Rocky Durham Presents an Ever-Evolving Experience
By Michael J. Dax · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Left: Rocky Durham shows off his award-winning green chile cheeseburger. Right: Durham plates a bowl of bouillabaisse.
Fifteen minutes from Santa Fe’s plaza, Sunrise Springs Resort sits on seventy acres in La Cienega—a green oasis fed by its namesake spring. Peach, apple, cherry, and pear trees; lush grasses; a modest garden; and plenty of shade provide visitors an escape from the hot summer sun. For centuries, travelers have stopped at the springs, which produce sixty gallons of water a minute, to relax and enjoy the unique atmosphere—a tradition Rocky Durham, executive chef of the Blue Heron at Sunrise Springs, aims to continue. “I refer to the Blue Heron as the oasis within the oasis,” says Durham, a Santa Fe native.
As a teenager, Durham got his start washing dishes at La Frogerie. He was immediately drawn to the comradery of the kitchen. “What I loved most about it was being on a team and working on a crew,” he says. “That really inspired me.” His grand ambition as a teenager was to work as a line cook, but after ten years on the line, he returned to school to study French technique. Since then, he has worked on five continents, including time in rural Patagonia and a stint in London, where he started a Santa Fe restaurant group, serving New Mexican–inspired food across England.
Although he loved his time overseas, he admits that cooking real New Mexican food isn’t fully possible outside the Land of Enchantment. Drawing a parallel to the distinction between Champagne and sparkling wine, Durham asserts, “You can’t really make New Mexican food with California chiles.” It’s a philosophy he has brought to the Blue Heron. “One thing I really do embrace is giving it a sense of place,” he says. “When you’re here eating my food, I want there to be a sense that you’re in La Cienega, New Mexico.”
To do this, Durham sources many of his ingredients from the small garden and greenhouse located onsite. He also procures food from the two-acre garden at Ojo Caliente, a sister property, where he works with onsite farmer, Mark DeRespinis, who grows beans, Brussels sprouts, peas, lettuces, herbs, chiles, squash, and tomatoes, as well as a new favorite, pineapple tomatillos. “[DeRespinis] is amazing,” lauds Durham. “I tell him what I like to work with and he tells me if he can grow it.” Additionally, Durham forages for mushrooms that make their way into the menu, based on availability.
For Durham, it’s not just about using local ingredients and ensuring that his food complements his restaurant’s setting. He’s also committed to what he describes as hyper-seasonality. “When I have porcini from the Jemez, I’m sorry, you’re going to eat them,” he asserts, unapologetically. Because he has embraced this idea of hyper-seasonality, he’s not afraid to change his menu as needed. While Durham may keep a base dish on the menu from week to week, he’ll play with it to highlight available ingredients and allow for natural growth and progression. “The whole menu is in constant evolution,” says Durham. “We change, sometimes daily.”
Top left, clockwise: Bouillabaisse ingredients coming together in the pan; bouillabaisse; award-winning green chile cheeseburger; goat brie en croûte with Tesuque apricot gastrique and English pea hummus.
This unpredictability and constant development is another staple of Durham’s style. He encourages his cooks to improve their work and pay close attention to any detail that may have influenced a dish’s final outcome. “Every time you cook something, try to do it a little better,” he insists. This often leads to new ideas, tweaks and twists, so while Durham cannot guarantee that the ravioli a customer orders next week will be the same as the ravioli served last week, he promises that it will be just as, if not more, delicious.
Durham’s continued interest and engagement with the food he cooks derives from his ability to remain flexible. Often this takes the form of allowing whatever ingredients are available to dictate what he makes, but he also admits that his iconoclastic nature feeds his insatiable desire for change. If someone falls in love with a dish and tells Durham that he can’t take it off the menu, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. “I don’t want to be held hostage by my menu,” he explains.
Of course, the one exception to Durham’s mantra of evolution is the green chile cheeseburger, which recently won edible’s annual Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown. “In New Mexico, on a lunch menu, you should have a green chile cheeseburger,” contends Durham. “That’s culturally our thing. For it to be recognized that ours is exceptional means a lot to us.” And while the burger has a safe spot on the menu, Durham’s team has continued to improve each element that goes into its production. The chiles are carefully seasoned, the lettuce is meticulously dressed, and even the pickle isn’t taken for granted. “Anyone can win a Beard Award,” jokes Durham. “I’d like to see them win a Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown.” More seriously, he adds, “I’m a local boy. That’s the competition you want to win.”
242 Los Pinos Road, Santa Fe, 505-780-8145