Local Hero: Best Chef, greater New Mexico
An Interview with Laura Crucet, Executive Chef and Owner of Pig + Fig Cafe
Photos by Douglas Merriam
Pig + Fig Cafe is a casual café in White Rock, serving upscale comfort food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Laura Crucet, owner and operator, is a classically trained chef whose background is in pastry and fine dining.
You’ve held many roles in the kitchen, from sous chef to executive pastry chef to culinary instructor. Was there a pivotal moment that led you to open Pig + Fig?
When I moved to New Mexico twelve years ago, I stayed at home with my young kids at first, but, unfortunately, my husband and I got divorced a few years later. As a newly single mom, I worked a few odd jobs to make ends meet, including being a bakery and deli manager at a local grocery store. About a year later, I got the opportunity to help a friend who was overwhelmed running her little café. At the time, she had four kids. Shortly after realizing she was pregnant with baby number five, she offered to sell the café to me.
I was scared to death because I had worked in restaurants almost my whole adult life, and I knew the risk, the heartbreak, the financial stress. However, I knew that all that experience had prepared me for the moment in front of me. Waiting tables for so many years had taught me the finer points of customer service, living and studying in France had taught me about wine and the beauty of simple, well-prepared foods, and working in large fine dining restaurants in Houston had made me a seasoned caterer and event planner and taught me about the importance of creating ambience.
At Pig + Fig, you specialize in classics, from quiche to shrimp po-boys, and unique spins on traditional dishes. What have been some of your most popular dishes, and what are your thoughts on the enduring appeal of traditional comfort foods?
I think any food becomes comfort food when it is so thoughtfully prepared that it becomes a visceral experience that transports people to a place in time, a memory, or an image of how life was or could be. The shrimp po-boy and muffuletta sandwiches take me back to visiting the French Quarter as a kid, the Cuban sandwich reminds me of smelling the swiss cheese burning on the plancha (griddle) in my abuela’s kitchen in Miami, and the quiche and lemon tart take me back to my cooking school days when I was dirt poor (but determined to eat well!) and they were the only dishes I could afford from the corner café. The greatest compliment my customers can ever give me is telling me that my food takes them back to a specific place or memory.
Your goal is to create comfort food for everyone, from vegans to meat eaters, using high-quality, ethically sourced, seasonal ingredients. Can you talk about ethical versus local sourcing?
To only use local products would feel very limiting, so we try to find the best ingredients from all over the world. Living in New Mexico, we are blessed with many wonderful local growers and ranchers, but not all local sources have high standards, so it’s important to know your sources, both globally and locally.
There’s a process for creating a seasonal menu, and then there’s a process for creating a seasonal menu of box lunches and to-go-friendly meals during a global pandemic. How did you adapt to meet the challenges of the past year, both in terms of sourcing and of serving?
When creating a seasonal menu under normal circumstances, you just check with your suppliers, your customers, and the weather and let your creative juices fly, but during the pandemic, that model couldn’t work anymore. Suddenly, everyday items like eggs and beef were hard to get. Also, most of our customers seemed a little lost and were craving a slice of normalcy, so we went straight to making some of the most classic comfort foods we could think of: BLTs, chicken salad, carne adovada, fried chicken. We just wanted our customers to pick up a “culinary hug in a box,” and that’s what our Daily Box Lunches became.
What is your vision going forward? Do you think the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the relationship between chefs, restaurants, and customers? Are you planning wine dinners again? What can we expect from a paint party?
I don’t know that I have ever had a long-term vision; I’ve always just been inspired by what I perceive to be the needs of the local community. The pandemic has required chefs and restaurants to be more in tune with the psychological needs of their customers. The scariest part of the pandemic for food professionals was realizing that sitting down to eat in a restaurant is not an absolute necessity, so we are all going to have to step up our game.
I am absolutely planning wine dinners again! Our community is too small to support a full-time fine dining restaurant, so these wine dinners have become an opportunity to do “pop-up fancy dinners.” Also, this community is full of awesome wine nerds and collectors. I have a vision of doing paint parties out on the patio in the summer, but we have to wait for the spring winds to die down a little first.
You have experience doing volunteer work and have hosted fundraisers for local nonprofits. What are your priorities in supporting the needs of your greater community?
When I lived in Houston, I was approached about teaching classes at the Boys & Girls Club. I started teaching kids who had very limited resources how to cook healthy meals for themselves at home. That was over fifteen years ago, but since then, helping people battle food insecurity has been a top priority.
I feel a little embarrassed and humbled (and possibly even slightly guilty) about the amount of success I’ve had these last few years, so I feel the need to parlay the resources I have into giving back. I’m definitely not a saint or a martyr, but giving back is just something I feel morally compelled to do.
Your cooking career began in Houston, with time at Brennan’s and the Rainbow Lodge, among others. For readers unfamiliar with Houston’s expansive culinary terrain, can you share some of your favorite places to dine in Space City?
Houston is such an underrated culinary gem! The city has an ethnically diverse population of over eight million people, so you can find world-class food of any genre almost twenty-four hours a day. If I were to hop on a plane right now and visit five restaurants in Houston, they would be Brennan’s of Houston, for their inspired Gulf Coast cuisine, world-class service, and gorgeous patio; Rainbow Lodge for their creative and seasonal wild game–inspired dishes and stunning restaurant interior and grounds; El Tiempo Cantina for mouthwatering and authentic Mexican dishes that I still dream about at night; Mai’s for the ultimate Vietnamese comfort foods; and Collina’s Italian Cafe for delicious, no-frills Italian food.
Pig Mac—macaroni in a three-cheese béchamel, topped with candied bacon.