Monday, March 27, 2023

Sawmill Market Adds Little Madrid to the Menu

Chef Christian Monchârtre Oversees Newest Heritage Restaurant Project


Chef Christian Monchârtre is hurriedly putting the final touches on Little Madrid, a Spanish tapas bar being added to what he calls "the last corner" of Sawmill Market. As the vice president of culinary operations for Heritage Restaurant Group, a division of Heritage Hotels & Resorts, he's in charge of supervising the dining options at the group's various properties. Those properties include El Monte Sagrado, Eldorado Hotel, The Inn at Loretto, Hotel St. Francis, Hotel Albuquerque, Hotel Chaco and Albuquerque's popular Sawmill Market near Old Town.

Little Madrid, which is set to open on Feb. 10, features what the proud chef calls "traditional Spanish cuisine, but made in America." Amid the European market-style tile and wrought iron decor there are separate serving areas specializing in tapas, charcuterie, paellas and a special, caramelized "Basque cheesecake" (that last one served on a bar made of mahogany imported direct from Spain). A currently empty glass-door cooler will soon be hung with "pata negra" (premium, acorn-fed Iberico ham imported from Spain—hand-sliced and sold by the ounce). "A very big delicacy!" crows Chef Christian. And of course, there will be plenty of Spanish wine and beer flowing into customers' glasses.

With the addition of Little Madrid, the well-traveled chef is hoping to "bring Spain to New Mexico. There is a big connection there," he points out. "And most New Mexicans, if you want to eat and experience the tapas style, it would cost you a flight ticket to Spain." A good chunk of our state's history is rooted in Spain, but few locals have had chance to sample "real food" from Spain. Little Madrid hopes to change that.

"Tapas is very shareable," says Chef Christian. "The hopping of tapas bars is fantastic in Spain. Usually every bar has a specialty." Monchârtre hopes to create his restaurant's specialty by adding a touch of "New Mexico flair," adding, among other sharable treats, a paella made with green chile to the menu.

The majority of dining options inside Sawmill (Mercantile Cafe, West Cocktail & Wine Bar, Flora, Paleta Project, Churro y Corn, Red and Green) were created by Heritage and Chef Christian. The rest are outside vendors (Neko Neko, Dr. Field Goods, Tulipani Pasta among them) carefully selected and curated by Monchârtre. According to the man in charge of culinary operations, Heritage chooses tenants based on cuisine, business history and uniqueness. "We have a team that goes after what we want. High-end food from Asian to some pasta to other flair, so there is a mix for people to continue coming back. Otherwise you get bored after a while."

Sawmill Market opened its doors to the public in March of 2020. According to Monchârtre, Heritage Hotels owner Jim Long, "has a very big vision about how the food market will be. Food market has become something very big in the United States for the past eight to 10 years now." Because of his job recruiting tenants for the food hall, Monchârtre is "very proactive in helping people actually to be in business. That was very big for us. There are people that have talents, that know how to cook certain things, but they don't know how to do it the professional way. I think Heritage is very good at doing that, really helping with the design, with what to serve and so on. So it's been a learning process for everybody." Although he supervises the installation of new restaurants and food concepts throughout the state, Monchârtre insists that, "The biggest thing for me is actually to teach people. All the knowledge I acquired for all those years, to pass it on. That's, for me, so important."

Chef Christian has spent virtually his entire life "learning" in restaurant kitchens. He was born in Paris. At 9 months old, he was relocated by his parents to France's historic Loire Valley. " I grew up in the cradle of the King of France, with all the castles, and the restaurants." His parents ran a restaurant out of a historic chateau, where he learned how to cook. At "the edge of 18," young Monchârtre wanted to see the world. He went to Italy where he worked in "on and off for nine years" in places like the legendary Villa d'Este on Lake Cumo. Later on, he ended up in San Sabastian, Spain working at the three-star Micheline restaurant Arzak. In 1993 he "jumped into the United States, came to Los Angeles" where he eventually joined forces with Jean-François Meteigner to open La Cachette. A string of restaurant openings and gigs working as executive chef at various private clubs cooking for "politicians and movie stars" followed. At some point, he moved to the Mayan Riviera and opened the first molecular gastronomy restaurant in Mexico. In Rancho Mirage, California, he became executive chef at the Thunderbird Country Club. "Where the Rat Pack used to go," as the chef puts it. In 2013 he stopped cooking for three years. "I was a bit burned." So he worked for largest tuna company in the world, Norpac Fisheries, based in Hawaii. He wound up developing specialty poke recipes for Costco and Albertson's. A few years back, his wife was asked to become CFO of Western Skies Community Care, a startup company that won the contract for Medicaid for New Mexico. The couple moved to Albuquerque. "I came out retired, and I go bored," recalls Chef Christian. "So I looked at the best hotelier and best restaurateur in the state of New Mexico, and it was Heritage." Heritage President Adrian Perez and founder/CEO Jim Long weren't sure they could afford someone with Monchârtre's extensive background, however. "My resume is pretty impressive," admits Chef Christian. "I don't know. I'll let you judge." Nonetheless, Monchârtre took over as executive chef at Hotel Chaco's beautiful Level 5 restaurant. He still has his name there, overseeing seasonal menu changes and chef training. Unfortunately, not long after he started, "COVID came along. I furloughed myself, so people could get paid. Like, I'm OK, so." But six weeks later, Heritage called and brought him back to the company.

His job was to bring the hotel restaurants back from COVID closures. "Little by little, as we reopened, I brought back teams to each property. And restarted the hotels, the culinary aspect of it." Heritage initially opened its Sawmil Market property in 2020, just as COVID was beginning its sweep across America. "It was only open for nine days and got shut down," says Monchârtre. Heritage, eager to get all of its property up to speed, made Chef Christian VP of culinary operations for its entire Heritage Restaurant Group. "The rest is history," says Monchârtre.

For now, Chef Christian is just happy to be back in front of a stove. "I love, right now, to come back with Little Madrid because I'm gonna be back into my white coat. I'm gonna be back in the kitchen. I'm gonna be here for the next couple, three months at least, until I'm sure that everything is going. For my personality, I go out to customers. Some chefs are introverted. I'm more the opposite. We need to have that because this is an open kitchen and it's all about the food. So even the front people we have to teach them how to speak about the food, the vibrant colors, the flavors, the spices, all used in Spain."

Heritage, like a number of developers is heavily invested in the growth of the Sawmill District. The company already has plans for a multi-family housing complex and another small hotel just across the street from Sawmill. Until such plans materialize, however, Chef Christian is looking forward to the opening of Little Madrid on Feb. 10, saying excitedly, "I'll be here in my whites!"


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