Local Hero: Restaurant, Albuquerque

An interview with John Haas, Cofounder and Partner

Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Back row, left to right: Damien Lucero, Austin Leard, Chris O’Sickey, Amanda Romero, Ernest Nuñez,
Shawn Cronin, Cory Gray, and Robin Dibble. Front row, left to right: Jeff Spiegel, Katie Gardner,
Sherri Rivenburgh, and John Haas.

“Community to us is everybody,” says John Haas, whose passion for food led him to serve as M’tucci’s executive chef for nine years. Now a partner and the company’s president, he is driven by seeing the success of others around him. Haas is most proud of the amazing talent that M’tucci’s calls its work family. His goal with food is to create approachable and familiar dishes built around clean, vibrant, seasonal flavors. Many of the dishes are inspired by his time with Italian-born chefs in the Midwest and Italy, as well as creative interpretations of classic dishes and flavor profiles. 

Why Italian? And for someone considering their first meal at any M’tucci’s location, what distinguishes each of your four restaurants?

Italian is something that Jeff Spiegel, M’tucci’s cofounder, felt there was an opportunity for in Albuquerque. I had spent most of the previous ten years preparing Italian cuisine, which made it something that we could quickly agree on. We also believe strongly in the community table and how meals can bring people together. In our minds, few cultures represent that better than Italian culture.  

Each location has its own unique identity built around the community that surrounds it. However, there are noticeable common threads. Our “welcome home” style of service, the local neighborhood feel in our bars, and the fact that 25 to 33 percent of the menu can be experienced at every location. It’s fun to look back and see the progression of our company from the first location (M’tucci’s Italian) to our newest (M’tucci’s Bar Roma).

Talk about your salumi and sausages. What is their role on your menus? How do you decide when to use M’tucci’s house-cured meats and when to source from Italy or elsewhere?

From day one, we have worked hard to develop a food program where we can basically say “if you ate it here, we made it here.” However, there are exceptions where we don’t feel we’ve perfected some recipes and we must make the decision to either source it or exclude it from our menu. Our goal is to make everything in-house, but not at the price of serving a subpar product. With these old-world techniques, especially salumi, it can take months or years for us to perfect. It’s in those moments that we will source something until we think we’ve created a superior product.

Left: Wagyu Picanha Steak. Right: Prosciutto and Fennel Salad.

To take it in the other direction, what is one of your favorite vegetarian dishes? What’s key to building texture and flavor without meat? Dare to offer any opinions on “meat analogues,” a.k.a. fake meat?

If I’m choosing from our menu, it’s undoubtedly eggplant parmesan. I think it’s such a comforting dish and I think the version we serve is just exceptional. I don’t feel there’s really a different approach to vegetarian food. All food is built around a basic premise for me: layered flavors, vibrant and distinguishable flavor profiles, texture, a balance of sweetness and acidity, technical execution, and some degree of approachability. 

As far as “meat analogues,” and this may not be the most popular answer, but there is little interest in them among our chef team. We believe in bringing in foods that aren’t processed or preprepared, and it’s safe to say that developing our own versions [of meat analogues] has never been discussed. We’d rather focus on how to balance a dish with the raw ingredients we work with than change our approach to our culinary identity. 

Do you have a favorite aromatic? Where do you source it? 

Good question. As simple as I like to keep things in life, there is never a simple answer for me; I don’t have a favorite aromatic, but I have favorite combinations of aromatics. Many of them don’t make their way into our restaurants because they don’t fit along the lines of Italian cuisine. One of my favorite more common combinations is garlic, anchovy, olive oil, and tomato.

How do you balance managing night after night of service with cultivating new ideas and growth among your team? Did you start with a vision of giving ownership to motivated staff members, or did that develop over time?

I don’t think it’s so much about balancing it all because it’s not really a balancing act when it’s so intertwined with your approach toward people. If you’re fully committed to the growth of your team, I believe you will discuss and involve them in the process of cultivating new ideas so they can start to align themselves with your thought process.

It was always part of our plan and something Jeff and I were in complete agreement on. The value of having a core group of partners who are career focused and committed to the same goal is immeasurable.  It was something we felt was instrumental to achieving our long-term vision. I think it’s also important to point out the big difference between giving and earning. Every partner in our company has gone above and beyond the highest expectations to earn their ownership. 

Who chooses the playlists for your dining rooms?

Funnily enough, this is a current hot-button topic for us. In the past, probably too many people. In the near future, a very select few (who will remain anonymous for their own protection) will build the playlists.

Anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?

If you love our restaurants, you should reach out to us about catering. It’s one of M’tucci’s largest focuses going into 2023 and, secretly, probably one of the things we are most exceptional at. We really just love to throw a party, whether it’s in our restaurant or at the place of your choice.

Multiple locations in Albuquerque, mtuccis.com