IT'S HARD TO TELL who’s having more fun at Santa Fe’s renowned restaurant Sazón—diners savoring the unique blend of traditional and contemporary Mexican cuisine or celebrated chef and owner Fernando Olea. Originally from Mexico City, he finds joy in making memorable meals. His recipe for success includes a wide range of moles, such as the New Mexican Mole he created with apricots, piñons, pecans, Chimayó red chile, and white chocolate for Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary. Olea launched his culinary career in 1991, when he bought Bert’s Burger Bowl, famous for its green chile cheeseburgers. After closing the burger shack, he opened Bert’s La Taqueria, serving tacos and mole, followed by the upscale El Encanto (later called Epazote). Sazón, his sole culinary focus now, opened downtown in 2015 and was recently ranked by Tripadvisor as the fourth best fine dining restaurant in the country. Despite a fire that closed Sazón for seven months in 2019 and a pandemic that overwhelmed the restaurant industry, Olea is still cooking, with a grateful heart and soul.
I learned to cook in Mexico with my sister, my mother, my grandma. That’s where I started getting interested in food.
In Mexican cuisine, we have two types of sauce: salsa and mole.
There are many different kinds of mole. The mole that brings lots of memories is the mole poblano. That is the mole that my grandma used to make. That was very special. That wasn’t an everyday mole.
Mole poblano is sweet, but as kids we would put more sugar on it. Oh my God, that was like candy. We’d eat it like a sauce, or with bread.
What made me want to become a chef was, in America, people inviting me to eat at Mexican restaurants. Unfortunately, not one of the restaurants was a Mexican restaurant. It could have been a Tex-Mexican restaurant, but it was not Mexican food.
I started rescuing recipes from my family. My mother’s recipes have a legacy from my grandma. I got the recipes for mole poblano, which is from the city of Puebla; for tinga, which is like traditional stew from Puebla; and for salpicón, a salad with shredded beef, radish, and chipotle.
These dishes are often on the menu as specials.
Chile is the one spice that I can’t live without. At Sazón, we use chile in every dish, from the appetizer to the dessert, the beginning to the end.
I personally can’t eat chile that’s too spicy. I like to use chile to the level of heat that entices your palate, not kills your taste buds.
We had a fire in 2019 and closed for seven months. Our insurance company covered it, and somehow we were able to cover the staff’s salary for seven months. We reopened December 12, and then the pandemic hit and we closed in March.
We reopened serving takeout Mexican street food: tacos, tostadas, and flautas.
I have the fortune to have great business partners, and my staff has been amazing. We have a family here, and without my family we wouldn’t be able to survive.
To me, the most important thing is the people who are going to enjoy the food. Cooks like me, we have a big responsibility and the privilege to prepare meals for people, to create something special. There’s not a better place to enjoy time with friends and family than at the table. We want to make guests feel like they are coming to a friend’s home.
Whatever you cook, put your heart and your soul in it. You’re going to make the most amazing food that people are going to love.