Executive Chef/Partner at Paloma
Best Chef, Santa Fe
Photos by Douglas Merriam
Nathan Mayes grew up splitting time between Austin and Santa Fe, working in several acclaimed restaurants in both cities. After spending time cooking in New York, Mayes returned to Santa Fe in hopes of opening a restaurant. In 2017, he opened Paloma with business partner Marja Martin. Focusing on Mexican-inspired flavors made with local ingredients, Mayes cooks with both tradition and innovation.
First of all, how are you holding up during this crisis?
Whew . . . it’s been hard. You work your whole life to get a piece of your own restaurant and then the largest economic collapse of our lifetime hits. Nothing to do but to keep cooking and keep pushing forward until you literally cannot. I’ve just been putting my head down and cooking while trying to think optimistically about the future of dining.
Where did you develop your love for food and cooking? Do you have a favorite food memory from childhood?
I am from a food family. First of all, both my mother and father are great cooks. Ingredients and preparation were very important in our home. My father was an independent chef/owner in Austin. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in kitchens, not so much cooking, but more washing dishes, helping build and repair, and limited prep work.
My mother has a very good green thumb and raised us (my brother and sister) along with vegetable and flower gardens in our backyard. Both of my parents were very conscious of the integrity of the food we consumed growing up.
The smell of roasting poblanos takes me back to my childhood home, whereas the crunch of green onions in a salad takes me to my grandparents’ house. The smell of skillet-fried potatoes transports me to my other grandmother’s home, and the bite of a fresh-off-the-vine tomato puts me right back into my mother’s garden.
Paloma’s cuisine is “Mexican-inspired.” What inspires you about Mexican food and ingredients, and how do you put your own spin on it?
The complexity of ingredients, the tradition, the resilience of the cuisine, and the universal appreciation of Mexican flavors all inspire me. The history of the American Southwest is woven with Mexican culture and culinary tradition. The chiles, the corn, the beans—these are all the foods I grew up eating. I try not to get too fussy with things at Paloma. We want our food at Paloma to shine through the sourcing, flavor, and cooking process of the ingredients.
Can you tell us a bit about how Paloma had to adapt its business model during lockdown?
Like a lot of our neighbors, we had to start doing takeout. Not that it is in any way sustainable, but it did give us a pulse. We added a couple more casual to-go options that travel well, like our burrito and cheeseburger.
Did you experience disruptions to your food supply? Why or why not?
We had a lot of food shortages in the first couple months of lockdown. The beef processing plant closed for our local beef. Our local bean supply sold out. A lot of produce was hard to come by, especially in March. Luckily, as we moved into spring, local farms started having more produce we could supplement with.
Personally or professionally, have there been any silver linings for you during this difficult time?
Getting to spend time with my family was the most valuable silver lining in all of this. Eating dinner at home, having the opportunity to get rest, and getting quality time with the ones closest to me was invaluable. Professionally, perspective is the silver lining in all of this. I used the short time we were actually closed to think of ways to improve both as a restaurant and as a chef and leader. It was time and mental space you would never get if you were back on the grind.
Going forward, what do you hope we can learn from this experience, as it pertains to the restaurant industry?
I hope chefs and restaurants take this as a lesson in agility. I hope that the public continues to support locally and independently owned restaurants. The margins are very thin, even in the best times. Support small business and tip your server!
What’s next for Paloma?
We plan on expanding into a Sunday brunch service as soon as possible and continuing to grow with our neighborhood. We are planning on opening a small pizza restaurant next to us focusing on simplicity, quality, and seasonality in late 2020.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
I just want everyone to know how grateful I am to receive such an incredible award.
401 S Guadalupe, Santa Fe, 505-467-8624, palomasantafe.com
Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.