A Beloved Spanish Art Thrives in New Mexico’s Culinary Scene
By Nora Hickey · Photos by Stacey M. Adams
The warm lights in the spacious, open-air room provide a low hum—a music all their own. Six figures on a stage sit, lit bright yellow, still as statues. As music, coaxed from guitars and drum, begins to shiver, so, too, do the women—seated, hair folded up and held by a comb, dresses long and colorful—and the single man standing behind them, slender and taut. The crowd watches with a silence that feels alive, heat and color ready to spill forth. And suddenly, it does. The stage lightens, and a man sings in Spanish with a voice that feels as warmly quenching as a Spanish sherry. The flamenco dancers sway in their places, not yet dancing, but communing with the audience and musicians before they begin their trio of famous dances.
The culmination of statewide effort, the Festival Flamenco Internacional de Albuquerque presents a variety of performances, tutorials, and celebrations, all flamenco focused, for a seven-day period. This Sunday night, cloudless with a nearly full moon, eager festival goers have gathered for the opening celebration in what has become the city’s foremost space for celebrating the relationship between food, drink, and flamenco, Hotel Albuquerque’s Tablao Flamenco. At Tablao, participants can order from a special menu of Spanish-inspired provisions while watching nuanced performances. Gilbert Aragon, executive chef at Hotel Albuquerque and its recently opened sister hotel, Hotel Chaco, and Chef Mark Miller of Coyote Café, in Santa Fe, created the menu for Tablao after traveling to Spain, the birthplace of flamenco.
“In Spain, there are little houses that host tablaos (where flamenco shows are performed). I remember one where this woman had been putting together flamenco shows at 1 am every day, serving gin and tonics with tapas like sliced meats, traditional chorizos, and it was just so fun,” Aragon remembers. “It looked simple, but it wasn’t—they are harvesting the best pork and curing it with years of tradition.” Although Aragon has Spanish roots, he didn’t really know or appreciate flamenco until that trip. “I truly understood why people are so drawn to it, it was like a trance, I was so focused on the dance, and the food was that perfect complement. The dance is so powerful and intense that the food has to kind of match that intensity,” he says.
In their search for flavors as vibrant as the centuries-old performance, chefs Aragon and Miller found that going back to the roots provided a well of inspiration. Miller encouraged Aragon to look at foundational recipes and ingredients as ways to make their own unique mark. “For Tablao, we wanted to start with the true traditions and have a little fun with them, to put our own spin on it,” he recalls.
The experimentation has led to culinary pieces of art. The food served at Tablao mimics the muscular movements of performance that unfold before it. While dancers and musicians commune on stage, so too do flavors and ingredients on the plate. “Those small bites are so powerful, there’s a lot of soul in that food as well, and that’s what the dance did. Spanish cooking to me is dancing,” he says.
Marisa Magallanez, director of the National Institute of Flamenco, is a consistent organizer in New Mexico’s flamenco scene and at Tablao, in particular. She sheds some light on the history and importance of the unique experience that tablaos provide. “The tablao is a performance venue model that emerged in Spain in the early twentieth century as a platform to develop and cultivate the essence of flamenco. The built-in intimacy between performers and artists has seen the emergence of master artists throughout generations. While accentuating flamenco’s innate vibrancy and energetic downpour, the venue contributes to the cultural heritage that abounds in our state, enriching flamenco experiences for both locals and visitors year-round. Patrons and students benefit from exposure to culturally and artistically rich performances and embodied histories,” she says.
Left: Tabla de charcutería y quesos. Right: Hotel Albuquerque’s Tablao Flamenco performance
The rousing entertainment that unfolds each night at Tablao during the annual festival, and each weekend during the rest of the year, is a result of decades of skirts swishing floors and heeled boots syncopating a beat to electrified crowds throughout New Mexico. The Spanish have been in the territory that is now New Mexico since Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led his expedition in 1540, but flamenco took a longer time to flourish in the state’s culture. Vicente Romero, Santa Fe native and world-renowned flamenco dancer, was a prominent figure in the state’s early flamenco scene of the 1960s. After returning to New Mexico from Spain in 1963, where he toured with the celebrated Ballet Español de Pilar López, Romero staged shows throughout the state, often to half-full auditoriums. The audience soon grew, however, when Romero took his art to Tesuque’s beloved restaurant, El Nido. There, he staged the intimate late-night tablao performances so common in Spain.
