Carlos Condit and Israel Rivera on their Rough-and-Tumble Paths into Albuquerque’s Food Scene

By Candolin Cook · Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Left to right: Israel Rivera and Carlos Condit at The Shop eating green chile cheeseburgers and drinking nitro coffee.

A year ago, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight Carlos Condit walked into Albuquerque restaurant The Shop and asked for an opportunity do some kitchen prep to expand his cooking skills. The Shop chef/owner Israel Rivera thought he was joking. “I knew exactly who he was. I’m a big UFC fan and a fan of Carlos. I thought, there’s no way this guy wants to come wash potatoes,” recalls Rivera. “He didn’t call me!” says Condit. “So a few days later I had to reach out again and tell him I was serious about wanting to learn from him.” The two became fast friends, bonding over shared passions for making great food and practicing mixed martial arts, as well as similar challenges they’ve faced with sobriety and growing up in Duke City. “It’s easier to get along with people who’ve had similar pasts,” says Rivera. “Plus, we’re both a little bit crazy. You’ve kinda got to be to fight or to [own] a restaurant. With both, you work all the time, break your body down—but you do it because you love it . . . and because you’re f—king weird.”

Condit grew up on Albuquerque’s Westside, where he says his teenage activities mainly centered around “sports and debauchery.” He admits, “There wasn’t a whole lot to do on the Westside as a teenager, so there was a lot of drinking, getting high, driving fast in the desert.” He eventually channeled some of that reckless energy into combat sports. At fifteen, he found an ad in the Yellow Pages for Jackson’s Ground and Stick Fighting, and began to train in mixed martial arts (MMA). Condit explains, “Albuquerque was actually an early adopter of MMA,” stemming from its long-thriving boxing scene. “Fighting is a point of pride for our city; we don’t have any professional sports teams. These are our pro athletes,” he says, citing fighters like Johnny Tapia and Holly Holm. Beyond the infrastructure of world-class training facilities, Condit posits that a local penchant for fighting sports is a manifestation of New Mexico’s mythic “Wild West” mentality. Adds Rivera, “I think people here definitely have fighter spirits. We don’t take shit from each other. People walk around with a chip on their shoulder—which can be annoying—but at the same time it shows we are very resilient.”

By eighteen, Condit competed in his first professional match—a cage fight in Juárez, Mexico. His fighting career quickly built momentum, moving from barns in Las Cruces to stadiums in Japan to securing the welterweight champion title in World Extreme Cagefighting in 2007. After his UFC debut in 2009, Condit garnered an impressive record of victories and the moniker “Natural Born Killer.” He became a fan-favorite for his skills inside the octagon as well as his humble demeanor outside of it. In 2012, he earned an interim UFC welterweight champion title. According to the L.A. Times, Condit’s 2016 match against Robbie Lawler was widely referred to as the UFC “fight of the year”—a thin decision loss for Condit that many believe should have gone the other way. After threatening retirement in 2016, Condit is again active in the UFC, with a fight against Matt Brown lined up for April.

Like Condit, Rivera encountered his fair share of trouble growing up in Albuquerque, acquiring a criminal record by fifteen. He says he initially started working in restaurants as a teenager because they didn’t require background checks. Rivera admits to being a sort of incidental chef. “I never thought this would be a career, I just thought it was an easy way to earn a paycheck so I could buy . . . well, booze.” But over time, his strong work ethic, innate cooking skills, and tutelage under a more senior chef encouraged him to start taking his craft seriously. For years, though, the pervasive relationship between alcohol use and the restaurant industry proved counterproductive. “I kept getting into trouble [with the law] and finally a judge said to me, ‘Every single offense you have is alcohol related. Do you think you have a problem?’ And I said, ‘No! I just like to drink and I get caught a lot!’” he says with a laugh. Unconvinced, the judge sentenced Rivera to a recovery program and regular drug and alcohol testing, which—after a few starts and setbacks—helped him forge a path toward sustained sobriety. “I started to put all the energy I used to put into getting f—ked up into making food.” His dedication paid off. The Shop, which features Southern and New Mexican–inspired breakfast and lunch options, has become a local favorite since opening in 2014. Since late last year, he has added a weekend dinner service offering some of the most exciting elevated comfort foods in the city. (Think buttermilk-brined fried chicken, duck fat roasted potatoes, and Brussels sprouts dressed in a maple-mustard vinaigrette.)

 

Duck confit hash breakfast.

Touching on his own battles with drug and alcohol abuse, Condit says, “My ability to go out and fight a person in a cage is probably closely related to me being an addict and alcoholic—it stems from the same [demons].” He says he initially got sober in 2011, and though the road hasn’t always been perfect, he’s found a great network of support in the recovery community, which now includes his friendship with Rivera. Condit says, “Part of [getting sober] is that you put a mirror up to your friends, because if you say that you have a problem and all your friends drink the same way . . .” Rivera jumps in: “People don’t like facing their reality, so a lot of them will shut you out.” Adds Condit, “When Izz and I hang out, we actually have to go do fun, engaging things in order to have a good time. You can’t just add alcohol to any situation—it’s a bummer!” (Both laugh.)

Many of those fun things involve food, including collaborating on pop-up dinners, co-hosting the food-centric podcast Cast Iron Jabber Jaws, and judging edible’s 2017 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown. And while Rivera can often be found at the gym practicing mixed martial arts, last year Condit officially entered Rivera’s turf by co-founding a nitro-coffee business, Hundred Hands Coffee. Along with partners Kaitlin and Ryan Hoskinson, Condit saw a niche in Albuquerque’s booming third-wave coffee industry for cold, nitrogen-infused coffee—a frothy, silky, slightly sweet brew that pours like Guinness out of a tap. Currently, Albuquerqueans can find Hundred Hands’ ethically-sourced java at several local coffee shops, taprooms (“It’s really nice if you don’t drink that you can still join your friends at a brewery and enjoy something besides a Shirley Temple”), and restaurants, including The Shop. “I think the kind of people who enjoy Izz’s food are the same type who appreciate our craft coffee,” Condit says. But Condit’s favorite place to sell his cold brew is in person at the Downtown Growers Market. “I think I have some carny blood in me; I love calling people over to try it. Meeting tens of thousands of people over the years at autograph signings has helped.”

Despite all their success, Condit and Rivera don’t cite their professional accolades as what they are most proud of. For Condit, it’s “doing something with my life that is unconventional and very improbable coming from where I came from. Turning some not-awesome circumstances into something that, hopefully, inspires other people to follow their dreams.” He turns to Rivera with a wry smile: “Follow that.”

Rivera laughs, then says seriously, “I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still alive. I could tell you all the stories in the world about my crazy childhood, but more than anything it was really dangerous. So the fact that I’m still alive and I’m not in jail, I wake up every day thankful for that. I’m proud that I’m in a place mentally and physically where I control my own life.”

Condit nods approvingly and deadpans, “And you’ve got chickens.”

Listen to our whole (uncensored) conversation with Condit and Rivera on their Cast Iron Jabber Jaws podcast, available on iTunes and SoundCloud.

Candolin Cook

Candolin Cook

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.
Candolin Cook

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