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The taste of success: Campo chef a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Being awarded James Beard Best Chef is similar to an actor winning an Academy Award.

It is one of the highest recognitions a chef can obtain.

Chef Jonathan Perno of Campo at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm is one step closer to being awarded that recognition. He has been named a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award. He is competing against a few other chefs in Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada. The winner will be announced in September.

Chef Jonathan Perno of Campo at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm is a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award. (Courtesy of Carlos Alejandro)

Perno has been a semi-finalist six times and said being named a finalist feels the same. To Perno being awarded James Beard Best Chef Southwest would be gratifying, but it is not everything.

“That would be nice and if not I’ll just keep moving forward because I know what we’re doing is in the right direction of the way I see this industry needing to evolve and change towards,” he said. “This industry is very wasteful, and I think that one of my driving factors is to not be part of that footprint that most businesses in this industry put out there.”

Perno believes the reason he was recognized is due to his focus on New Mexico.

“The reason why Beard is looking at us is we are committed to this state as a business,” he said. “Truly committed. We don’t put something on our menu and only have one item that’s local. This is not a negative toward local businesses. I just want to make that clear before I say what I’m going to say, but for these producers, meaning the small producers not national companies, rely on local businesses to support them.

“My goal and my hope is that with these efforts here these businesses can start to understand ‘Wow, I can buy some crops in large quantities from specific farms’ because those efforts from a business speak volumes from the producers of the product. What I’m teaching my team is it has nothing to do with us. What has to do with us is we carry the integrity from the producer into the kitchen and we take that same integrity and then we extend it to the guests that buy it at the final step.”

The goal is to showcase New Mexico producers and develop relationships with them, according to Perno. His goal is to encourage other restaurants to get product locally rather than out of state and create the smallest carbon footprint possible.

“The main focus of this business is stay home and that means stay in state first,” he said. “If we can’t find what we need within the state, then I’ll seek outside and those are the right steps, but we stay home first. The farm here on the property is first and foremost, no matter what’s going on around me, and then I reach out to my local producers, and use the La MontaƱita Co-op, their distribution center, to extend my reach through the food shed that we have, which is 300-plus miles in a radius. Albuquerque being the epicenter. I don’t use any national broadliners the co-op is my broadliner.”

It is important for Perno to learn about the product growing in the farm at Los Poblanos. He is currently researching a plant called cardoon on the property. When harvested he expects there will be about 300 pounds of the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.

“That’s just one item that we’re trying to manage on large scale,” he said. “We’re also are pulling ourselves away from more common plants that most of the general public recognize, and we’re focusing on more wild plants to learn to work with in the kitchen and present to people as menu items and actual foods, not just a pest in your yard like a weed or something. So we’re working on all those things.”

Being a leader is Perno’s purpose but he is not entitled.

“The whole premise of what I teach these guys is they have to find the joy in what they’re doing. It’s not for everybody and it is stressful and it is exhausting physically, mentally, emotionally, everything that you can exude out of a body. But I try to teach my team how to find patience in it and within the patience they find that the work actually becomes less, even though the work is still a lot of work, but the way we handle it as a group takes pressure off. … I’m just as accountable to everything that I ask my team to be accountable of so it’s not like I am above them. When it comes to work I keep my playing field very even no matter what the skill set is. We are equals. They all know I’m the chef. I don’t have to carry that card around. But when it comes to work we’re equals and there is no one better than the other. We all have to invest in each other.”

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