by Elizabeth Cunningham
This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing our new chef, Sophia Vigil. The aroma of cooking and baking filled the kitchen. It reminded me of a guest’s remark, “It smells like home.” Mabel considered the kitchen the nicest room in the house. It’s the heart of the house, now managed by Sophia.
In the quiet month of January, she was busy preparing a Valentine’s dinner to showcase to locals. I caught her in the middle of testing out dishes on the menu. On the grill garlic herb crusted tenderloin sizzled next to a roasted potato medley. Still hot from the oven, Alaskan king crab and tiger prawn Wellington pockets awaited the lemon and dill sauce simmering on the stove, to be topped with a finely sliced tri-color bell pepper garnish. One of the desserts had just been plated: star-shaped, orange-flavored dark chocolate truffles, sprinkled with powdered sugar and bits of orange peel.
Would it be OK to talk while she was cooking? “Oh, yeah,” she grinned, “I know how to multitask.”
Sophia’s defines her cooking as intentional. That means cooking from scratch, using fresh ingredients. She sources produce from local Taos-area farmers, who delight in having her select their fruits and vegetables. Sophia adjusts to guests’ dietary needs. Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes figure among the choices at every meal. Sumptuous gourmet breakfasts might include frittatas, pancakes, oatmeal, beautifully arranged fruit plates, biscuits and gravy, and sausage and bacon. One of the guests’ favorites is Sophia’s vegan enchiladas.
(recipe at end of page)
Well versed in contemporary American and world cuisines, this native Taoseña also draws on traditional northern New Mexican fare. Sophia grew up with the aroma of freshly baked sweets—traditional biscochitos (sugar cookies made with anise) and apple, prune, or pumpkin empanaditas (turnovers). On feast days, wafts of homemade mince-meat empanaditas, chili Caribe, green chili stew, tamales, and posole filled the kitchen.
And her earliest kitchen memory? At age five, watching her grandmother rolling out tortillas. Sophia longed to help. “Go play with your cousin,” her grandmother urged. This didn’t deter Sophia; she preferred the kitchen.
Sophia initially learned to cook from her maternal grandmother Trujillo and from her paternal grandmother Vigil. When the family gathered, the entire household of women—grandmothers, aunts, mothers, sisters and cousins—pitched in. Asked whether Sophia’s father ever cooked, she replied: “No, he eats!”
Charting her career, I discovered the ingredients that went into making Chef Sophia. A sampling follows in resumé form:
- Mastery of “all the basic rules” at the Art Institute of Colorado’s International Culinary School. The art of cooking and what makes a kitchen succeed. Gained knowledge of individual restaurant tasks by working all positions in the school’s restaurant.
- Year 2000: learned to cook and bake the variety of organic vegetarian, vegan, and Indian meals served in dining hall at the Maharishi University of Management (founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). Exposed to the principles of Ayurveda, gained insight into its five-thousand-year-old science of healing body, mind, and spirit through diet. Utilized freshly picked produce from University’s local organic farm; introduction to permaculture.
- Taos apprenticeship with the “thoroughbreds”, beginning in 2005 with award-winning chef Joseph Wrede. Became chef de cuisine at Joseph’s Table.
- Promotion to executive chef at the Taos Restaurant Group’s Old Blinking Light in 2009. Transformed normal Mexican menu into “high-end roadhouse” offerings including Baja Style fish tacos. Learned solid business management from TRG partner/ former OBL owner Michael Yaccino.
While at the Old Blinking Light, Sophia met Barbara Forsberg, the woman who introduced her to catering. Part of the Taos Restaurant Group, Barbara’s upscale catering business, the Brett House, often held events on the OBL’s spacious lawns. The two women became friends. Barbara remembers while in the middle of producing great quality food, the two of them had fun and laughed a lot.
Sophia was promoted to executive chef at Lambert’s (also owned by TRG) in 2010. At age 26 she worked 10-hour days in this well-respected restaurant. The hectic pace and long hours left little time to research the latest food trends. Sophia turned to Barbara for advice. What was the current popular fish? What did Barbara think of this salad idea? How would she handle certain employee issues? (Sophia would later reciprocate, lending Barbara an experienced hand on various catering jobs whenever time allowed, which continues to the present.)
Four years later Sophia moved from the cold stainless of the restaurant world to the warm wood of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. She found out about the job from her friend and long-time Mabel House staffer Paula Martinez, who sensed that Sophia would welcome a change. Sophia loved the House’s energy, and immediately felt at home. She saw the opportunity to buy the quality of food she wanted to cook and to write her own menus. Banking on lessons learned from Barbara – “You will keep excellent staff if you treat them well and pay them properly.” – Sophia began assembling her kitchen team. Educating them in the art of the kitchen was one of her goals.
