Above: Johnny Ortiz says he and his girlfriend, Afton Love, spend more time foraging, tending animals, and making art than they do in the kitchen. Photographs by Douglas Merriam.
DRY TREE BRANCHES AND TURNING LEAVES crack underfoot as we amble through a dense forest of ponderosa pine. It’s the third week of October and the chill in the air is sharp, and the sky the kind of heavy gray that looks like smeared paint across a canvas, its opaque light hardly filtering through the boughs. The trail eventually leads to Wheeler Peak, north of Taos, but we drift around the same small stretch, cutting through brambles, across a half-frozen brook, and over fallen trees whose upturned roots clutch boulders and hunks of soil even in their horizontal state. Everything, it seems, is going dormant.
Johnny Ortiz pulls out a hand-forged trowel from an oversize white canvas bag and kneels down after spotting a wilting golden-brown stem about two feet tall. “When the plant is dormant, all the energy goes back into the root—that’s when you want it,” he says, scooping away trowelfuls of cold, dark soil filled with fibers and wriggling out one defiant rock. Then I see the root, earth-colored and covered in tiny, coarse hairs. Ortiz, who runs Shed, a small-scale dinner series in La Madera that serves dishes highlighting seasonal and foraged ingredients, keeps chipping away for the next several minutes, his long hair blending in with the surrounding branches. He then cuts out a three-inch portion. As he holds it up, its fibrous pale-yellow interior immediately emits a warming aroma.
Though the leaves and stem might be confused for poison hemlock, the root has the unmistakable smell of osha. It’s an astringent scent that’s hard to describe. Maybe a mix of ginger and celery, but always recognizable and found only in the subalpine regions of the Rocky Mountains where we stand. I grew up knowing that curanderas used it to treat upper respiratory illnesses and that it was lent to them by Native cultures who applied it similarly. Ortiz explains that even bears roll in it after hibernation, compelled by the primal knowledge of its immune-boosting benefits. That’s how osha got its other name, bear root, he tells me.
His bag has 10 gnarled roots at most, each a fragment of a much wider system, each leaving a small void in the earth that he then covers with the same soil, making sure that the rich mycelium—“nature’s internet,” as he calls it—remains relatively undisturbed. The mass of filaments will continue to nourish the plant’s many other “runners,” he explains, speaking of a mother plant’s offshoots, while filling the ground in with his hands. I look around and envision this network of underground limbs spreading beneath my feet and under all the rocks that have been lodged in place for lifetimes, all drumming with energy even when the forest is at its greatest repose.
Above: Ortiz in his kitchen.
“It’s actually more destructive to buy these materials than to sustainably harvest them,” he continues, cautious of reaping too much. Ortiz takes only enough to “serve and sustain” himself, using osha, which he calls “New Mexico’s ginseng,” as a spice, much like cinnamon. With a Microplane grater, he dusts delicate flecks of the dried root onto some of his dishes.
Ortiz, who is soft-spoken and nearly always wearing an army-green hat that has seen better days, doesn’t belabor his philosophy of sustainability. But as the temperature begins to dip, I intuit that foraging here in the wilderness with a kind of measured sparseness undoubtedly plays into a committed ethic to the land and to seeking out and serving the foods our high-desert ancestors ate without ever taking too much. There are few altruistic models of this kind in the nation, much less the world, but a handful of chefs have revived an ancient approach to conscious consumption in what’s being called the “wilderness-to-table” movement. Donning their muddy boots and with recyclable tote bags in hand, they probe the landscape for the edible plant life that a majority of Westerners have long been estranged from, owing to the rise of food monocultures. Ortiz’s food philosophy revolves around foraging and thus maintaining wild plant and animal ecosystems, as well as farming and raising animals, plus digging clay to make much of the ceramic ware in which his meals are served. Shed’s dinners, which consist of a prix fixe menu of 12 small plates, are but the “fruiting body” of an entire ecology.
