Ray Naranjo, Executive Chef at El Monte Sagrado, at work
En la cocina
Photo: Katharine Egli
Images and story originally published in Taos News
Ray Naranjo, Executive Chef at El Monte Sagrado, has a personal motto that keeps him going in life and in the kitchen.
“I feel I need to work until my heroes become my competition,” said Naranjo, who has over twelve years of experience as a chef.
He was the Red Chile Champion of Taos last year. This October he participated in the SWAIA-Santa Fe Indian Market, where he collaborated with Chef Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi Nation), Chef Ben Jacobs (Osage), and Executive Chef Jack Strong (Confederated Tribes of Oregon) at a special native food and wine indigenous cuisine dining event.
“It was wonderful to work alongside these well-known chefs and showcase our rich indigenous flavors,” Chef Naranjo said.
New management, new menu
Just like many other employees at El Monte Sagrado, Chef Naranjo has welcomed the new management (Heritage Hotels and Resorts) and the opportunities that it has offered him.
“They have given me a lot more freedom to express myself and to be creative with the menu,” said Naranjo, who has been the executive chef at El Monte’s restaurant, De La Tierra, since 2013.
He is currently devising a new menu to celebrate all the visitors to the Southwest, from the Anazazi people to the global influences of today.
“My new menu also focuses on contemporary indigenous cuisine,” he said. “I take comfort food and infuse it with indigenous ingredients, then I present it as a high-end dish. Chicken fried rabbit, with southern style breading, is a classic example. The rabbit replaces the chicken and it is served with waffles made out of blue corn, cranberries and sunflower seeds.”
One of Naranjo’s biggest challenges—but one he seems to enjoy—is working with the backdrop of El Monte Sagrado’s uniquely themed suites and extensive art collection.
“The food has to be as beautiful as the setting…and it must taste as good as the building feels,” he said. “That’s why presentation is also very important for us.”
An horno for El Monte
Chef Naranjo refers to the new improvements planned for the resort, particularly to one that will add a “very Southwestern touch” to the guests’ culinary experience.
“We are building an horno in the property,” he said. “That means that we will be baking fresh horno bread and making horno demonstrations for our guests and visitors. This great addition to El Monte will be ready early next year.”
Evolution of a chef
Chef Naranjo is a registered tribal member to the Little Travers Bay Band of Odawa Indians in northern Michigan.
He was raised by his mother, Marian Naranjo, in Santa Clara Pueblo, a Tewa village on the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico.
“Being the oldest male with two older sisters and a younger brother, I cooked as a means of survival as my single mother struggled to raise four kids in one of the poorest counties in the nation,” he said. “With the assistance of PBS and programs like The Cajun Chef, Julia Child, and Martin Yan, I was able to create meals at a very young age. I cooked a full Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings by the age of eleven.”
He graduated from Scottsdale Culinary Institute Le Cordon Bleu in 2003.
“Later I continued my education at the top resorts in the Southwest, including my externship at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona and line cooking at the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe,” he said.
Naranjo earned his first chef title when he was twenty-three from the now renamed Santa Clarian Casino Resort of the tribe where he was raised.
“The next ten years were a struggle as I did Casino Chef Tours of most of the casinos in northern New Mexico, struggling with being mostly a self-taught chef and balancing the ego that comes with young success,” he said.
He was also exposed by his mother to the work of nonprofit organizations like Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, Tewa Women United, and her own, Honor Our Pueblo Existence.
“My current involvement and past experiences in nonprofit work has helped to mold the current direction of my carrier, as I strive to connect the post and modern cuisine of northern New Mexico as well as developing my signature cooking style—contemporary indigenous cuisine,” Naranjo said. “Both cooking styles are represented on my new menu at the De La Tierra Restaurant.”
The chef at home
When he is not working at De La Tierra, Naranjo enjoys cooking for his entire family—his four children Ashley Naranjo, Ethan Naranjo, Kasey Naranjo and Ayana Naranjo, and his fiancée Nathana Bird.
“We typically do a lot of crock-pot meals,” he said. “I would start a stew in the morning and it would be ready in the evening, so I don’t have to be around all day taking care of it. But I always make sure that it tastes really well.”
He also likes watching TV. His favorite program, he says with a big smile, is The Mind of a Chef.
“I admire the host’s easygoing attitude,” he said. “There are too many big-headed chefs out there!”
Chef Naranjo’s recipe
Grandma Lila’s Bread Pudding
toasted cubed Pullman loaf 1.5 loafs
brown sugar 2 cups
water 2 cups
raisins 1 cup
cubed cheddar cheese 1 cup
toasted walnuts .5 Cups
butter 1 TBSP
cinnamon 1 tsp
nutmeg .5 tsp
Combine all ingredients and place into a baking dish and bake in a 350* oven for 30 minutes.