On the afternoon of May 30, 2000, chef Mark Kiffin stood in the dining room of the historic adobe property known as The Compound, inspecting his impeccable waitstaff. This was the opening night of Kiffin’s incarnation of The Compound, a legendary and beloved Santa Fe restaurant, established in 1966 by Will and Barbara Houghton. Having recently acquired the property from its long-time second owner, Victor Sagheer, Kiffin felt an obligation on this inaugural night to honor the establishment’s legacy of French elegance by personally tying a bowtie onto the necks of each of his seventeen servers. “To serve real food,” Kiffin told his staff, “we need to wear real bowties; James Beard always wore one.” Over the ensuing sixteen years, Kiffin strove to “carry on the stature and tradition” of The Compound, while making it his own. If you visit the restaurant today, you will find just that: history mixed with contemporary culinary excellence.
The Compound began when the Houghtons converted a two-story adobe home situated in the McComb Compound on Canyon Road—a haven for artists and bohemians since the 1920s—and enlisted famed designer Alexander Girard to design and decorate it. Sagheer was its first general manager and purchased The Compound in the mid-1970s. A 1979 Santa Fe New Mexican article described Sagheer as “a simply elegant Lebanese man with a formal smile and a click of the heels.” Under his direction, the restaurant was a success with locals and national critics, but could feel stuffy with its formal dress code, traditional French cuisine, and waiters donning tuxedos and white gloves.
When it came time for Sagheer to sell his beloved Compound, he refused to just hand the keys over to the highest bidder. Kiffin, after years of working with Mark Miller at the Coyote Café and helping develop other restaurants around the country, was searching for his own space, something of substantial size. Kiffin, who was now living in Dallas, approached Sagheer about the three-acre property, but Sagheer was skeptical. “He knew me as a chef of Southwestern cuisine, and he didn’t want to see The Compound [stray from its roots] and start doing chile,” Kiffin recalls. “So I drove out to see him in Santa Fe and on the way wrote out the menu I wanted to cook. He saw tuna tartare, veal, and sweetbreads and foie gras—he saw an American restaurant by an American chef with European influences. He said, ‘Okay, now I’ll sell, because I want to eat that.’”
Despite menu changes every three months (Kiffin says this fall marks his sixty-fifth menu since taking over), some of those original dishes are still offered every day on the Compound Classics menu—for instance, the foie gras which is flown in from the Hudson Valley every week. For the rest of the offerings, seasonality is key. “We craft every menu by focusing on what is true to that season. Then we source those ingredients from where they are the most fresh and who makes them best.” It may seem a tad controversial nowadays for a high-caliber restaurant to admit it doesn’t buy everything local, but Kiffin stands by his selections. “A lot of people claim to be ‘farm-to-table’ when they aren’t. I’d wager we source from more farms, ranchers, and growers than most. We source locally, produce from the farmers market, lamb from Moriarty; and we also fly in Guinea hens from California and morels from the Northwest. Some things aren’t everywhere, and we do a lot research and travel to find the best-quality ingredients.”
Kiffin shuns trends such as molecular gastronomy and fusion, as well as social media food culture and the celebrity chef. “A lot of chefs are interested in getting famous. They worry more about how a dish looks on Instagram than how it tastes,” he laments. “At the same time, you sort of live and die by it . . . because as soon as you put the plate down, diners take out their phones. I love going out to dinner and want to enjoy my meal, not tweet it.” But his biggest pet peeve is waste. “I can’t walk by a trash can without looking in it. I respect food too much to waste it; we utilize byproducts, we get creative, and we compost.” He also claims his staff doesn’t break things. “I can hear a glass break in my sleep.”
The respect Kiffin has for his dishes, ingredients, and restaurant is palpable. Perhaps that is why in 2005 he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southwest. It may also be why Santa Feans, who have eaten at The Compound for generations, continue to choose to celebrate their weddings, anniversaries, and holidays there. The restaurant’s long history of special prix fixe Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve meals predates Kiffin, whose birthday is on Christmas, but he has lovingly taken up the torch. Each holiday season, The Compound becomes a winter wonderland, festooned with icicle lights, garlands, and decorated trees. “We love the holidays. I want kids here dressed up in their red shoes. I want the ho-ho-ho,” Kiffin says with a grin.
This year marks The Compound’s fiftieth anniversary. However, a proper celebration won’t happen until sometime in the new year (“We’d like to celebrate in the proper economy. There’s been a lot of anxieties in the world this year and that has hit the restaurant industry a bit”). The Compound continues to combine the classic with the creative, and looks to the future while honoring the past. “I get to be a caretaker of this property, which I take very seriously,” says Kiffin. “We are a tradition in Santa Fe, we aren’t just a restaurant. It is bigger than me and I’m not going to let it down, or my employees, or the community.” Kiffin’s predecessor, Sagheer, said in 1979, “You commit your establishment to quality and you have to love it to have it work.” Kiffin and his team are indeed committed to many more anniversaries. “It’s not like I have to retire, I get too much joy out of it,” Kiffin says. “As long as I’m here, it will all be here.”
653 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, 505-982-4353
Candolin Cook is a history doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, an associate editor for the New Mexico Historical Review, and editor of edible Santa Fe. She spends much of her free time washing carrots and radishes at her husband’s vegetable farm, Vida Verde Farm, in Albuquerque's North Valley. Come check out their booth at the Downtown Growers Market, and follow her farm life on Instagram: @candolin and @vidaverdefarmabq.