One New Mexican who witnessed Romero’s electric dancing in Tesuque was John Sedlar, who remembers the nights as glittering with an indescribable energy. “I used to be a busboy at El Nido, and later, my friends and I would go to Tesuque to watch María Benítez and Vicente Romero dance, these iconoclast dancers, in a very small, very intimate setting,” Sedlar recalls. Even before he was witness to some of the world’s most dynamic performers in his home state, Sedlar experienced flamenco in its birthplace of Sevilla, Spain. His father brought the family to Sevilla when he was stationed there with the army. “It was this tremendous introduction. We lived off base and all spoke Spanish and went to the feria to see the small booths of flamenco dancers, horses, guitarists,” Sedlar recalls. He also remembers the clout of smells and flavors. “The food there is violent—someone would cook and the smell of olive oil, garlic, anchovies, the super strong flavors of peppers and saffron, and the dance flamenco are all very violent. You wonder why these bodies of these young dancers don’t disintegrate,” Sedlar says.
After years of working in the food business, influenced by his experiences with Spanish culture and cuisine as well as his family’s own storied history with food (his great-aunt was Georgia O’Keeffe’s personal chef in Abiquiu), Sedlar opened his restaurant, Eloisa, in Santa Fe. Here, Sedlar developed a flamenco-inspired menu. To simply describe it as a meal, however, does little to paint the whole picture of the sensory experience of the dinners that emerged. Designed by Sedlar and Nicolasa Chávez, the author of the definitive guide to flamenco in New Mexico, The Spirit of Flamenco, these events engaged all the senses. “There would be a tour of a flamenco exhibition led by Nicolasa, and then the guests would go to the restaurant and have three courses, then a flamenco show. I created the menus to celebrate this dance and Spain, using heirloom tomato, Serrano ham, simple crema Catalan,” Sedlar says. These marks of flamenco can be seen on Eloisa’s standard menu, as well.
Duck albondigas and other tapas at Hotel Albuquerque’s Tablao Flamenco.
The performance of flamenco has enraptured many culinary visionaries of New Mexico. Restaurants such as The Cellar in Albuquerque and El Farol in Santa Fe create and serve their dishes in the milieu of the riveting art form. At La Boca, in the heart of Santa Fe, diners enjoy dishes of cured ham, black mussels, and octopus ceviche. Chef James Campbell Caruso infuses not only his food, but also his work ethic, with principles inherent to flamenco.
“The duende, or the gypsy soul, that force that animates and ignites flamenco artists, is the same thing that drives me as a chef, as an artist, and as a restaurateur. It is part of an indescribable magic that exists in restaurants. I do not think it can be fully seen or defined, but it is noticeable when it is there and it is noticeable when it is not. We have experienced it at La Boca, so we have a vague idea of what to strive for, we do not always nail it down and fully express it, but when we do, the customers, staff, even the building, experience the vibe that can be felt for blocks,” Caruso explains.
“It is a passion, a conviction, a commitment to cooking and hospitality that compels us to reach down deep, to convey this spirit to our guests, to sear the memory of the flavors and feelings of this moment in time into a long lasting buzz that makes the guests certain that they experienced something great, something positive, something out of the ordinary, something beyond the mundane, something unexpected, something they look forward to experiencing again, yet still, something that defies description,” he continues.
And in that buzzing room at Hotel Albuquerque, where warm light spills from huge lampshades and people sit family style with strangers drawn to talking over platters of albondigas and olives, the atmosphere feels alive with something beyond words. When the performance begins, it is like a movie seen in Technicolor for the first time—the performers bathed in an assault of color, expressing everything from regret to exhilaration. After an hour and a half, each dancer ends more disheveled than when they began. The love in this room for expression, for passion, and for life, is as visible as their loosened hair, the sweat on each performer’s brow. The crowd cries and claps furiously. The community embodies what Magallanez defines as flamenco: “It is more than a form of art, it is a lifestyle.”