FROM A TIJERAS KID teaching himself the basics of salsa, Sean Sinclair has blossomed into a chef worth knowing. His Bar Castañeda, at the renovated Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, was the only U.S. restaurant in the Forbes web story “10 Favorite Restaurants of 2021.” Between that and reopening the Legal Tender Saloon & Eating House in Lamy, south of Santa Fe, this 33-year-old is making culinary history with a respect for his historic surroundings.
“The Castañeda is such a wonderful and special property,” he says. “Fred Harvey—a pioneer of hospitality in the American Southwest—actually worked inside the building. Too many important historical buildings have been leveled, which I believe to be one of the great tragedies of our generation.”
At Bar Castañeda, he deftly mixes classics like chicken liver pâté and lamb pot pie with green chile smash burgers and a vegetarian ravioli. At Legal Tender, diners are diving into dishes like his mole sauce with slow-roasted pig.
Sinclair’s menus contain elements of current food trends but tip a hat to the popular dishes of yore. That connection goes back to when he helped his grandmother Dora Lorenzo “stir this” and “mix that” in her kitchen. “Eventually she let me help really put the dishes together,” he says. “She showed me how she browned the beef for chile or how to roll a tamale.”
One Christmas, his parents got a Slap Chop as a gag gift. Sinclair grabbed it and made his first solo salsa. “I was probably eight,” he says. “From then on, I was hooked and started preparing grilled steaks, asparagus, and baked potatoes for family dinners.”
After high school he enrolled at the University of New Mexico, but he immediately began cutting class to work kitchen shifts at the Chama River Brewing Co. He soon switched to the Western Culinary Institute, in Portland, Oregon, and then built a résumé that included stints at Albuquerque’s Farm & Table and the Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Virginia. “Chef Patrick O’Connell taught me to dream big,” he says of his time at the latter, a three-star Michelin restaurant. “Being in the presence of a master, I hung on every word. I still do. He’ll always be my hero.”
Two and a half years later, he took over as executive chef at Luminaria, the restaurant at Santa Fe’s Inn and Spa at Loretto, and eventually crossed paths with Allan Affeldt, the entrepreneur who was then finishing renovations at the Castañeda. Affeldt said he needed a chef. Sinclair balked. Move with his wife, Katey, to Las Vegas? Weather the renovation’s final stages? But Affeldt offered him free rein, and the dream of an elite destination restaurant, called Kin, took shape.
COVID-19 forced him to delay Kin’s big debut, although it occasionally opens for special events. But he continued to develop the bar and eatery, which boasts a porch that wraps all the way around the grand building, perfect for outdoor dining. Sinclair set out to lure a more local crowd with straightforward dishes as well as a bottle shop selling wines and carryout meals.
“The pandemic forced me to be creative,” he says. “It also gave me something I didn’t know I needed: time off. It helped me create a bit more balance between my life and my work.”
In March 2021, that breather produced a dividend: a daughter, River Roux. “Little River has changed everything for the better,” he says. “I find myself being more productive while working so I can get home to see her sooner. Being a dad is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. That little girl changed my life. She changed the way I perceive time.”
When the opportunity arose last fall to get involved in another of Affeldt’s properties, the Legal Tender, by the old railway depot in Lamy, Sinclair added it to his lineup. “I must be crazy,” he texted me at the time, but he threw himself into putting his culinary stamp on the storied property.
“It’s been so many different things—a museum, model train display, cocktail bar, cheap eats, steakhouse,” he told me recently. “People often show up just to see the historic building and are then pleasantly surprised that there is a restaurant inside.”
Fans of the Old West delight in its saloon style, now streamlined for a 21st-century audience. The narrow barroom still features its original carved-wood Brunswick bar. A balcony and stage were removed from the main dining room to create more space, and a fireplace warms diners in an adjacent area.
Sean and Katey, who helps with front-of-house duties, abide by two tenets: “There are no problems, only solutions,” and “Focus on being hospitable.” With those, the couple have created a fresh and modern concept that honors a sense of place rooted in railroad history. I think they’re on the right track.
"We put a lot of love into making the Harvey Smashburger at Bar Castañeda," says Chef Sean Sinclair. "It’s one of the most memorable burgers you’ll ever have. From sourcing whole beef for the patty to making the buns from scratch, a lot of steps make this simple dish special."
"This is my favorite dish at Bar Castañeda," says Chef Sean Sinclair. "We serve it with white balsamic pickled fennel, Sauternes jelly, pickled mustard seeds, and house-made crackers. I eat more of it than I am proud to admit. Get some good organic livers to make this. The Mary’s brand, sold at Whole Foods, is good. I buy mine from Lotus Farms, in Tijeras."