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Full Circle: Silver City native helms restaurants in El Paso’s $78 million Plaza Hotel

Plaza Hotel Executive Chef Andres Padilla prepares a plate during Ambar restaurant’s first dinner service June 17. (Silver City Daily Press)

El Paso has long been a magnet for enterprising New Mexicans, and the city’s central plaza is fronted by the just-reopened Plaza Hotel, originally opened in 1930 as one of the first Hilton Hotels — a chain founded by San Antonio, N.M., native Conrad Hilton.

After changing hands and names, the 19-story building, which was once the tallest building in El Paso, sat vacant from the 1980s until last week, when the hotel reopened after years of renovation by businessman Paul Foster — himself a native of Lovington, N.M. Foster, the former owner of Western Refining, poured $78 million into the renovations, including 130 hotel rooms, a ballroom and meeting facilities, a ground floor bar and restaurant and another on the rooftop, in the former penthouse suite that was once home to movie star Elizabeth Taylor.

But when it came to opening the doors and beginning to make those millions back, Foster and his management team faced the difficult task of attracting a world-class chef to their facility. Perhaps it was no surprise that they ended up turning to a New Mexican — this time, one from Grant County.

“We were lucky enough to get him,” said Plaza Hotel General Manager Wolfgang Jonas, who hired on Executive Chef Andres Padilla to open and run the hotel’s kitchens. “I just want to make sure to say that we were fortunate — and I tell him every day.”

Padilla grew up in Silver City, and graduated from Silver High School in 1999 before studying hospitality management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. After graduating from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, he worked his way up in a Phoenix-area restaurant before making a sudden move to Chicago.

“I left an executive sous chef position in Phoenix and Scottsdale of a hotel, I was like 24, making amazing, at the time, it was like $38,000 a year — but I was like, ‘This is amazing money as a young, single guy,'” Padilla said. “I was dating a girl, and she was like, let’s move. I was like, all right, that’s great.”

He worked for about a year as a restaurant line cook in Chicago before seeing an ad for a sous chef at Topolobampo — famed chef Rick Bayless’ second restaurant in the city.

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to get hired, but I’ll try,'” Padilla said. “So I sent my résumé, got an interview, had a 15 minute interview with Rick. … And I was like, ‘Wow, that went horrible.’ It was worth a shot, though.”

Padilla’s phone rang later that day, however, and Bayless invited him to the kitchen for a stage, pronounced “STA-zhe” — “basically, like a working interview — go work a service,” Padilla said. “It’s for both sides. It’s to see how you work, and see how you work with them. You can’t really do a great job, because you don’t know the menus and everything, but it’s mostly just to kind of see how you fit.”

Padilla was ultimately hired by the restaurant, and over the next decade, he worked his way up to culinary director of Bayless’ group of a half-dozen different Chicago-area restaurants, as well as an airport location and several locations inside Macy’s department stores.

During Padilla’s tenure with the restaurants, the Bayless empire continued to shine. He was promoted to chef de cuisine of Topolobampo just after it was awarded a coveted Michelin star, which the restaurant maintains to this day. He was specifically called out in a 2014 four-star review of the restaurant by Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel, who cited what he called Padilla’s “triumphs of technique and scholarship that stimulate the mind as much as they do the palate.”

He also met his wife, a Chicagoan, bought a house and began a family, all the while adding more to his plate at work.

Bayless “was like my mentor. I worked for him for 12 years as a chef,” Padilla said. “I mean, that’s an eternity to having been all over the world, cooking all over Mexico. I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Europe. I’ve been everywhere. And guess where I am? I’m right back home.

“It’s funny. I could have died, died to get out of there,” he continued. “I’m not technically back in Grant County, but, I mean, I’m so close. I have to have a little bit of city in me — just a little bit — but you know what, my time at home now with my parents and going to Silver City is priceless, and being able to be happy about that.

“I couldn’t ask for a better life, you know, and then, it’s so funny how I ended up right back at home,” he said. “It’s all about that full circle.”

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