The Shed Project is Something Special

By Candolin Cook · Photos by Stephanie Cameron

Johnny Ortiz plates rose fruit, watermelon radishes, and raw cow milk butter. Right: Canyon grape, elk marrow, beetroot.

To get to one of the most extraordinary food experiences in the state, you must first locate a hand-painted sign that says “PIGS” on the side of highway 285, about two miles north of Ojo Caliente. Take a left and travel west another five miles to La Madera, population 125. Look for a building with “Apache Drums” on the facade, turn right, and follow a narrow dirt road until you reach Owl Peak Farm, home to the Shed Project.

Despite its remote location and predominately word-of-mouth advertising, the Shed Project dinner series has quickly become one of New Mexico’s worst-kept culinary secrets. Tickets to the eight-seat, eleven-course, thrice-monthly dinners consistently sell out, sometimes in a matter of hours. After dining there on a recent, unseasonably warm winter evening, it is easy to see why.

The other guests and I arrive an hour before dinner service to enjoy a mezcal and sumac cocktail, mingle, and explore Owl Peak’s bucolic, high-desert farmland. Eventually, we make our way into the “farmhouse,” an impeccably crafted and decorated adobe abode, with a cozy open floor plan. Diners sit at a large wood table in front of a crackling fireplace and in full view of the room’s small kitchen.

Chef Johnny Ortiz and his sous chef for the evening, his younger sister Allysa Ortiz, are hard at work preparing the first course, but he looks up briefly to give a sweet smile and wave. I’m struck by how young he is. I later discover that Ortiz is a sort of culinary wunderkind sprung from Taos Pueblo. In high school, he began bussing and prepping for Michael’s Kitchen and El Monte Sagrado in Taos, then headed to Chicago at nineteen. After only a couple of months, Ortiz landed every aspiring chef’s dream job—cooking at Grant Atchaz’s Alinea (one of the most-celebrated restaurants in the world, boasting three Michelin Stars and a James Beard Award).

As we take our seats at the communal table (which Ortiz made), Leia Layus—tonight’s host, server, sommelier, and educator—pours us a glass of Gruet’s 2011 Blanc de Blancs. Though most of the guests don’t know each other, Layus welcomes us as if we’re all old friends gathering for an intimate dinner party.

The small crew carries out our amuse bouche: a small, beige orb that is delicately balanced atop a white caliche covered volcanic rock. We’re instructed to eat it in one bite, and delighted when the orb explodes in our mouths like a water balloon. Ortiz explains the liquid interior is made with local apple cider and wild sagebrush, and the shell is cocoa butter. This is the kind of combination of molecular gastronomy and presentation that made Alinea famous, but it’s also indicative of Ortiz’s own creativity and use of ingredients and materials gathered from the local landscape.

Left: Winter squash, beans, landrace red chile, mushrooms. Right: Cactus fruit granita and goat milk yogurt.

After leaving Chicago, Ortiz cooked for The Willows Inn, a destination restaurant situated on a small island off the coast of northern Washington. There, he expanded his knowledge of terroir and seasonality through foraging and farming. At twenty-three, he secured a sous chef position at Saison—yet another three Michelin-star establishment—in San Francisco. While at Saison, he met Layus, a seasoned server for high-end restaurants. Yearning to collaborate on something “small and independent,” they used Kickstarter to begin the first iteration of the Shed Project in the Bay Area. In 2016, they decided to move the project to Ortiz’s home of Taos. “I wanted to live closer to family and to this land, and have the freedom to create on my own terms,” he says. Several local venues hosted the dinner series until it found its current home when Ortiz, who is now the sole owner of the project, accepted an offer from Owl Peak owner C.C. Culver to become a steward for the nonprofit, educational farm—which largely focuses on soil building and water restoration techniques.

Ortiz says the vision for the project is largely a meditation on time and space. “It is a portrayal of the fleeting nature of time,” he says. “Nothing lasts forever, so it is important to notice nature in the moment. For example, you may only have one chance to gather rose hips after the frosts and before the birds get them all.” As tonight is a winter dinner, one might expect a dearth of ingredients. But thanks to a large root cellar and a photoshoot-worthy pantry full of dried, foraged plants and preserved produce, we get to taste a full bounty of northern New Mexico’s wilderness.

Ortiz introduces each leisurely-paced course with a list of familiar and obscure local ingredients. Wild caught, smoked trout topped with watercress appears on a crisp potato chip. A delectable morsel of warm sun root, wild seeds, crow weed, and green chile defies definition. Spaghetti squash steeped in joint fir tea and powdered with bear root and a “biscochito” crumble tastes like it could cure whatever ails you.

All come plated on natural materials or micaceous clay and porcelain pottery created by Ortiz. For the Taos Pueblo-born chef and artist, working with clay has a meaningful, cultural significance: “I feel like it’s ingrained in my blood. For generations, my ancestors dug this clay and created pottery. Foraging for food and clay brings me closer to my family as well as the land.”

Throughout the evening, Layus educates us about local wine, talks about the work Ortiz and others do on the farm, and offers visions for mindful and sustainable foodways. Her training as a professional server is clear in her attention to detail and in her ability to invisibly clear a plate and field our endless questions. Layus explains what she believes constitutes good service and a positive dining experience: “Both [guest and server] have carved out time to be present in that moment. Why not approach it as an opportunity to create a genuine connection in a short period of time? Why not use that space to expand knowledge?”

Ortiz says food is his preferred medium to communicate what makes New Mexico special. “The culture, people, history, landscape—we can use food to tell those stories, and to tell our own,” he explains. “But we are purposefully vague about what our guests should take away from the dinner, because we want everyone to have their own experience. Some might be inspired to try foraging or take up ceramics, others might have just enjoyed someone’s company. But I hope, at the heart of it, they leave feeling happy, nourished, and more connected to the nature around them.”

With our final course—small dessert tamales made with native plum, Owl Farm blue corn, cedar ash, and licorice root—one of my fellow dinner guests remarks: “This has been so special. Someday we’ll be able to say we experienced this before it was a big deal.” Layus agrees with that sentiment, saying, “Beginnings are special. It’s a place where everything feels so alive.” Ortiz tells me that while he has plans for the project in the future, he is enjoying the intimacy of what it is now. “I think the location naturally filters out people who might take it for granted,” he says. For those who appreciate a powerful connection between their food and the place and people from which it came, the Shed Project is worth the trip.

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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.