, she said. One of eight children, he came to Santa Fe at age 14 from Guadalajara, Mexico, along with his two younger siblings. He started out as a dishwasher, working his way through restaurant and hotel kitchens and the Culinary Institute of America.
“He’s had nothing handed to him,” said Jennifer Rios, a Georgetown University graduate who met Martín during a training rotation in hotel management at Eldorado Hotel & Spa, where he was executive chef. The couple has been refining their vision of the accessible, progressive American cuisine presented at Restaurant Martín for years.
“Working in hotels, there was a certain freedom, but there was a limit you can get to. But here, it’s 120 percent freedom,” Martín Rios said. “I’m expressing myself the way that I like to, whether I bring a little of my childhood into the dishes, whether I bring some of the fun, whether I bring some of the seriousness into my dishes — but it’s me, I’m not restrained. Not many chefs have this kind of freedom.”
Martín delivers with a combination of humbleness (his words) and almost impossibly high standards (hers). Jennifer had T-shirts made up for the 10-year anniversary that feature the phrase, “An artist whose medium is food” — and though for her it’s the perfect encapsulation of their philosophy, he felt uncomfortable wearing a shirt singing his praises.
After all, he’s on a constant mission of reinvention.
“For us, the thrill and the challenge of having a restaurant isn’t just coming to work and delivering a consistent, great product,” Jennifer Rios said. “It’s about every day being better than we were the day before, about how we breathe new life in on a daily basis. The point of coming here is to see what’s new and exciting.”
As the couple nears a quarter-century of marriage and celebrates 10 years of their restaurant’s success, they’ve become empty nesters, too: Daughters Emma, 22, graduated from Skidmore College and Anneliese, 18, is a freshman at Lehigh University. Jennifer also is president of the board of The Horse Shelter, New Mexico’s largest rescue group for abandoned, abused and neglected horses, carrying on the legacy of her mother, who died in 2004 after founding the organization.
It’s a fitting crossroads for rediscovering the sense of joy in running the restaurant, said the self-professed workaholics, as well as refocusing their energies in as meaningful a way as possible.
“It feels like a new beginning, a new chapter,” Jennifer Rios said. “I don’t know what chapter, but the next chapter for the Rioses and for Restaurant Martín, too.”
IF YOU GO
What: Restaurant Martín
When: 5:30 p.m. to close Tuesday through Sunday
Where: 526 Galisteo St., Santa Fe
More info: Visit restaurantmartin.com or call 505-820-0919