Martín Rios has spent nearly four decades in the restaurant industry.
Of course, there have been plenty of peaks and valleys.
One thing he’s learned is to expect the curveballs that come his way.
The pandemic only added to those.
“It took me three months to get a dishwasher,” Rios says. “It’s been five months to hire two line cooks. But we keep moving forward.”
The Santa Fe-based chef is the driving force behind Restaurant Martín, which has been in operation for 12 years. It is located at 526 Galisteo St. in Santa Fe.
Rios and his wife, Jennifer, own the restaurant and have worked tirelessly to make the space a destination.
Over the years, Rios has earned many accolades.
His most recent is being named a finalist for Best Chef Southwest in the prestigious James Beard Awards. He is up against four other chefs – two of whom are also New Mexico-based.
It is his fourth time as a finalist and his 10th nomination overall.
The James Beard Awards, considered to be among the nation’s most prestigious honors, recognize exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.
The James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards were established in 1991 and are one of five separate recognition programs of the foundation.
“I’m very humbled that I’m still being nominated,” Rios says quietly. “It’s a great honor and the people out there can identify the hard work that we do. It’s a great thing and people love to talk about it. Honestly, if I win or don’t win, I have to come back to Santa Fe and continue what I do. I have to keep growing and continue down this path that I’ve built.”
Rios’ journey to an award-winning chef has been eventful.
He’s one of eight children and moved to Santa Fe at 14 from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his two younger siblings.
He was 17 or 18 when he started working in a restaurant as a dishwasher.
“I wanted to earn a little bit of money while I was in school,” he recalls. “I would wash dishes on the weekends.”
As time passed, Rios became inquisitive about the industry and the art behind creating dishes.
“Some of the chefs saw something in me,” he says. “They were teaching me the science of cooking. I started to understand the background and my imagination would run wild. It still does after all these years. I’m trying to always push myself forward.”
As he worked his way through restaurant and hotel kitchens, he also went to the Culinary Institute of America.
During his 37 years in the industry, Rios wakes up each morning and gives himself a challenge.
He’s grown into a chef that takes chances, all while remaining a student willing to learn.
“I’ve been able to learn from doing research online and talking to colleagues,” he says. “If I have a special event to travel, it’s an opportunity to pick up an idea. That one idea can develop into 100 ideas.”
Each day he has off from work, Rios gives himself an hour or two to research what other chefs are doing, as well as, what’s new in the industry.
“I’m pretty much the student every day,” he says. “I know that there’s so much more to learn. I need to continue to grow as a chef and as I grow, my crew keeps growing. It’s a cycle of wisdom.”
Rios is looking forward to getting back to travel the world doing culinary demonstrations.
“I always bring my New Mexico ingredients with me,” he says. “I want people to understand what chiles are. I create dishes that are modern and have some creative chemistry.”
He’d also likes to travel just for fun – something that he hasn’t been able to do for three years.
“I enjoy going to other great restaurants around the country,” he says. “I couldn’t travel because I’ve been so busy here to maintain the daily business of the restaurant.”
A silver lining to it all is that Rios’ profile in the industry garners him apprentices.
“I’ve had a good amount here helping me and learning,” he says. “They spend two to three months with us. We’re able to pretty much teach them what the real world going to be about. You’d be amazed at how each one takes it all seriously.”
A routine day for Rios is made of nearly anywhere from 12 to 14 hours at the restaurant.
After spending half a day creating edible masterpieces for guests, Rios chooses simplicity for his own meals.
“I’ll get a piece of chicken and grill it,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about a sauce or texture. I’ll also make some broccoli with it. At the end of the day and a lot of learning, I want something simple.”
Rios shares his recipe for Chilled Spring Pea Soup.
He says it’s a favorite with his guests at the restaurant.
“Part of my personal enthusiasm for it stems from the way it brings to life so much of my early summer garden – peas, pea shoots, mint and radishes,” he says. “It’s an emerald-green beauty, and can be served on its own, sans accoutrements, for a simple meal. Typically though, I enhance it in various ways. Crabmeat sounds – and is – luxurious, but you only need a small spoonful per bowl to really up the ‘wow’ factor. You could also substitute for the crab a couple of chubby, cooked shrimp.”
Chilled Spring Pea Soup (Garnished with Shaved Radish and Mint)
½ cup packed fresh mint leaves
¼ cup packed spinach leaves
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 small leek, white and very light green portions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
1 pound fresh sugar snap peas or other fresh peas with edible pods
4 cups vegetable stock, chilled
3 tablespoons plain full-fat Greek yogurt
Kosher salt and ground white pepper
4 long mild radishes, such as French Breakfast radishes, thinly sliced lengthwise
Fresh mint sprigs or pea shoots or both
Prepare the soup. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Place the mint in a strainer and dunk into the water for 5 to 10 seconds. Remove and run cold water over the mint to set the color. Do the same with the spinach. Drain both mint and spinach on a paper towel.
Warm the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and add the leek, garlic, and ginger.
Sauté until the leek is softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Let the mixture cool briefly, then refrigerate until cold. (Having everything chilled before blending it into soup helps keep the color at its brightest.) Scrape the mixture into a blender with the remaining ingredients and puree. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve and refrigerate until needed.
Arrange four soup plates or broad soup bowls on a work surface. Make a pretty pattern of garnishes in each bowl. Dot each with a few radish slices, then scatter leaves or shoots over each. Pour the chilled soup into a pitcher. Pour equal portions of the soup into each bowl, pooling it around the garnishes until most are submerged.
Optional: This soup can be enhanced with cooked and chilled shrimp or crab meat.
Recipe from Martín Rios, Restaurant Martín
Editor’s note: Cocina Connection is a once-a-month feature that takes a behind-the-scenes look at a New Mexico-based chef, who, in turn, shares some recipes.