photos by Stephanie Cameron
an Interview with Israel (IZZ) Rivera, Chef and Owner
Edible recognizes this group of amazing individuals and organizations for their work to create healthy, sustainable food systems in New Mexico. We determine these awards through reader nominations and a reader poll. The local food movement is a grassroots effort that often involves late nights, backbreaking work, dirty fingernails, and being a generally good sport. In an effort to showcase these individuals, organizations, and businesses for their work to build a stronger local economy and a robust local food system, each issue this year spotlights several of the winners with interviews about the work they do.
Israel Rivera and red chile chilaquiles.
Since he was fifteen years old, Israel (Izz) Rivera has been working in kitchens. A high school dropout with no culinary education, Rivera says he learned the ropes from “awesome chefs who I worked for over the years and who inspired me to travel and learn as much as I can.” After two years as the sous chef at the Artichoke Café, in 2014 Rivera decided to open his own restaurant, The Shop, in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood.
What do you love most about local food?
I love local food because I feel like that’s the best way to connect to the culture and the people of their community. No matter where you are, or where you travel, food is the fastest way to get to know a people. I grew up eating Mexican food and New Mexican food, so nothing makes me feel more at home and connected than eating the food local to us, made by the people I know. It’s the coolest thing to go have a meal prepared by your friends. I’m in the industry, so we are always trying to impress each other, haha.
Tell us about your life outside of The Shop.
Outside The Shop, I have a few hobbies, too many probably. I record and produce my own podcast, called mIZZ en place, all about food, cooking, restaurant culture, and whatever else I feel like blabbing about. [It’s available on iTunes and SoundCloud.] I train in mixed martial arts and hope to compete someday soon. I have chickens at my house, so I pretend to know how to be a mini-farmer. I read as much as I can. And I love to travel when I get the chance; the world is full of so much great cuisine, and I want to experience as much of it as I can while building my knowledge base of food. But mostly I work, or read about food, or plan dinners, haha.
What’s your favorite way to spend a day off?
Ideally, I would love to wake up late, have a big breakfast, coffee, and read a book while smoking a lovely cigar, then head to the movies and kick back. Usually, by then I’ll be done relaxing and go straight back to studying food, haha. It’s hard for us chef-types to fully relax. We always have something flying around our heads. Food study is one of my favorite things to do. In reality, my days off are full of errands and cleaning house.
Do you have a serendipitous moment?
I think if I had a serendipitous moment it would be just one day working at the Artichoke talking with Chef Tony [Nethery] and realizing that this job was becoming my career, and I fell in love all over again and started to travel more and really embrace the chef life.
What do you love most about your work?
I love the actual process of making food. Coming up with new ideas and taking it from just a thought to a dish is the coolest thing. It’s a lot of work and focus, but that’s the fun part. Then when someone enjoys it? That’s so cool. To make something from scratch that people really enjoyed, it’s an awesome feeling. I’m passionate about food, cooking, researching, and especially eating. I love going out and tasting what chefs are doing—I love it all.
Duck confit hash breakfast.
How did you get to where you are now? What’s the backstory, and what was the moment that brought you to your current work?
Well, I got here I suppose by just sticking to it. I started working in kitchens just because it’s the only work I could get when I was a kid with a criminal record, haha. I just started working and kept at it, and it turned out I was pretty good at just working hard. I worked my way up to the lead position in almost every restaurant I worked at, so I figured I should just keep doing it. After about five years, I realized that I really enjoy what I’m doing and that I could make a career out of it, so that’s when I really started to take it seriously and started studying and expanding my food knowledge. Getting the sous chef position at Artichoke really cemented my desire to be a chef. I was making decent money doing something I love and was actually able to be creative with the food I was cooking; that’s really where I started to develop my “style” of food and how I cook. I was actually planning on moving to San Francisco, but the opportunity to open The Shop just kind of fell in my lap and so I had to jump on it. People seem to like us, so here I am! We’ve got some cool things coming, too, so we won’t just be cooking breakfast and lunch.
What question do people always ask you?
The question people always ask me is “what kind of food do you cook?” How does anyone answer that—hopefully, the good kind! I’d rather people ask what kind of food I like to eat. The answer is really just food that’s prepared with care and love. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just well-made food by people who care, that’s what I’m about.
Who would you like to have lunch with?
If I could have lunch with anyone it would probably be Anthony Bourdain. I mean there are so many chefs I would love to talk to and pick their brain about the cuisine they do—like Sean Brock, Enrique Olvera, Alex Atala, Matthew Jennings, David Chang, just to name a few off the top of my head. But Bourdain has been all over the world, and he knows a lot about food. I just think it would be the coolest thing to talk about all kinds of foods from all over the world, and all his crazy experiences with the people—understanding the people of a place helps you understand the food better, and I think he would have a great perspective on that. Plus, we could talk about jiu-jitsu too! Maybe even roll a couple rounds!
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, in all honesty, I’d probably be in jail or dead somewhere. I’m only able to be where I’m at because I’m sober now. I’ve had trouble with the law since I was a kid and had a whole lot of trouble with booze and drugs. But I’m done with all that now; it’s been seven years since I touched the stuff. If I wasn’t sober, shit wouldn’t be so good, I promise you that. The kitchen, while it almost enabled me in a way to stay fucked up all the time, it also, ultimately, helped to save my life by giving me something else to obsess about.
What are people most surprised to learn about you?
Most people are surprised to know basically what I just said in the previous question, haha. People who don’t know me from the past are always surprised when I tell them I don’t drink or anything like that. And that I didn’t go to culinary school, that surprises a lot of people for some reason.
What gets you fired up?
Music. Hard, fast music gets me fired up, whether I’m heading to work or the gym, that’s how I get the blood pumping. Food also gets me fired up, but in a different way, like eating an amazing meal motivates me to step my game up. And it really gets the gears turning, a good conversation about food can do the same thing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
Really, it’s just like I said at the [Local Heroes] award ceremony, I’m just super honored that the readers of edible would even mention me in the same sentence with the rest of [the nominees]. It’s such a cool feeling to know that all the hard work you’ve put in is being realized, and I just hope I can continue to support the community and stay true to my values and continue to be considered a local hero.
The Shop Breakfast + Lunch
2933 Monte Vista Blvd NE, Albuquerque