an interview with Annamaria Brezna O’Brien, baker and owner

best cafe, santa fe

Photos by Stacey M. Adams

Micah Williams, Annamaria Brezna O’Brien, and Lisetanne Scherschel having fun in the bakery at Dolina.

Dolina Cafe and Bakery opened in Santa Fe in the summer of 2017. Owner Annamaria Brezna O’Brien’s blend of Slovakian dishes, American/New Mexican favorites, and tantalizing baked goods quickly made Dolina (Slovak for valley) a favorite destination for breakfast and lunch in the City Different.

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?

I was born in Slovakia in 1980, toward the end of the Communist era. We always had everything we needed (because of my mother’s strong work ethic) and nothing we didn’t (because we knew the value of money and hard work). My love for fresh food and seasonal eating comes from my grandma. We’d go to her house in the village almost every weekend and spend much of our summers there. She had a big garden full of different vegetables, and raised chickens, rabbits, pigs, and geese. She’d spoil us with delicious crepes for breakfast and once in a while with foie gras for an afternoon snack. In the early fall, she preserved fruit jams, made sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, and dried mushrooms to last us for most of the winter. She taught me a great deal about cooking, baking, and self-sufficiency, and planted the seeds for my life-long relationship with food.

As a child, I remember being strongly encouraged by my parents to leave the country and experience a life elsewhere. And so I did. I came to the US when I was nineteen, traveled and lived in different parts of the East Coast and Canada, and ended up settling in Santa Fe. One of my first jobs in Santa Fe was at Geronimo’s. That’s really where I first learned about fine dining in America. I’m so grateful for that experience. It taught me so much! It also made me realize that fine dining wasn’t necessarily my thing. I’m more of a casual person and I like cozy comfort foods. I love creating beautiful environments and I love to feed people. Dolina is a culmination of those two things.

What is a local food issue that is important to you? Why?

Santa Fe is lucky to have so many restaurants but one thing I’ve learned is that the restaurant business can be very wasteful. I do my best to minimize waste and have sustainable practices, such as recycling and composting. I work with a great company called Reunity Resources who collects and recycles my oil waste into biofuels and my food waste into high-nutrient compost that they use on their community farm.

What is the hardest part about running a restaurant? What is the best part?

The hardest part is finding a healthy balance between family life and running the business.
The best part is seeing a dining room full of people engaging in conversation, gathering over a freshly prepared food and feeling the comfort of home. Also on Sundays, when we open a little later, there is a line of returning customers that forms in front of our door. I think that’s every restaurateur’s dream come true.

What is your favorite kitchen tool?

Definitely my poppy seed grinder! Poppy seeds are a big part of Slovakian cooking and baking. When I started Dolina I only had a small hand grinder that my mother sent me from Slovakia. It took a lot of time and energy to crush seeds into a paste—and only in small amounts. But I did it because there’s nothing like the flavor and aroma of warm poppy seed strudel or a poppy seed cake when it comes out of the oven. It reminds me of home. At the time, there was no way I could afford one of the large electric grinders. They cost thousands of dollars. Then one day one of my customers offered to buy me one so that I could make her one of her favorite cakes—Makos Dios—more often. So now I have a beautiful one that is made by an Italian espresso grinder company. I just press a button! Thank you, Laurie!

What is your favorite thing to cook outside of the restaurant?

Nothing! I cook all of my favorite things at the restaurant. That’s pretty much what the menu consists of. I like to enjoy the evenings outside the kitchen eating other people’s food. I have to make sure I keep a good balance in life and spend some quality time with my kids. If I cook at home, it’s something super simple, like a salad with a pan-seared fish on top.
Describe a perfect day of eating in Santa Fe.

Waking up in the morning and grabbing a cappuccino at Opuntia, on my way out purchasing one of their beautiful potted plants to bring to the restaurant. After that, I would go over to Cafe Pasquals for my absolute favorite cheese blintzes. For lunch I’d visit La Choza and get the best green chile enchiladas in the world (with garlic bread to dip in the green chile and melted cheese), and after digesting all of that, I would head over to Joseph’s culinary pub and have my favorite combination of tuna poke with avocado and mango, and a side of duck fat fries. Yeah…

What are your favorite activities outside of the kitchen?

Running in the woods with my two boxers, Hazel and Bruno, making friendship bracelets with my daughter Ella, riding bikes with my son Luca, and sharing meals with my friends.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

I would just like to remind everyone to take the time to share a good meal with loved ones—put away your phones and enjoy good food and good conversation!

402 N Guadalupe, Santa Fe, 505-982-9394,

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