Raw elk meat crowned by a spray of rosa de campo. Paper-thin bison carne seca delicately arranged on a cedar plank. Anasazi beans and red chile served in a black mica bowl. Ortiz prepares every meal with his girlfriend, artist Afton Love, three weekends out of the month, for a table of 8 to 12 people. When the plates arrive, they’re like artworks for one, intimate and minimal and with no more than a few bites to savor. All accentuate wild plants that come from the surrounding area, yielding flavors that are perhaps foreign to our conditioned tongues, at once intense and subtle—and of this place.
ON THE NIGHT OF THE DINNER, number 45.5, it feels as if winter has set in, though it’s not even November. Guests arrive around 5:15, the cold sticking to their jackets as they enter. Within minutes, Love begins serving the cocktail, an earthy mezcal mixed with three-leaf sumac syrup and cactus fruit, chilled by frozen hunks of rose quartz, which make the cup heavy and refract the pink of the liquid. Newcomers and veterans mingle, 12 of us in total. One woman, who lives between Carson, just down the way, and New York City, has been to the dinner series “at least 30 times,” she says. There’s a couple visiting from Boulder, Colorado, a television producer from Los Angeles, and a handful of visitors from Santa Fe, all of whom, like me, are driving back afterwards. All have made what amounts to a kind of pilgrimage to this tiny town, just 10 minutes north of Ojo Caliente, driven by anticipation and word of mouth.
Above: Ortiz preparing elk meat.
This is only the Shed’s most recent location—an old rented dance hall in La Madera—and is itself temporary as Ortiz and Love ready another building in Vallecitos, an adobe house that they’ll one day live in, which shares the property of a defunct mercantile that they envision as Shed's ultimate location. Until then, they stay in an Airstream nearby. But even with all the talk of moving and renovations, the ambience here is relaxed and the light low, like a Caravaggio painting.
The walls are immediately recognizable as adobe—heavy, and painted white all the way up to the rafters and uninsulated roof. Bouquets of cota, a flower in the aster family with long, thin leaves and a delicate yellow crown, hang from the wall drying. Glass jars holding other dried herbs cover most other surfaces. Fermenting vinegars in multiple hues of red sit in large vessels along the far side of the space next to two large metates, one from Acoma Pueblo, the other from Nambé. A large antique black-and-white wood-burning cookstove is parked against the wall, a micaceous clay pot bubbling with beans on its surface. There’s also an induction stove next to the sink, and, on a shelf below, a Kermit the Frog puppet that once belonged to Ortiz’s mom but doesn’t look a bit faded. The Bill Evans Trio plays on a record in the background. Though we don’t tour the rest of the space, Love’s drawings are behind a movable wall on the other side of it—massive graphite land formations painstakingly rendered on sheets of drawing paper.
On nights like this, when they host one of Shed’s dinners, the pair begin work at 7 a.m. and often wrap up at 1 a.m. It’s a long haul, and Ortiz, always intent on the next step of the food preparation, doesn’t say much except to introduce himself and each of the courses after we sit at an impressively long wooden table, made of an old-growth redwood from Mendocino, California. It’s hard to know what to expect—of the food and of the people, most of them strangers to me. The website doesn’t say much either. “Shed,” it reads, “is an ongoing meditation on where we live in Northern New Mexico,” and a celebration of the fleeting nature of time.
“I cooked at the most famous molecular gastronomy restaurant in the nation. But I end up cooking some really simple stuff,” Ortiz later tells me of his menu. “My food’s mostly simple because I’m just trying to showcase it. It could be the best bowl of beans that you’ll ever eat.”
When the bowl of beans arrives in the ninth course, called “our Anasazi beans” on the menu he hands out at the end of the meal, they are the best I’ve ever tasted. Interspersed with local libations like Gruet’s Sauvage and a beer collaboration between Shed and Rowley’s in Santa Fe, each course surprises. I realize only later that, in a culture of additives, Ortiz’s utter minimalism is almost shocking. Most plates, it seems, have fewer than five ingredients. And where there is less, the essentials are undeniable and the flavors stunningly focused. The first course has canyon grape, a flavor I’ve never tasted, which comes with thin slices of watercress and chokecherry. Then there’s the mountain nettle that seasons the bison bone broth. And the fetid marigold (which I’ve always written off as a weed) that flavors the carne seca. And the sprinkle of rosa de campo powder on the elk carpaccio, which Ortiz later says reminds him of the smell of Sour Patch Kids. All are totally uncharted flavors for me and likely everyone at the table.
