Street Food Institute / Executive Chef / Program Director
Olla Award, Local hero
Photos by Stephanie Cameron
David Sellers on the Street Food Institute food truck.
David Sellers has been a chef for twenty-five years. He began his career in New Hampshire, cooked in San Francisco for a couple of years, then moved to Santa Fe in the late nineties. Sellers was the chef at Santacafé for ten years before opening his own restaurant, Amavi, in 2007. In 2010, he and his family moved to Connecticut, where he was the chef at MaxFish, a high-end seafood restaurant. In 2014, he returned to Santa Fe to launch the Street Food Institute, a non-profit program and food truck dedicated to educating future chefs and food business professionals through courses and hands-on experience.
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 had a great job on the East Coast and loved working with all of the fresh fish, but my family and I missed Santa Fe. We were waiting for an opportunity when I went to my now brother-in-law’s wedding in Tennessee. One of my old employees (and a good friend) was in attendance as well. He knew we were looking for a way to move back and he was working for the fledgling Street Food Institute. He mentioned they were looking for a chef to launch the program. I flew back to Santa Fe to interview for the position and got the job.
Why did you want to work for the Street Food Institute?
I always like challenges in my work and have made an effort to do something completely different each time I change jobs. The teaching aspect of it was intriguing to me. Teaching people how to cook and watching the success of their culinary careers have always been two of the most rewarding parts of being a chef.
What is one thing you teach your students that you hope they take to heart?
I always teach them to instill passion into their cooking. People can tell when they are eating something that was made with care and passion.
Left: Notorious P.I.G.—chicken fried pork belly with Thai crab salsa and morita chile salsa matcha. Right: House smoked and house cured pastrami Ruben on marble rye.
What have your students taught you?
Many things. I tell all of my students that I am willing to learn from them, too. Cooking should be a non-ego-based exercise. If someone knows a better way to do something than you do, it’s okay. Chefs should take knowledge from wherever it comes.
What is a local food issue that is important to you? Why?
We do a lot of work with food justice and healthy cooking. It is really important to make sure that locally made foods are available to everybody, not just the people who can afford to pay top dollar. We also do a lot of teaching on how to use local foods in a healthy way.
How have your travels influenced your cooking, and is there a particular place you are most inspired by culinarily?
I have been really fortunate in that I have done a lot of traveling internationally. My travels are always very food-focused, learning about the authentic local cuisines, and seeking out the best food I can find. Picking a place that is the most inspiring culinarily is a tough one. I love Italy and Spain the most in European cuisine, but the most intense food scene I have experienced is Singapore. The sheer volume of all of the cuisines of the Far East is unbelievable––the greatest street food I have ever experienced.
Describe a perfect day of eating in Santa Fe.
That’s a tough one too, there are so many great options! New Mexican for breakfast and something outdoors for lunch in the summer. For dinner I like to do what I call the “dine around,” hitting three or four different places for a bite at each place.
What are your favorite activities outside of the kitchen?
Anything outdoors––skiing, hiking, biking. That’s why I moved back to New Mexico. I need to be close to the wilderness and the mountains.
What were your thoughts when you found out edible readers had selected you for the Olla Award?
I was stunned, honestly. I was surprised I was even nominated and fully assumed I didn’t have a chance at winning. It is really rewarding to see that the community recognizes the work that we do with the Street Food Institute.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
Just to say thank you for choosing me for the Olla Award!