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Cook Jane Butel Has Built A Local Culinary Empire

By Susan Stiger
Of the Journal
      SPARE CHANGE: Today we travel back to the 1960s, when PNM handled only electricity — no gas. Home cooks were struggling to translate their gas-stove cooking skills to the new “cleaner, faster” electric. There was no Mexican food scene, no Southwest movement with big names like Diana Kennedy or Albuquerque hotshot Dave DeWitt.
       But there was Jane Butel. Jane Butel, PNM's home service director, proud holder of degrees in home economics and journalism, ambitious young woman who could do anything but sit down — unless it involved work. Utility customers put their names on waiting lists to take her free cooking classes — everything from Peachy Barbecue (made with Spam and canned peaches) to a more gourmet coq au vin, to, as PNM promised, “live better electrically.”
       “It was to make people feel warm and cozy toward the company and use more kilowatt hours,” Butel said.
       Today, she's got her own warm and cozy thing going — 18 cookbooks, 5 million in print, a cooking school celebrating its 25th anniversary, a 150-product line, a new online school and a soon-to-launch online magazine, among other ventures, like consulting. She has worked with Del Taco, El Torrito, Zona Rosa restaurant chains and with Luxury Hotels in New York, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere. Publishers' Weekly called her 14th book, “Jane Butel's Southwestern Cookbook,” “the bible of Southwest cooking.” In the fall, we can expect to see a more serious, expanded version of her 1980 “Chile Madness,” a book she did with Workman Publishing. The first one had about 37 chile recipes; this one will have 150.
       If her books earned her the rank of expert, her school — Jane Butel's Southwestern Cooking School — has elevated her to “personality,” somebody who could do concho-belt style, whip up a halibut with hot orange salsa, and explain the wonders of capsicum, all of it with a smile that only looks electric. She has a 30-segment cooking series, part of which has been shown on multiple PBS channels, having been produced at Houston's KUHT, the first public television station in the country. Her 2007 revenues reached $200,000.
       (By the way, while all that career-building was going on, most cooks went back to gas stoves. While she has gas at home — “It's what people expect” — Butel prefers the new electric stoves.)
       Companies looking for a less mushy morale-boost than the “retreat” send groups to take her team-building cooking classes. She's worked with hungry and curious co-workers from General Mills, Microsoft and Bosque School, eager to trade positions on the hierarchy and work on something else for a change. Visitors to Albuquerque, restaurateurs wanting to offer Southwest food, new residents, potential residents, these are the people who call Jane Butel for classes, either in her school in Broadbent Business Park or in her Corrales kitchen. Team-building classes cost $175 per person or $200 each if the group has more than 15 people. Weekend classes, which include three sessions, a dinner, breakfast, lunch and reception, as well as a cookbook, apron and diploma, cost $1,050. Weeklong classes are $1,995.
       “Most of them want the rustic, earthy chile flavor, the frontier cuisine of New Mexico,” she said. “I have tried to switch to innovative lighter fare, but what sells best is the traditional.”
       Innovation works in books, like her latest, “Real Women Eat Chiles.” It's a happy cross between chile's healthful aspects — like its calorie content — and profiles of women who love the pod. The new online school — “All About Chiles” — includes 40 lectures, chat room discussions, blogs, reference information, online time with Butel, how-tos, chile basics and recipes from regional Mexican to Tex-Mex to New Mexican. Everything from tacos to teas and infusions. At $499, the school isn't cheap, but Butel hinted that discounts are available, plus, participants receive $75 worth of her products, including “Real Women Eat Chiles,” four kinds of chile and more.
       Now, the name “Butel” doesn't bring to mind generations of Spanish descendants passing on the art of tortilla-making at a hot comal in the cucina. Butel's history looks more like this: Over eight years of her childhood, she spent a good deal of time with her wealthy Mexican aunt in Monterrey, a woman who'd graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
       “She taught me Spanish; I taught her English,” Butel said.
       And cooking, cooking, cooking. Butel was 2 or 3 when she ate her first chile; 4 or 5 when she learned to cook. On a heat scale of 1 to 10, she's happy with an 8. She's a third-generation home economist, a woman who was cooking for the family farm hands — on her own — when she was 10.
       “A hired man killed the chickens, but I plucked them and cut them up,” she said of a fried chicken and potatoes menu that may have been one of her first.
       “My mother did 24 of something every morning,” she remembered. “It might have been putting up quarts of strawberries, whatever. So I grew up knowing how to work.” Take those early PNM days. The switching-to-electric classes were her idea; so was her first book, “Cucina de New Mexico,” handed out free to people in the classes and written with her PNM staff. She was on to something bigger than she realized. At the same time home cooks were converting to the electric way, Albuquerque was growing like bindweed. Sandia and Los Alamos labs were expanding; Santa Fe was on its way to becoming Santa Fe.
       “People didn't know a tamale from an enchilada from a tortilla,” she said.
       “So I thought I'd write a book based on my grandmother's recipes.”
       “Cucina de New Mexico” would be the last book she'd write without her name on it and without pay other than her salary. The anonymous handout would later compete with cookbooks she did on her own.
       After her PNM years, she worked as a corporate marketing executive for Con Edison in New York City, GE in Louisville, Ky., and American Express in Manhattan. GE was getting complaints from people who'd bought $1,500 side-by-side refrigerator-freezers, but didn't know how to properly freeze food. When the company asked, “Why don't you write a freezer book?” she said, “The only way is if I write it on my own time, if it's my own product.”
       Lesson learned.