Santa Fe Chef Rocky Durham, a man with a lot on his plate

Santa Fe Chef Rocky Durham is hot. The Santa Fe native just won the Grand Prize at the Santa Fe Harvest Festival’s Chef Showdown. We hear he’s going appear on Andrew Zimmern’s popular show, Bizarre Foods America on the Travel Channel.  Early in 2012, he’s off to Munich Germany for a restaurant consulting gig. Cooking and consulting has taken him 21 countries on five continents. The busy chef recently escorted Zimmern, the man who’ll eat anything, around Santa Fe when he was here filming his show.

Ahmed Obo and Rocky Durham watching the judges at the semifinals of the Chef Showdown

Ahmed Obo and Rocky Durham watching the judges at the semifinals of the Santa Fe Harvest Festival's Chef Showdown, photo/Steve Collins

The first thing you notice about Durham is that he’s highly organized.  “In a competition,” he says, “timing is key, you have to consider the order of operation.” This focus served him well.  For round two of the Showdown, he had eggplant cooking in the one pan entrants were allowed before he visited the communal pantry to pick up his other ingredients. One of his mantras is, “Plan your work and work your plan.”  He knew, that no matter what  was in the mystery ingredients the chefs at the competition got, he was going to make a crepe. “People love anything with flour.” he says via phone, “and they love stuffed.”

Rocky shaking hands with Sara Moulton and Bradley Ogden as John Rivera Sedlar looks on, phot courtesy Wings Media

Santa Fe Chef Rocky Durham shaking hands with celebrity judges Sara Moulton and Bradley Ogden as John Rivera Sedlar looks on, photo/courtesy Wings Media

He carried the stuffed philosophy to the final round. His winning entrée, Fried Chicken Three Ways, featured tunnel boned leg with walnut-shallot stuffing. The other two ways: scaloppini of thigh in semolina crust and chicken skin chicharrones. The chicken was plated with Southwestern Waldorf Salad of Apples and cranberry chutney.

He was disappointed that more of Santa Fe’s “top tier” chefs didn’t participate in the Chef Showdown. “I double-dog dare them to come out and compete next year,” he challenges. “It’s not about winning.  It’s about showing up and helping the kids.”  The event benefits Cooking with Kids, a nonprofit he calls “a noble endeavor”.  Hopefully, the chefs will heed his call.

The Chef Showdown finalists, courtesy Wings Media

Durham left restaurant kitchens after 25 years behind the stove. His father’s death served as a wake-up call. “Modern kitchens are a pressure cooker”, he says. He turned to teaching at the Santa Fe School of Cooking and was a popular instructor there for years. But this was not the demographic he wanted to teach. He wanted to reach students whose vocation was in the kitchen.

There was an opening Santa Fe Community College’s Culinary Arts Program to teach vegan, vegetarian and vegetable prep. “No one else wanted to do it,” he quips. He took the position and still teaches there as an adjunct instructor. He’s committed to teaching his students the tools they need to become professional chefs. What he asks from them in return is to be present and engage. He says that he tolerates nothing less. Durham believes in teaching his students basic methods and techniques. For him, it all boils down to technique. This is the way he learned from his first mentor, a French chef at a now defunct Santa Fe restaurant and it’s how he passes on his skill. He also teaches classes at Estrellas del Norte Vineyard, north of Santa Fe. He loves cooking on coals and he worked with the winery to build outdoor wood fired ovens and grills to his specifications.

Chef Durham with his specially created grill, photo Rocky DurhamSanta Fe Chef Chef Rocky Durham with his specially created grill at Estrella del Norte Vineyard                                   photo/Estralla del Norte Vineyard

Currently, in addition to teaching, he writes for New Mexico Magazine and Edible Santa Fe. He is also collaborating with his historian sister, writing about New Mexico’s food history.

More and more Rocky Durham takes time to enjoy life. An epiphany about five years ago, when he met the woman he call “the love of my life,” got him rethinking his priorities. He realized it’s not all about work, it’s about living. “I go home, get out on the mesa and hike,” he says. “I have a wonderful time being on the planet. The chef stuff is the means to an end.”

Santa Fe Chef Rocky Durham shares his  Cranberry Compote recipe. Try it with your favorite holiday dinner.

Cranberry Compote

1 Large Red Onion, sliced
1 T. Fresh Ginger, grated
2 bags Fresh Cranberries
2 Dried New Mexican Red Chiles, thinly sliced/crushed
2 Oranges, zested and juiced
½ t. Salt
1 ½ cup Sugar

  1. In a large saucepan place onions and ginger.
  2. Pour cranberries on top of onions.
  3. Sprinkle chiles and orange zest on top of cranberries.
  4. Pour sugar over top and place over a medium-low heat. DO NOT STIR!
  5. When red juices can be seen bubbling up on the sides of the pan give mixture a good stir.
  6. Add orange juice and cook until desired consistency is achieved.
  7. Stir in a pinch of salt.

This is the first in a series of Santa Fe Chef holiday recipes.

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Authors’ note: As former hotel concierges, owners of a travel concierge and trip-planning business and in Santa Fe, the writers may have at some time been guests of business or services mentioned in this post or may be guests in the future. These experiences do not influence this post in any way.


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