Santa Fe Chef Eric DiStefano: remembering a culinary hero

Santa Fe Chef Eric DiStefano passed away unexpectedly on Friday, February 5, 2019. The city has lost one of its greatest chefs. I found myself remembering Eric and his wonderful food all day yesterday and wanted to share some of those memories.

Santa Fe Chef Eric DeStefano (left) with Chef Marc Quiñones of Luminaria, photo courtesy Marc Quiñones,

Chef Eric DeStefano (left) with Chef Marc Quiñones of Luminaria, photo courtesy Marc Quiñones,

Santa Fe lost one of its greatest chefs on Friday night. The news that Santa Fe Chef Eric DiStefano had died hit Facebook late Friday night. The death of the Executive Chef at both Geronimo and Coyote Café wasn’t confirmed and many, including us, hoped it was one of those Internet rumors. It wasn’t. Confirmation arrived on Saturday, leaving Santa Fe’s culinary and hospitality communities shocked and saddened. Eric made a deep mark on Santa Fe’s. I found myself unexpectedly touched by his passing and wanted to share a few memories.

Eric was a kind, gentle soul and it was always a pleasure to run into him around town or see him in the open kitchen at Coyote. I didn’t realize how much he’d touched my life until I heard about his death. I thought about him all day yesterday and wanted to write about him and share my memories of this great man and culinarian.

The first time we ate Eric’s food was at Geronimo. It was January, 2004, we had just moved to Santa Fe we wanted to celebrate our 30th anniversary at a really great restaurant. Everyone we asked for suggestions about where we should go recommended two places, Geronimo and 315. We chose Geronimo. We were seated at one of the romantic tables in the front room. We shared one of Eric’s signature appetizers, Hawaiian Ahi Tuna Sashimi & Tartare. Steve ordered Eric’s most famous dish, Tellicherry Rubbed Elk Tenderloin and I had a rack of lamb. It was a memorable dinner, the first of many meals at this iconic restaurant.

I don’t remember meeting Eric until after he, Sara Chapman, Tori Mendes and Quinn Stephenson, a group I nicknamed “The Gang of Four,” took over Coyote Café from founder Mark Miller in November 2007. Miller had turned his focus elsewhere and the restaurant was showing it. I was a concierge at the time and too many bad reviews from guests I’d sent took the venerable eatery off my recommend list. I wasn’t the only concierge to do so. When I heard the news of the new owners I was encouraged. Eric was a phenomenal chef, Quinn was a master of wine and cocktails and Sara and Tori knew how to run the front of the house. It was a winning combination. We were invited to dinner and had a great meal. Steve and I (he worked at another hotel) both started sending guests for dinner at Coyote again. They came back with rave reviews so we kept sending them.

Eric had left Geronimo for Coyote and Geronimo wasn’t the same. In 2009, he added the title of Executive Chef there to his Coyote duties. This time he went back as a partner. One night while dining there after he returned I noticed Mesquite Grilled Lobster Tails on the menu. I read no further. I love lobster and I was on board. I bit into the meat of one of the perfectly grilled tails and realized I should have read the entire description. There was a garlic chile sauce which brought an unexpected heat with it. My Anglo palate was overwhelmed for a moment but then it got with the program. It was delicious.

Our favorite meals at Coyote Café were at the Chef’s Counter where Eric would cook surprises for us. One night he set steak tatare with all the accoutrements: mini blinis, onions, capers, and quail egg yolk. I don’t eat raw meat, but, to be polite I put a bit of the tatare on a blini and took a bite expecting to have to choke it down. It was heaven! Eric’s food often opened new taste horizons for us.

Over the years Eric struggled with his weight. He was working to do something about it. When he passed away he was at a residential weight loss spa in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He’d been there for five days.

One of my lasting memories is “the box”. Just before Christmas 2008 Eric called me. He asked me to stop by the Café. It was midday and I parked in the restaurant’s small lot and took the elevator up to the restaurant. Eric greeted me in the empty dining room, thanked me for my support and handed me a bright red fabric hatbox with Santa faces all over and tied with colorful ribbons. I love gifts and was touched. I took this brightly colored box home and we dug in. It was filled with goodies. In truth, we probably would have forgotten this gift if it hadn’t been for the box. It was too happy to throw away, so when Christmas was over we packed some of our precious ornaments in it. Every year when the box comes out I think of Eric and Coyote Café and smile. Next year I suspect there may be a bit of sadness mixed in as I remember this chef who left us way too young.

Eric was a mentor to many young chefs. Many of the city’s restaurants (and I’m sure restaurants around the country) have chefs who trained in his kitchens. The Santa Fe culinary community is small. Most of the chefs know each other well and many have worked together at special dinners and the annual Wine and Chile Fiesta. Eric was beloved. Expressions of sadness were all over Facebook yesterday and continue today. Eric DiStefano generously touched a lot of lives and palates. He’ll be remembered for his wonderful food and his enthusiastic support of young chefs and the Santa Fe Culinary community. He will be missed!

Eric DiStefano, January 16. 1964 – February 5, 2019 RIP




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8 Responses to “Santa Fe Chef Eric DiStefano: remembering a culinary hero”

  1. Gil Garduno
    February 8, 2019 at 8:23 am #

    Very moving tribute to a great chef and an even better person. Every apron in Santa Fe should be at half mast today.
    Gil Garduno recently posted..Little Red Hamburger Hut – Albuquerque, New MexicoMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 8, 2019 at 10:08 am #

      I love that image of the aprons at half mast. Thanks for the kind words about the post. I really felt compelled to write it. Eric’s passing has really made me sad.

  2. Irene S. Levine
    February 9, 2019 at 8:30 am #

    I’ve love dining in both restaurants. What a tragic loss at such a young age. He must have also trained so many chefs and service personnel that will continue his legacy.
    Irene S. Levine recently posted..Finer dining at all inclusive resortsMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 14, 2019 at 9:49 am #

      He did leave his legacy here. He was much loved by the culinary community.

  3. Janice Chung
    February 9, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

    That was a beautiful tribute to Eric and was so genuine. You obviously made a big impression oh him too due to that beautiful (memorable) gift.
    Janice Chung recently posted..Culinary Tour Changed My Mind About MontmartreMy Profile

  4. dominic geraghty
    February 9, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    So very sad, Eric was a great guy, exceptional chef my condolences
    to his family God Bless.

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