Johnny Ortiz-Concha on Culinary Initiations and Honoring Time Through Food in New Mexico

The chef and founder of Shed dinner series project is this week’s guest on Place Settings.

By SAVEUR Editors

Published on October 20, 2022

Welcome to our new podcast, Place Settings. This season, we’re traveling across the U.S. to meet the chefs, farmers, makers, and creatives who are transforming the food space through their unique connection to a place. Tune in each week, as our editors chat with a food innovator whose personal journey is as compelling as what they’re putting on the plate. 

You could say today’s guest, Johnny Ortiz-Concha, is a bit of a mystic. His journey to finding himself as a chef doesn’t follow the typical career path—which has led him from the mountains of northern New Mexico to the kitchens of some of the country’s most prestigious restaurants. His first job was at Alinea in Chicago when he was only 19 (and the restaurant had just earned its third Michelin star), followed by a stint at Willows Inn off the Washington coast. At 23, while working at Saison in San Francisco, he was named an Eater Young Gun. But right when his star was rising, Ortiz-Concha left it all behind to return to the area surrounding the Taos Pueblo, where he grew up, and to follow his vision for a very personal project. 

Shed is an intimate dinner series that’s a direct expression of the wild 22-acre farm Ortiz-Concha now calls home. In the last few years he’s been nominated for a James Beard award and was a chef-in-residence at Stone Barns. Still, Ortiz-Concha has kept his hands in every part of the Shed process—he forages for ingredients (including collecting salt at a local lake), tends to the livestock, and digs for clay he then hand-shapes and fires into ceramic dinnerware. But as you’ll hear on this week’s episode, Shed is about more than serving a hyper-local meal. For Ortiz-Concha, it’s a larger investigation into connecting how we live, what we eat, and where we’re from. Here are a few more highlights from our host and executive editor Alex Redgrave’s conversation with him:

Lamb leg with quelites and red chile on a handmade plate by Johnny Ortiz-Concha from a recent Shed dinner.

On the Name “Shed”
“When a snake sheds its skin, it doesn't become less of a snake, it actually becomes more of a snake. And so this kind of idea of me wanting to shed these places that I've been or these experiences that I’ve had and become more of myself felt really applicable.”

On Honoring Time Through Food
“Once the monsoons hit, certain flowers come out, or once the frost hits, certain things are sweeter. And so time is actually my tempo of what to cook and how to cook it. [...] The rose fruit [on the farm] is only ripe after a certain amount of frost and then after that you have to race the birds to get them. So it is this very small moment where you can actually capture this perfect rose fruit. And it seems important to honor that encapsulation of time. The thing that I love about wild foods is that it kind of gives me a window into what my ancestors would have eaten at the Pueblo. There is a food culture and there are traditional foods, but they kind of are post-contact and they were given flour and sugar and chili and these other sorts of things. So it's nice to see what the terrain provides. I actually get a deeper connection with who I am and where I'm from.” 

On Following His Own Culinary Initiation
“At the Pueblo, all the young men go into initiation and there are different levels of it depending on what your parents want you to go into or have planned for you and your involvement with the place. I never got that initiation. [...] But the initiation process is somewhat of what I went through in this journey to different cities and different restaurants. It's kind of like leaving the familiar behind, being on your own, and having to figure it out in a lot of ways. And so even though I didn't get [initiated] at the Pueblo, I feel like this was that for me in my life and journey through food.” 

You can listen to the rest of this Place Settings conversationand catch each new weekly episodeon Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. 

Special thanks to Wisconsin Cheese for supporting this season. 

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