Cherie Montoya was a nonprofit whiz, having worked at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and New Mexico AIDS Services, but she had no experience running a restaurant.
That, however, didn’t stop her.
Her award-winning Farm & Table restaurant is now 10 years old, and it’s going strong. So are the on-site farm that provides some of the menu’s produce and an adjacent gift store that’s rumored to have been a Camino Real stagecoach stop.
The most unexpected thing about plunging into the restaurant business?
“Every day, I feel like something’s breaking,” Montoya says. “Like big stuff. One of the fridges is not holding temperature, and that’s not a small thing. It needs to be taken care of right now. If something doesn’t break, something’s wrong. Especially after being here for 10 years.”
Montoya, who grew up near her North Valley business, leases 2 acres from the 12-acre lot her father bought years ago to prevent a proposed 40-house development on the property.
Montoya and her partner, Danny Lopez, have made the most of the rural view: The large patio dining area looks out on the farm, and there are separate elevated platforms with tables that are placed at the edge of the field — a holdover from the pandemic days when social distancing was the norm.
Montoya’s approach to Farm & Table is similar to some of the principles she learned while working at nonprofits. Those include sticking to your vision without “mission drift,” and building a team that can work together.
It was that team spirit that supported Montoya after a biking accident last winter, when she fell on her face and damaged a cranial nerve. Her vision in the injured eye might return some day, but in the meantime “there have been so many limitations.”
“The work is hard, but we have a team,” she says. “Especially with my accident, I feel like we have each other’s back, and that’s really comforting to know.”
It’s the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary. Has the business turned out as you envisioned?
“Yes, exactly. I was in the nonprofit world for so long, and in that world .. you don’t shift your vision around. It’s the golden rule. I just wish more for-profit businesses would live off of those philosophies, because it makes so much sense. So when you decide what you want to do, it’s precious. It’s not like, ‘I’ve got to make some money. How am I going to shift things up and make more money?’ It’s not like that at all. The essence of what it is, like any nonprofit, has to stay the same. You know where you’re going, and you honor it. So what we are today is exactly what we were 10 years ago, just better.”
And what is the vision?
“The vision is honoring … locally grown produce, everything from berries to nuts. We get pecans from Mesilla Valley, we get berries from Corrales, but also the protein as much as we can. There are a few ranchers who keep their proteins here in New Mexico. Of course, we can get things from other places, but it (the vision) is honoring where we are, our local economy. It’s highlighting our friends, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. It’s just awesome, and it’s delicious and it’s doable. It’s expensive, but that’s our thing.”
If it’s locally grown, why is it expensive?
“If you go to the farmers’ market, and you compare the price of the kale to the price of kale at Smith’s, it’s going to be about four times as much. Sometimes more. It’s more expensive because we’re not mass producing in terrible working conditions. We’re not making cheap food and spraying the heck out of it so it survives the thousands of miles it will have to travel to get to the grocery store. When you (support) hard-working, local people to grow food, it just costs more.”
What’s your favorite part of the job?
“I think it’s everything. It never feels like I’m going to work. It’s a beautiful space, the food is great. Once we open up and people start coming in — they’re celebrating an anniversary or birthday, or they’re bringing their friends in who are visiting from out of town. It’s a really cool vibe. I really love that.”
What are your plans for the business?
“When my last farmer (who rented the property) left, I decided to take the farm over myself and change the concept to a permaculture farm, which is focusing on the future instead of turning something immediately. This will be our third year. We’ve planted lots of different types of fruit trees and nut trees and berry bushes and lots of perennials. So this is long term.”
How do you spend your free time?
“I like to just walk along the ditches and acequias. And riding bikes, but obviously, I haven’t done that for awhile now. I like being outdoors, and my new thing that I have been doing is traveling to Chicago. My daughter is at the Art Institute there.”
What’s a difficult thing that you’ve learned from?
“You curate an idea. It’s this lovely idea — if it goes that way. But we all know things don’t always go that way all the time. There is a magazine called Edible. It’s about our restaurants and food professionals that are dedicated to local foods. So if I get an award from them, I think it’s so special. My chefs have gotten these best chef awards, and there’s this … thing that happens right after. They receive it, and they leave. So this has happened with every single chef. And every chef I’ve had, I adore them. I always miss them, but I don’t feel like a limb has been chopped off. I guess that’s the beauty of Farm & Table — that it’s never just one person. It’s such a collective.”
What are you most proud of?
“That we made it to 10 years. I’ve been the one person who’s been here from Day One to now. It’s been hard. I’m proud of just having a good reputation and being respected by my peers.”