Chef's love of food and love for northern NM inspired him to open his own restaurant - Albuquerque Journal

Chef’s love of food and love for northern NM inspired him to open his own restaurant

Chef and owner Kenneth Varela sits at the bar in his restaurant, Ken’Z Cuisine in Española. (Mike Sandoval/For the Journal)

The days pass quickly for Kenneth J. Varela as he strikes a balance work and home life.

A typical day begins with Varela waking up and caring for his 91-year-old mother – who lives with him and is blind and deaf.

While he’s at home, his assistant is prepping the food for another full day at Ken’Z Cuisine in Española.

He arrives at the restaurant around 2 p.m. and the work truly begins.

“We make everything from scratch, so it takes a lot of time,” Varela says. “It’s important that I keep the quality of food at a high standard.”

Varela opened Ken’Z Cuisine about four years ago.

In 2020, Ken’Z Cuisine relocated to the space inside Blue Heron Brewing Co. in Española and took over their kitchen area.

Chef and owner Kenneth Varela prepares a dish in his kitchen at Ken’Z Cuisine in Española. (Mike Sandoval/For the Journal)

Then the pandemic came and small businesses were hit hard.

“We went through COVID and I sold cupcakes and carry out pizza,” he says. “It was a really rough time.”

Varela knew that he would do anything to keep his restaurant afloat.

It has been a dream of his since he was a child.

“I’m 53 now and I grew up watching Julia Child on Sunday mornings,” he says. “I was always interested in cooking and back in those days, there weren’t that many channels. Julia Child captivated me with her cooking show. That was the first point of inspiration for me.”

Varela was born in Española, but raised in Ojo Caliente.

Growing up in a small, rural area helped shape him.

“My first job was at McDonald’s,” he says. “That’s where I learned my basics of cooking, as well as the cleanliness and the fast-paced environment of the food industry.”

After high school, he enrolled in college and began studying business administration.

Yet, the restaurant world kept calling.

Assistant chef and co-owner Eric Jackson helps plate a dish in the kitchen at Ken’Z Cuisine in Española. (Mike Sandoval/for the Journal)

He got a job with a friend, who was converting an old restaurant into an upscale one.

“I learned through all my various jobs of working in the kitchen,” he says. “With each job, I took the time to learn from some of the great chefs. I’m constantly a student when it comes to creating.”

There were times during his career, Varela stepped away from the kitchen to the front of house – sometimes waiting tables at the likes of El Paragua or Anthony’s at the Delta in northern New Mexico.

In the 1990s, Varela was hired by Red Rooster Pizzeria in Pojoaque to be a chef.

This is where he learned under Ray Crena how to create Italian dishes.

Years passed and he moved onto La Strada in Española for five years before the owners moved the restaurant to Taos.

“I didn’t want to commute,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve always wanted to remain in my community and give back to them.”

Varela eventually ended up at Rancho de San Juan, which was a return to upscale cuisine.

“This is where I learned to do more French and Italian cuisine,” he says. “There were nights we did Greek cuisine. We used to change up the menu about every week. This is where I refined my fine dining skills.”

After the restaurant closed, Varela moved to managing El Paragua Restaurant and learned more about the front end of a restaurant.

“I always wanted to open a restaurant and this job helped push me into that direction,” he says. “I began to look for a space where I could create. I wanted a simple restaurant or a bistro.”

In the winter of 2017, Varela learned that the space that used to house Anthony’s at the Delta was up for lease.

He knew the space had a long history and was revered in northern New Mexico.

“I looked into and figured out a way to lease it and get started,” he says. “My goal has always been to bring diversity to Española and give back to the community that raised me.”

By July 2018, he was up and running in the new space.

Though one realization became apparent – it was too expensive.

This is when Blue Heron Brewing was looking for some help. It was the perfect transition for Varela. It was one that kept his dream alive.

“I worked all my life for someone else,” he says. “I had just turned 50 and for the first time in my life, it was my restaurant. I wasn’t going to let that go.”

Later this spring, Varela and his now co-owner and chef Eric Jackson will take over all the space from Blue Heron Brewery.

“I know that we’re a hidden gem,” Varela says. “I’m working on a website as well as using Facebook to keep the word out about the restaurant. I’m a people person and my goal is to make people happy through food. I want to expose people to a variety of different food. I mean we have a chicharron with green chile pizza. That’s as northern New Mexico as you can get.”

Chicken Piccata Pasta, prepared by chef Kenneth Varela is a favorite at Ken’Z Cuisine in Española. (Mike Sandoval/for the Journal)

Chicken Piccata Pasta

Yield 1 serving.

1 chicken breast, halved and pounded thin

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

1-1 ½ cups white wine (Varela recommends La Chiripada chardonnay)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon capers

1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley chopped

5 ounces of cooked linguini pasta

Salt and pepper

Flour (to lightly flour the chicken)

Heat skillet to medium-high heat and then add butter.

Lightly flour the chicken breast and then season with salt and pepper. Saute on each side until golden brown.

Add chopped garlic and saute lightly without over toasting the garlic.

Deglaze chicken and garlic with the white wine until alcohol evaporates (no flames).

Add capers and let simmer until sauce lightly thickens. Add lemon juice.

Place cooked, heated pasta on plate and place chicken breast over the top. Pour sauce over the chicken and pasta.

Garnish with fresh Italian parsley and a lemon wedge. Serve with a side of your favorite vegetables.

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