a Chef Comes Full Circle on Canyon Road

Story and Photos by Gabriella Marks

Chef Sllin Cruz at Geronimo’s.

A chef’s journey is shaped by many appetites. There is the elemental hunger in the human stomach, there’s the craving to ascend through the regimented hierarchy of a kitchen, and there’s the insatiable curiosity to master new techniques and tastes. Most significantly, there also exists a hunger to express one’s deeply held dreams, beliefs, and values through the shared experience of one person cooking for another. Sllin Cruz, executive chef and partner at Santa Fe’s iconic Geronimo, knows each of these appetites well. On a break from a busy night’s service, poised and relaxed in the upper pastry kitchen, he tells me his story in a soft voice and with a glint in his eyes.

When Cruz made his way to Canyon Road nearly a decade ago, it was his first time in Santa Fe. His travels had taken him from kitchens in Oregon to Taos, and back to his native Mexico, where he helped open and became sous chef at an Italian restaurant in Jalisco. His nomadic appetite unsatiated, he came to Santa Fe, not knowing a soul. Within twenty-four hours of his arrival, he talked his way into a stage (the culinary equivalent of an audition or internship) at The Compound. By the end of the night, he was officially on the line.

Within a year, Cruz was recruited to Las Campanas, where he rose through the ranks from banquet to sous chef, then chef de cuisine to interim executive chef. During that time, he met and interviewed with Charles Dale, then executive chef of Terra at Encantado Resort. Cruz impressed Dale, who extended him offers to join Terra, but the timing and circumstances hadn’t yet aligned.

At Las Campanas, Cruz gained valuable skills necessary to be a successful chef. With the title of executive chef comes the responsibility of running the business side of a kitchen—the symbiotic art of management and math. As Cruz attests, being a chef is perhaps thirty percent culinary technique, creativity, and inspiration, and seventy percent numbers and leadership.

Dale departed Terra in 2013 to launch his own French fine dining establishment, Bouche. He asked Cruz to join him as his chef de cuisine, and this time he accepted. As Chef Dale describes, “Sllin and I joined forces to open Bouche Bistro. His dedication and steadfastness proved to be the rock on which the restaurant was built.”

Left: Maple-Balsamic Glazed Pork Shank. Right: Grilled Center-Cut Ribeye Steak.

That kind of expertise rarely goes unnoticed, especially in the competitive world of fine dining. In 2014, Chef Eric DiStefano came calling, in need of a chef de cuisine for Geronimo. There, back on Canyon Road, Cruz met perhaps his greatest challenge yet: to step in and hold the reins of a renowned kitchen running more than a little wild. His first day was met with disarray: cooks clamoring for out-of-stock ingredients and direction. Cruz transformed the crew into a well-tuned team that exceeds the expectations of diners on a nightly basis.

The foundation upon which Cruz has built this success is informed by two steadfast imperatives: relentless attention to detail—he inspects every plate before it leaves the kitchen—and a passionate belief that the best food, no matter how elegant, must remain simple and heartfelt. In his own words, “The best food that you can eat is the food made with real love. It can be really simple, but it’s made for you. It’s personal: I cook for you. I care for you. I’m going to make this for you to enjoy. It just comes from the heart.”

To this day, when he returns to the remote village La Huacana in the western state of Michoacan, Mexico, his mother rises early to prepare a meal for his arrival. These types of experiences, along with the memories, inform Cruz’s dishes at Geronimo.

Eidetic memory is the ability to recall vividly a sensory experience with high precision. Visually, we call it photographic memory, but this phenomenon can apply to other senses as well. As Cruz describes it, he “remembers” new dishes into existence. With a high degree of accuracy, he knows how a specific combination of ingredients, prepared with certain techniques, will look and taste. “It’s all in here, and you feel it. Obviously, it’s all connected—your heart, your brain—
because you know the flavors. That’s how I approach plates when I put something together.”

Where will Cruz’s appetite take Geronimo next? “I think we’re ready for a new evolution. Everything needs to keep moving forward.” And what will that direction be? That, dear reader, is for you to discover, the next time your travels take you up the languid curves of Canyon Road, to the historic Borrego House, built in 1756 by namesake Geronimo Lopez, home of one of Santa Fe’s very finest restaurants, and this very special chef.

724 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, 505-982-1500

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