ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Phil Beltran is really looking forward to spending the holidays with his wife and family members this year.
As executive chef at the downtown Albuquerque Hyatt Regency, Beltran has missed many Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, many family weddings and funerals. He was the man in charge of the 20- to 30-strong kitchen crew that produced the memorable meals others enjoyed.
“It’s not an easy business. It takes up a lot of your time,” Beltran said. “When people are having a great time on weekends and nights, you’re working. That’s the kind of business this is.”
Beltran retired in October after 27 years with Hyatt hotels, mostly in and around his native Los Angeles. But he recalls the last eight years in Albuquerque as some of the best.
“Of all the hotels I’ve worked at, probably this hotel was the most rewarding because of all the people,” said Beltran.
His route to the top-ranked kitchen job started humbly, as a delivery driver for Coca-Cola. A five-year stint in the Navy, where he served on the USS Cowell and USS Hollister destroyers and spent time as a personal driver for a vice admiral, didn’t persuade him to follow a military career. He wanted to return to L.A. and Coca-Cola.
That’s when his brother-in-law suggested a partnership in a food truck business. In the six years he spent serving burgers and burritos to folks like workers building the Beverly Center shopping mall, he learned all about the punishing hours of the food industry.
“It’s a lotta, lotta work, seven days a week. If the truck doesn’t roll, it doesn’t make money. It’s a really, really tough business,” Beltran said.
Eventually his health suffered and the partners sold the truck and the business. At a loss for what to do, Beltran took his wife, Dolores Beltran’s, suggestion to use his Veterans Administration benefits to enroll in culinary school at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. Once on that road, he never looked back.
“It’s a great career. I think it was a wonderful thing for me. I’ve had a lot of fulfillment,” said Beltran.
While still a student, he began working at a busy Marriott hotel at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1989, armed with a degree in culinary arts, Beltran landed a job as a prep cook at a Hyatt hotel in downtown L.A.
“At the lower levels, you’re the guy that does all the chopping and cleanup. The stuff that sous chefs don’t want to do. You get good experience,” he said.
Over the years, Beltran worked his way up through Hyatt’s culinary hierarchy to become an executive chef. He’s planned and coordinated events for up to 1,200 guests. The toughest challenge was a banquet for 400 executive chefs from throughout the U.S. who attended the American Culinary Federations’s Western Region Conference in Albuquerque in 2010.
“That was probably the feather in my cap,” said Beltran.
Those who have worked with him say Beltran’s love for his profession has been reflected in the generosity he has shown to young people embarking on their culinary careers.
“He has been such an incredible mentor to anyone who has grown up in the chef community in Albuquerque. He’s just one of those guys who knows so much and is willing to share it,” said Kim Snitker, marketing director with Ben E. Keith Foods, a major food supplier to hotels and restaurants.
When Beltran was involved in food shows held by Ben E. Keith, Snitker said, he would always ensure that culinary students from Central New Mexico Community College took part so they could gain experience.
“He’s just a great guy with a total love of his art and educating other cooks,” said Linda Durand, catering manager at Slate Street Cafe. She previously worked with Beltran at the Hyatt.
She said Beltran was passionate about mariachi music and when elementary school groups from Los Angeles came to Albuquerque for mariachi competitions, he would invite them to his home for dinner.
Beltran attributes his own interest in cooking to the influence of his paternal grandparents who lived in the front part of the home where he grew up. His grandmother frequently invited him to dinner and he preferred her cooking to his mother’s.
“My mom was a really bad cook. I know she loved us all, but she wasn’t the best cook,” he said, laughing.
Meals with his grandparents were simple. He remembers his grandfather sitting down to a plate of beans, tortillas, a glass of wine and “really hot chile.” Beltran’s own tastes are similar, beans, tortillas and salsa made by his wife.
“It’s simple but it’s wonderful. It makes me very happy,” Beltran said.
Although born and raised in Los Angeles, Beltran had ties to New Mexico. His father was born in the former mining town of Gamerco, near Gallup. Beltran said his family regularly held matanza-style get-togethers where they would prepare meat and cook it in a pit dug in the backyard.
“I never realized then that it was a New Mexico tradition,” he said.
A knowledge of regional cuisine is a necessity for a chef because hotels respond to demand from tourists who often want to sample local dishes, he said. An executive chef’s duties include developing recipes and menus. The entrée menu at the Albuquerque Hyatt Regency’s Forque restaurant carries New Mexican influenced dishes such as “Red chile and agave glazed New York strip” and “Green chile piñon apple cobbler.”
Beltran credits the blessings he feels he has enjoyed in his work and marriage to his faith and the lessons he learned at a Catholic high school. Now that he has officially hung up his chef’s uniform, Beltran says he might do some teaching at CNM. Mostly, he’s looking forward to spending time with family, especially his wife of 37 years.
“She was the one who was the culinary widow all these years,” he said, “She is the one I have to thank the most for my career.”