Above: Afton Love.
“Most stuff is edible,” Ortiz had mentioned in the forest. “Some will heal you, some won’t taste good, but it’s all edible.” Here at the table, I understand what he means, though in a way, I’ve never felt so much like a stranger to my landscape. Flora I thought I knew implicitly I now recognize only passingly. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Kimmerer, an Anishinaabe botanist, begins her preface by describing sweetgrass. “In our language it is called wiingaashk … Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” I have that sensation now.
“AT SOME POINT, my mom had mentioned that my grandfather would eat rose petals,” Ortiz recalls, his dog Anu curled up tight like a cinnamon roll at his feet, in front of the fireplace. After putting a couple of logs in, Ortiz makes this observation as if he’s holding a mirror up to his younger self, finding in every reflection a story about food. “I decided to try them and told the other kids at school what I’d eaten. They just thought I was weird. But somewhere in there was a food person; I just wasn’t able to explore it,” he says. Ortiz’s mom became a vegetarian when he was 2. He also became a vegetarian for 14 years but characterizes their diet, consisting mostly of Lunchables and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, as “pretty poor. I was the pickiest eater: a vegetarian and I didn’t like vegetables.”
“My mom and dad had me at 16 and 18,” Ortiz says. “When my dad was my age, I was already 10. My grandma tried sending my mom to a school for pregnant women and my dad went back for her. He took her out, and when they came back to Taos, they had to live in low-income housing.”
Eventually the family, including his younger brother, Brandon, and sister, Alyssa, moved into his grand-father’s adobe at Taos Pueblo, which he remembers for its flat dirt roof where plants would grow, a cellar, and the hulking woodstove. From there he could walk to school and then play in the pueblo afterwards. “Growing up in that environment had a subtle impact on me,” he says. “You’re not able to see a place for what it is until you leave. People didn’t know what a pueblo was when I told them where I was from.”
At age 19, Ortiz left New Mexico for Chicago, after dropping out of UNM one semester in. He had restaurant experience from Michael’s Kitchen and El Monte Sagrado, in Taos, and had taken four years of culinary arts at Taos High School, where he’d won awards every year. At El Monte Sagrado, a co-worker mentioned Alinea, an avant-garde restaurant known to foodies for its chimerical dishes that come with their own scented vapors, a theatrical use of liquid nitrogen, and a price tag of around $300 per dinner. (It was also recently featured in season two of the wildly popular Netflix series Chef’s Table, where its chef, Grant Achatz, talks about surviving mouth cancer while still expanding the restaurant’s experimental flavors.) The fast-paced kitchen served on average 100 people a night, and when Ortiz landed a commis position there (essentially an entry-level waiter), he was the youngest person in the kitchen, inexperienced but malleable. “When I moved to Chicago, I realized how little I really knew,” he says. “It was an intense place.”
Above: One of Ortiz's micaceous clay bowls with a peach, covered in raw cream, sweet clover, and wild golden currants.
That year Alinea was ranked the sixth-best restaurant in the world and received its third Michelin star.
But after two years in the militant atmosphere where “‘Show some urgency’ was their motto,” and in search of an environment that would evolve his cooking skills, Ortiz took a job at Willows Inn, a destination restaurant on the tiny, idyllic Lummi Island, in Washington State. Chef Blaine Wetzel, who was named a James Beard Rising Star in 2014, founded Willows Inn as one of the few locavore restaurants in the nation. His philosophy of serving with the seasons, and building a menu of foraged and fished fare, was born out of his work at chef René Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen, perennially named the best restaurant in the world. At Willows Inn, the approach to food was “more primitive,” Ortiz says, with an emphasis on serving only what was local to the island. (Ortiz helped forage berries for a particular dish, for instance.) But craving the “discipline and push” that he knew so well at Alinea, Ortiz left after a year and moved to San Francisco, where, within the same day of sending a letter of interest, he was offered a job at the meat station of Saison, a pop-up that eventually became a Michelin-star restaurant under chef Joshua Skenes.