I asked Vanessa Fortin what it’s like to work with Sophia. Beginning with practically no cooking experience, she appreciated learning basic elements of food preparation. Sophia first instructed her in the proper ways to wash, cut, and prepare vegetables. Vanessa learned the importance of reading and absorbing directions while following a recipe. She has mastered cookie baking and is currently learning how to make chocolate and truffles. “I’m so happy to work with Sophia, to be in her kitchen. We work well together. We have fun and we’re always laughing.”
Mabel once remarked that her guests loved to eat breakfast in the kitchen, “with the cheerful hum and bustle of cooking going on.” In keeping with that tradition, guests often wander into the kitchen to chat with Sophia. She welcomes these visits. In restaurants, she always worked the back of the house. She rarely saw people’s response to her creations. At Mabel’s, workshop participants stay for up to a week, so she may interact with them three or four times. Feeding people is Sophia’s great love. Nothing pleases her more than watching people enjoy her food. Creating something beautiful, delicious and nurturing is a sacred act, her way of making the world a better place. Es magico!
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Sophia will be offering a Valentine’s Day dinner at Mabel’s Table. There are a few places left, so call as soon as possible to secure your reservation.
To be added to the invitation list for future dinners, please contact General Manager, Julie Keefe, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
VALENTINE’S DAY DINNER — TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2017
Fresh Misty Point Oysters on the Half Shell
Mushroom Pate on Endive Leaves with Shaved Parmesan and White Truffle Oil v, g.f.
Garlic Herb Crusted Roasted Beef with Grilled Onions, Au Jus and Horseradish Butter Sauce
Alaskan King Crab and Tiger Prawn Wellington with Lemon and Dill Cream Over Stuffed Jumbo Mushrooms v, g.f
Roasted Baby Potato Mash v, g.f.
Vegetable Medley v, g.f.
Arugula Lentil Salad v, g.f.
Assorted Truffles, Cakes and Puddings
Appetizers begin at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. Advanced payment of $50 per person (gratuity included) is required. Alcohol will not be served, but you are welcome to bring your own to this event.
Seating is limited, so please call the Mabel Dodge Luhan House as soon as possible at 575-751-9686 to secure your reservation.
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Chef Sophia Vigil’s Vegan Enchiladas
Here’s my version of a northern New Mexican favorite. Traditionally loaded with meat and cheese, these are a lighter, healthier alternative.
It’s always best to start from scratch. This way it leaves plenty of room both for error and for creativity.
But for an easier approach, you can buy pre-made stock, corn tortillas, grated cheese and frozen chili. You may even be able to improvise the whole ingredient list.
Now…. For the chili….
Oil 1/8 cup
Onion, diced ½ cup
Garlic, diced 3 cloves
Brown rice flour 1/8 cup
Green chili powder 2 tbs
Cumin, ground 1 tbs
Coriander, ground 1 teaspoon
Oregano, ground 1 tbs
Salt to taste
Vegetable stock 1 ½ cups
Diced green chili 13 oz (1 small Bueno container)
Step 1: Heat a 4-quart stock pot until the bottom is hot. Test by sprinkling water drops, as soon as the water drops sizzle, add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion.Cook until the onions are translucent, about ten minutes, then add the garlic and stir for about a minute until the fragrance releases.
Step 2: Add brown rice flour and cook an additional five minutes, stirring constantly to keep the rue from burning. Incorporate green chili powder, cumin, coriander, oregano, and salt.
Step 3: Turn the heat to medium low and slowly whisk in the vegetable stock. Then add in the diced green chili.
Step 4: When the chili comes to a boil, turn it down to a simmer. Stir occasionally and allow it to cook for at least twenty minutes. Season to taste. This sauce tastes even better when you let it chill overnight.
Once you have made your delicious sauce, it can be very versatile. The fillings for the enchiladas are limitless.
Blue corn enchiladas with caramelized onion, mushroom and spinach are yummy.
Another delicious filling I make for our guests is vegetable and potato. Small diced onions, carrots, mushrooms, squash, corn and Yukon gold potatoes, in the following amounts:
onion ½ cup
carrot ¼ cup
mushroom ½ cup
squash ¼ cup
corn ¼ cup
potato 1 cup
Step 1: Sauté these ingredients until tender and use a fork to mash the potato with the vegetables. Set aside.
Step 2: Dip corn tortillas in hot oil and pat dry with paper towel while the tortilla is still soft.
Step 3: Put a spoonful of the filling in the tortilla with a tablespoon of chili sauce and roll the tortilla around the mixture. Place seam side down on a plate or in a casserole dish, smother with chili, garnish with cilantro and serve.
Buen Provecho! Bon Appetit! ENJOY!
Author’s appreciation: Thank you to Taos-based photographer Shanti Duval and her lighting assistant Jozsua Martinez for helping illustrate the writing; to Barbara Forsberg for her insights on Sophia; to Mabel House general manager, Julie Keefe, and docent, Judy Gentry, for providing assistance.