Chef Thomas Hartwell.

Top right: Flourless chocolate torte garnished with raspberry coulis. Bottom right: Sirloin steak and heirloom cauliflower.

By Candolin Cook · Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Pulling up to Hilton Santa Fe’s Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino on the Pojoaque Pueblo, I have two things that keep running through my mind: the earworm that is Buffalo Thunder’s signature jingle (“At the playground, Santa Fe’s playground…”) and my puzzlement as to why edible Santa Fe has sent me to write an article about a casino restaurant. I envision a dining area similar to a casino floor: loud in both decibels and décor. But as I enter the casino’s upscale Red Sage Restaurant, I am struck by how inviting the space is. Windows line the entire back wall, providing a stunning view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; an immense glass wine cellar showcases the restaurant’s award-winning selection; and an open kitchen looks onto a sleek modern dining room tastefully accented with contemporary Native American art.

Red Sage’s new executive chef, Thomas Hartwell, greets me with a wide, toothy grin and reminds me of a more jovial John Wayne. I learn Hartwell’s culinary background is as diverse as it is impressive. He trained at Michelin star restaurants in West Germany and France; cooked at various high-end hotels and resorts; and managed UCLA’s dining services department. His most recent post, as chef for the highly acclaimed Spanish tapas eatery Zuzu, in Napa, California, allowed for recipe-swaps with Thomas Keller and bicycle commutes through wine country. Although Hartwell speaks affectionately about his years cooking in Napa Valley, he and his wife were ready for a change and decided to relocate to New Mexico in late 2014. He officially became the executive chef at Red Sage in December.

I confess to Chef Hartwell that I am pleasantly surprised by Red Sage’s atmosphere, and that I expected something a bit more casino-y.

“That [perception] is our biggest obstacle in terms of tapping into the local market,” he says. “We have a truly warm and relaxing environment. There just happens to be a casino in the basement.” Hartwell would also like locals to realize they don’t have to spend a whole weekend here to enjoy the resort and restaurant. “You can come up for the afternoon, enjoy the spa or golf course, or just come for a meal.” Since beginning his tenure as executive chef, Hartwell has developed a straightforward strategy to attract more local clientele. “We need to get the word out that we are accessible, then give people a reason to visit here, and give them a reason to come back.”

Reasons to visit include seasonal menus featuring locally sourced ingredients; new happy hour specials (largely aimed at Los Alamos commuters); and the recent acquisition of the ever-elusive Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. “I’m very proud of that. There’s only two or three places in New Mexico that serve it.”

Hartwell explains that because of chef turnover in the past, Red Sage has suffered from a bit of an identity problem. Over the past few months, Hartwell and his team “took a lot of time talking about what we wanted Red Sage to be. The conclusion we came to is to go back to the restaurant’s original intent, which was the marriage of New Mexico’s historic food cultures (Native American, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo, and New Mexican) and do it in a way no one else is.”

Because of the transition to a new chef, Red Sage has only recently updated its winter menu, which now includes Hartwell’s favorite dish, a crispy-skin salmon fillet with a butternut squash puree, and a black bean and corn salad. An homage to the three sisters, the dish is representative of Red Sage’s renewed commitment to engaging with its Pueblo community.

Hartwell’s face lights up as he describes the restaurant’s new partnership with the Pueblo’s Tewa Farm. “At the beginning of last year, [former Pojoaque Pueblo Governor] George Rivera came to us and told us about the farm. He asked, ‘Why can’t we use that produce here?’ We said, ‘Give us everything you have.’” Last year the farm provided fingerling potatoes, torpedo onions, celery, and chiles. This year, Hartwell says, Tewa Farm is diversifying and expanding their production to keep up with the restaurant’s demand. Row covers and greenhouse modifications will create more favorable conditions for delicate greens, such as mizuna, baby lettuces, and microgreens. Hartwell has also recently collaborated with the Pueblo’s bison program, where students learn to butcher whole animals, and he plans on starting an internship program with the Pueblo’s high school. “We want to get involved with the community as much as we can.”

Participation in charity and community food events in Santa Fe has helped Red Sage expose more locals to its food. One example: competing in edible Santa Fe’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown at the Railyard in September. Chef Hartwell’s burger consisted of a beef and buffalo patty basted in red chile, then grilled with onions and tomatoes, and topped with green chile, sharp white cheddar, and a brioche bun. To my dismay, Hartwell tells me they have recently taken the burger off Red Sage’s dinner menu. “Don’t worry,” he reassures, “it is still on the secret menu and people in-the-know order it all the time.”

Although Red Sage’s menu reflects a host of sophisticated techniques and unique ingredients (think huitlacoche, yuzu, padrones, and heirloom cauliflower), its chef says his palate has become simpler since leaving the foodie-fantasy world of Napa Valley. He clarifies: “I like when simple foods are done elegantly. New Mexico has shown me that fry bread, sopapillas, a green chile cheeseburger—those things can be truly beautiful.” I ask him where he likes to eat out on a day off. “I’m growing an affection for the Loyal Hound Pub in Santa Fe.

They do great corn dogs! Anybody who does corn dogs I’m okay with.”

Red Sage brands itself as a New American Grill—a somewhat ambiguous term that basically means modern fusion cuisine. Hartwell, however, prefers to think of his dishes as upscale comfort food. “I really want to make people feel comfortable here. I don’t consider it fine dining; there are no white tablecloths. But the restaurant is beautifully designed, and there’s a lot of talent. I think the food will stand up to anybody in town.”

20 Buffalo Thunder, 505-819-2056

+ other stories

Candolin Cook is a history doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, an associate editor for the New Mexico Historical Review, and editor of edible Santa Fe. She spends much of her free time washing carrots and radishes at her husband’s vegetable farm, Vida Verde Farm, in Albuquerque's North Valley. Come check out their booth at the Downtown Growers Market, and follow her farm life on Instagram: @candolin and @vidaverdefarmabq.