In the cramped kitchen of Santacafé, executive chef Fernando Ruiz quickly rolled four blue-corn chicken confit enchiladas and ladled red chile sauce over them. His kitchen staff moved smoothly around him.

“The secret is not to eat your own cooking,” Ruiz said with a grin. “I like to eat other chefs’ food, not a lot of mine.”

Still, his cooking earned him a spot on the 400th episode of Chopped in New York City. It airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, on the Food Network.

Chopped pits four chefs against each other as they vie to create the most delectable three-course meal out of whatever ingredients they are given. A year ago, Ruiz won another Food Network show, Guy’s Grocery Games.

Ruiz has been a sous chef or executive chef at other top restaurants in Santa Fe, including Rio Chama, La Boca and Inn of the Anasazi. He became executive chef at Santacafé, 231 Washington Ave., four years ago.

It’s a long way from the 10-foot-by-10-foot cell in an Arizona prison where he spent nearly three years for trafficking drugs and stolen guns.

“I spent my 21st birthday in jail, sitting in a cell with three other guys. I asked myself if this was what I really wanted or am I going to turn it around,” said Ruiz, now 39. “When I got out of jail, I went straight to culinary school in Scottsdale.

“I haven’t looked back. It just kept getting better and better. You can say food saved my life.”

Born in Phoenix and raised in Mexico, he grew up watching his mother and grandmother cooking, the rich smells of posole, menudo and barbacoa filling the air.

He said he wanted to be a priest. Instead, he was drawn to the gang life. Pretty soon he was running drugs and guns, living the high life with women, cars and lots of money. “I made life hell for my mom and dad,” Ruiz said.

Now Ruiz teaches cooking classes in Pojoaque and Española. Sometimes he feels like a hypocrite. “Basically, I’m telling those kids not to do the same things I did. The response I get is, ‘You turned out fine.’ But that’s because I made myself this person.”

He also understands now what it’s like to be a victim of crime.

A month after Ruiz won $14,000 on Guy’s Grocery Games, burglars broke into his home and stole iPads, high-end cameras, televisions, guns in a gun safe and his wife’s engagement ring. Ruiz had planned to use his prize money for a down payment on a house. He had worked hard, 14-hour days, six days a week. He said he thought briefly about returning to his old life of crime. “It’s so easy — easy money,” Ruiz said.

He didn’t. “I’d rather have my wife and my kids and my freedom than to do that again.”

So he took the prize money and replaced all of the possessions stolen from his wife and children.

“We’re back to square one,” he said.

His story of redemption comes with introspection.

“If I had saved all the money I made selling drugs, I would have two restaurants and a house. But I don’t know any drug dealers who get to retire,” he said.

He credits his wife, Michelle Romero, for keeping his feet in the kitchen and out of trouble. When he got discouraged in Española, she told him to apply to restaurants in Santa Fe. She’s the one who persuaded him to accept the spots on Guy’s Grocery Games and Chopped.

When they were robbed, she steadied him. “She’s my rock. She won’t give up on me, even when I give up on myself,” Ruiz said.

He also credits other chefs, including James Campbell Caruso, owner of La Boca, and Tom Kerpon of Ortiz Restaurant at the Hilton Santa Fe, for his successes. He said they mentored him over the years and taught him that the culinary world is like the French Foreign Legion. “It doesn’t matter where you are from, what your background is, what color you are. You’re accepted,” he said.

When Chopped airs Tuesday night, he’ll be sitting at the Santacafé bar with his parents, who flew in from Phoenix for the occasion.

“I asked my mom if she ever thought I would be doing what I’m doing.”

She broke down in tears. “She said ‘no.’ She’s so happy for me.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.


Santacafé executive chef Fernando Ruiz appears on Chopped on the Food Network at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1.

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