SANTA FE, N.M. — Foodies visit Santa Fe with their restaurant choices charted like a treasure hunt.
Tourists may not make their debut visit here for the cuisine, but once they get a taste, it usually shoots to the top of their to-do menu.
“I guarantee you there are lots of people who come back just for the food,” Rocky Durham, executive chef and Santa Fe Culinary Academy co-founder, said. “They have their dining schedule mapped out.”
In fact, the food spot on the New Mexico Tourism and Travel website has become the target of more hits than any other subject, said Steve Cantrell, Department of Cultural Affairs public relations manager.
Next weekend’s FUZE.SW aims to highlight those flavors with the city’s first-ever food conference.
Cantrell’s brainchild, the event was inspired by the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition “New World Cuisine.” Panel discussions and speakers will explore New Mexican pollination of foods around the globe.
“I thought, ‘We need to tell this story, but not just in a gallery,’ ” Cantrell said. “It’s very ambitious, and probably I should have been medicated,” he added with a laugh.
Organizers modeled FUZE.SW after a similar regional celebration called the Southern Foodways Alliance, hosted by the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Attendance to that event is limited to encourage personal interaction and preserve food quality.
FUZE.SW is being planned as an annual event, Cantrell said. Next year’s celebration is slated for the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, concentrating on native cuisine. The following year, it will shift to the New Mexico History Museum, where the focus will shine on chuckwagon chow.
At $250 per person, the price isn’t for everyone, he acknowledged.
“It is a very targeted audience,” he said. “I’m looking to sell about 125 tickets.”
He has already sold 75, of which half are from out of state; the rest are from New Mexico, concentrated in the Santa Fe area.
“People have said that” the tickets are expensive, Cantrell conceded, “but you are getting breakfast and lunch, along with food tastings, the opening night party and Santa Fe Spirits tastings. It’s a who’s who of the culinary world.”
The three-day event is spiced with the folklore and customs that blended to create the area’s uniquely New Mexican traditions. Guests can wind through a series of talks, panel discussions and breakout sessions while sampling an array of foods, including mate and tapas, a burrito bar, New Mexican gin and wines, and gorge on the full flavors of the state. The Santa Fe restaurants Taberna, La Boca, the Inn of the Anasazi and Restaurant Martín will offer menu selections.
Dinners are on your own. But the guests include John Sedlar, co-founder of the Coyote Cafe and now a Los Angeles restaurateur, James Beard Award-winner Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín, seven-time James Beard Award authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison, James Campbell Caruso of La Boca and Taberna, Juan José Bochenskí of the Inn of the Anasazi, Andrew Cooper, chef at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado, and – most famously – Maricel Presilla, another James Beard winner for her 2013 book “Gran Cocina Latina” and a White House guest chef.
“When she goes (on tour), she speaks to thousands of people,” Cantrell said. At FUZE.SW, “they can get up close and personal, and talk to her.”
To kick off the festivities, the Jamisons will lead an optional traditional New Mexican holiday fare class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking on Friday from noon to 3 p.m. Priced at $85, the menu incorporates carne adovada, “Ensalada de Noche Buena,” a Christmas Eve salad, posole, biscochitos and natillas.
“They get a whole meal out of it,” Cheryl Jamison said.
Co-author of more than a dozen cookbooks, Cheryl Jamison will lead a panel discussion on “The Stories Cookbooks Tell” at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
The state’s first regional cookbook was written by Alice Stevens Tipton in 1916, and published by the New Mexico Land Office, she said.
“It had an approach that was about a million years ahead of its time,” she explained. “It was so proud of New Mexico and so proud of the foods grown here.”
For the Jamisons, New Mexican food draws its uniqueness from local ingredients packed with deep flavors.
“It’s so of-the-earth in so many respects,” Cheryl said. “What could be better than green and red chile? It has such history and substance.”
The Santa Fe Culinary Academy’s Durham is one of the panel moderators and chefs, leading a Friday night reception from 5-7 p.m. as diners sample the school’s canapés.
Like all things American, New Mexico cuisine began with its Native people. But Durham says its roots spread well beyond our borders and at least one ocean.
“In my humble opinion, the Native American contribution to global cuisine is the most essential, no question,” he said.
A litany of native foods has spread well beyond the U.S.: tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, beans and vanilla.
“These are exclusively indigenous to the New World,” Durham said. “There are few cultures anywhere that really embrace that ancient style and we do here in New Mexico.”
FUZE.SW’s debate panels will cover some hot topics: northern vs. southern New Mexico chile, as well as the merits of the now notorious Frito pie, no thanks to Anthony Bourdain, with Durham as moderator. The TV chef kindled a blaze of controversy when he publicly dissed Santa Fe’s favorite Plaza dish on a recent show.
“At first, when I heard his remarks, I was offended,” said Durham, a Santa Fe native who remembers ambling into Woolworth’s as a boy in search of his favorite, drippy, fat-laden and calorie-drenched meal.
Then, he watched the broadcast.
“I was expecting, ‘What is this crap?’ ” he continued. “But I thought, there will be people based on that program who will come to visit us. It wasn’t all disparaging.”
Creating the perfect Frito pie depends on several essential ingredients: first, you have to eat this sloppy, red-staining delight fresh from the Fritos bag.
“You can’t go without the bag and the cheapest, bend-y fork,” Durham said. “And very few paper napkins, preferably one. If you are having a Frito pie and a Five and Dime fountain drink, you should be completely incapacitated.”
For the benefit of FUZE.SW visitors, Durham may add his own creation; he calls it the Cheeto Pie. His version will include a gourmet touch through grass-fed New Mexico beef.
“When people ask, ‘Who invented it?’ there will be no question; it was me.”
FUZE.SW organizers invited Bourdain to the fest. So far, no word.