“It was the best-case scenario,” Ortiz says, as if still amazed by the timing. Saison had yet to open its brick-and-mortar location, and Ortiz had gotten in on the ground floor. “I was there peeling the plastic off the cabinets. After the first year, I was promoted to sous-chef.” In 2014, Ortiz was also nominated as one of Eater’s “Young Gun” semifinalists, which singles out 12 rising stars from the restaurant world under the age of 30. He was the youngest that year, at 23.
Above: Osha, or bear root, found only in the subalpine regions of the Rockies.
“The chef called me one day to say that Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to come in, but he wanted to eat alone. So I went in and cooked for him. At the end, he stood up and started clapping. He was making The Revenant at the time.”
Spending a lot of time wandering around the collections of the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park, inspired Ortiz to toy around with putting together a menu and a place of his own. By then he had quit Saison, erasing all the recipes from his hard drive, as he had when he left the other restaurants, to “clean the slate.” At the de Young, Ortiz was moved by photography but especially by the conceit that a photo series “had a beginning and an ending,” he says. Those kinds of self-imposed limits, or creative bookends, became a precept for starting Shed, and what he would start to call his “dinner series,” a collection of meals that together constitute a body of work. The location could be temporary (his first was in Mill Valley, California), or the menu might get retired after so many dinners. Or there might not be enough of a particular foraged ingredient for the next year. But there was an understanding that a series was always provisional just the way that a series of artworks might be. That ephemerality was written into the DNA of Shed.
“MOST OF MY ANCESTORS were native to this area. A big part of what I’m trying to do,” he says, as if in the act of remembering them, “is to set roots and explore those relations.” He brought Shed to several locations in northern New Mexico, perhaps with the knowledge that it couldn’t be realized anywhere else. The goal then was always to come home, an inevitability that sounds familiar to me as one who also left only to feel the pull to return.
Love has become an integral part of Shed in the past year, assisting in preparing the food, foraging with Ortiz, and helping to care for their 22 acres of land, 15 of which are pasture, plus landrace churro sheep, chickens, and turkeys. Up until last year, there was a white bison, too, named Ia, which in Tiwa means “corn.” Ortiz thinks that one day they’ll have bison again and hopefully a dairy cow. He believes that all of this—keeping animals and maintaining the land— is a way of growing Shed “in quality, not necessarily scale,” with a farm that will one day be “a little larger than myself,” he says. “I want to be connected to each step—to forage and tend animals and farm and make ceramics.” Shed, he emphasizes, is all of it.
But for all the experience Ortiz garnered in other restaurants making other chefs’ creative visions come to life, he demurs from using the title for himself. “I’m a cook. I don’t say I’m a chef,” he tells me. “I spend the least amount of time in the kitchen.” The dinners “are just the fruiting body of the work—mostly I’m interacting with the landscape and nature.”
Above: Ortiz says that the beauty of Shed lies in the fleeting of the seasonal ingredients he forages.
The dishes demonstrate the metaphor: a wafer-thin whole wheat bizcochito seasoned with fennel, covering a ponderosa pine bark ice cream, sprinkled with piñons shelled in a tortilla press and served in a black micaceous clay bowl made from earth he harvested at a “Taos Pueblo spot where my ancestors would’ve dug from.” There’s osha sprinkled on top. The way he’s arranged it, the ice cream is hardly visible beneath the bizcochito. It looks elusive, and finding what’s beneath is like opening a gift—like foraging. Every dish similarly replicates the mystery of foraging, of finding something new but ancient.
“At the other places I worked, it was always about the outcome,” Ortiz says. “The ingredients were less the focus than the idea. Here, the ingredients are the best, and they tell a story about the place. We’re just showing some possibilities—inspiring people to look at their life differently.”
DINNER IS SERVED
Shed will reopen at its newest location in Vallecitos in mid-spring. Though Shed is not a restaurant, tickets for dinners must be purchased in advance. Open dates are posted online at 8 a.m. on the 15th of every month for the following month’s seating. For the new space, Johnny Ortiz will install his grandfather’s old woodstove, because “everything tastes better in a woodstove. It circulates the smoke and permeates the food.”