Cristina Martinez felt the pull of the kitchen early on. The new executive chef at El MonteSagrado Resort & Spa has been cooking for about 17 years.
"My mom used to cook for many church groups and I started helping her when I was very young," said Martinez, 34. "I opened my own catering company at 18 years of age. I have always loved food."
She attended Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Pasadena, California, and graduated in 2006 with honors.
"When I finished school, I was at a crossroads," she said. "I didn't know if I should stay in California to advance my career, but finally decided to return home. This is where I belong."
Martinez's heritage goes far back in New Mexico.
"My family on both sides has been here for several generations," she said. "My maternal grandparents owned many acres of land and an orchard in the Albuquerque South Valley. My grandma always had beans, chile and fresh tortillas on the table all day, every day."
A leap of faith
After coming back from California, Martinez worked at Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town, The Lodge at Santa Fe and Pueblo Harvest Café. She was also the executive chef of Albuquerque's Artichoke Café for the past four years.
"I love them and, if this fantastic opportunity had not been given to me, I would have never left Artichoke Café," she said. "But the Heritage company offered me my current position and I couldn't say no."
Martinez moved to Taos last November. That was "a leap of faith" because she had only been in the town one day in her entire life.
"I did it because Heritage is a great corporation to work for," she said. "They support local businesses and local causes, and they value their employees. You can actually call the president and the vice president and have a conversation with them."
Once she settled here, Martinez started to fall in love with Taos.
"I came with an open mind," she said. "And I have felt embraced by the town and the people. As for the culinary scene, there is new growth happening here and I am excited to be part of it."
Knives and cleavers
Besides learning standard practices in culinary
fundamentals, chefs are taught specific techniques and styles, depending on the culinary school they attend. At Le Cordon Bleu, Martinez was trained in French cuisine.
"Everything was almost biblically French, from the terminology to the food," she said. "We had the hat, the uniform, the recipes. … I learned to use French knives and thought they were the norm."
On the other hand, her husband, William Hartig, was trained mostly in Chinese cuisine.
"He had cleavers," Martinez said. "He didn't even use a French knife! I made fun of him for a long time. Then I noticed how efficient, fast and sharp his cleavers were. One day, he gave me one as a gift and, though it took me a while to get used to it, it is now my favorite kitchen utensil."
Plans for the summer
Martinez is planning a new summer menu for De la Tierra restaurant and the Anaconda Bar.
"I want to have healthier dishes and would like to feature more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options," she said. "I also want to source more local ingredients and create menus that reflect the convergence of cultures that Taos is famous for."
The upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration will showcase authentic Mexican food and mariachis.
"The event is a Habitat de Taos fiesta fundraiser, and we are honoring women in the workforce as well," she said. "We also have a special Mother's Day brunch on May 14 with omelet and salad stations, a buffet line and our amazing desserts. You can't miss our pecan pie!"
But Martinez's plans are not restricted to the menu.
"I want to bring El Monte closer to the local community," she said. "I'd like to extend an invitation to all Taoseños to come and try all the wonderful things we have here -- the spa, the sacred circle, the boutique. El Monte is truly a magical, unique space."
'A good chef never stops learning'
Martinez is focused on mastering simple foods and teaching them to her 10-person crew.
"Once you learn how to make something as uncomplicated as fried chicken or mac and cheese, that reflects very well on you as a chef," she said. "Of course, there is a place for 'gastronomical science dishes,' but I love simple things made from scratch, like my flatbread for pizza. After many, many tries, I can honestly say it is the best."
For Martinez, a good chef is one that never stops learning.
"I like to stay current with whatever is going on in the culinary world and then bring it to the local scene," she said.
When asked for a word of advice to young chefs, she said, "A kitchen environment is often fast-paced, but when things get hectic, just keep calm and keep swimming. Then enjoy a chef's biggest satisfaction that comes when we see people savoring our food."
El Monte Sagrado Resort & Spa is located at 317 Kit Carson Road, Taos, NM 87571. Call (575) 758-3502 or visit elmontesagrado.com.