Philanthropy At Work in Santa Fe Hotels

Developer recasts hotel with an eye on local traditions

Executive Chef Estevan Garcia and grower Chencho Ochoa show off freshly-picked Chimayo chiles in a northern New Mexico farm field. (Photo: Hotel Chimayo)

As New Mexico celebrates 100 years of statehood this year, its state capital, Santa Fe, is adding both new and remodeled lodging to the inventory in this perennially-popular tourist destination.

Boasting rights in this mountain community of 67,000 definitely go to Hotel Chimayo, named after a largely Latino village nestled in a valley 30 miles to the north. Located just one block from Santa Fe’s historic central plaza, Hotel Chimayo opened its doors last fall in the former Hotel Plaza Real following a $2 million transformation that’s remarkable primarily for how, and where, that money was spent.

Many of the bedroom furnishings at Hotel Chimayo – from the traditional weavings on the bed to the simple cross on the wall – were made by artisans in the village of Chimayo, New Mexico. (Photo: Jeff Caven)

“Literally, everything that was used in this hotel came out of Chimayo,”said Ed Pulsifer, vice president of corporate relations for Albuquerque-based Heritage Hotels & Resorts. The company deployed a cadre of local craftsmen and women after its owner, Jim Long, visited the community whose small Catholic chapel is famous among believers for its miraculous healing powers.

“Chimayo is one of the most sacred religious villages in the world, but still has a lot of poverty issues, a lot of drug issues,” says Pulsifer. “[Jim Long] had this idea he wanted to take this hotel and celebrate the Hispanic culture of northern New Mexico, using Chimayo as the foundation for it. But you don’t just take a rural village in northern New Mexico and start exploiting the name for your own financial benefit. So he started developing relationships. He met with businesspeople, families and elders presenting this project he wanted to do. Finally, he got their support.”

Those relationships cemented, Pulsifer says Long decided to “adopt” the villagers and use their talents to rebrand the Plaza Real as the Hotel Chimayo.

The Hotel Chimayo in downtown Santa Fe is a short walk from the city’s famed plaza. (Photo: Jeff Caven)

“Every single bit of renovation in this hotel came from 70 artisans from that little village,” says Pulsifer. “Every weaving, every retablo (altar ornament), every cross. We had a cross-making day in the village, where everybody in the village made crosses. Over 500 crosses were made for the guestrooms.”

At the heart of the renovated, 56-room inn beats Tia’s Cocina, an upscale restaurant supervised by Executive Chef Estevan Garcia. Garcia—who oversees food services both at Hotel Chimayo and the Heritage-owned Hotel St. Francis—said the opening of the unique boutique hotel brought him back to his Santa Fe roots.

Growing up as one of 11 children in a poor family, Garcia said that at an early age he got the idea to help out his parents by growing vegetables in the backyard.

The work of native artisans is evident throughout the Hotel Chimayo, including in the lobby. (Photo: Jeff Caven)

“I just wanted to be like a farmer. I was only like 11 years old. I planted corn, chiles, radishes and carrots,” he recalls. “That’s how I got started.”

Garcia no longer has time to grow his own veggies, so he relies on the vendors at Santa Fe’s twice-weekly farmer’s market—and on Chencho Ochoa, a chile grower in Chimayo.

Known for their fiery yet sweet flavor, Chimayo chiles are considered the Cadillac of New Mexico chiles. However, since only a few farmers still grow them, they’re rare. To make sure his executive chef had a stable supply, Heritage boss Jim Long bought a small farm on which to grow the prized produce.

Executive Chef Estevan Garcia replicates dishes his aunt and grandmother used to serve in the upscale Tia’s Cocina restaurant at Hotel Chimayo in Santa Fe. (Photo: Jeff Caven)

“Last year, I was very fortunate to go to the farm and meet Chencho, who is the grower,” says Garcia. “They have four to five acres there. I was in awe.”

For centuries, chiles have been a staple of New Mexico diets, and Garcia makes plentiful use of them in the dishes served in Tia’s Cocina, which is Spanish for “Auntie’s Kitchen.” The menu thoroughly describes the various offerings, such as the baked chicken flautas.

“This delicious old New Mexican family recipe was provided by Celia Padilla Garcia,” the menu reads. “Three rolled corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken, diced green chile and sour cream, topped with sour cream and cheddar cheese and served on a bed of Chimayo red chile.”

Traditional foods seldom seen in restaurants in Santa Fe or elsewhere predominate. In addition to fresh, local produce, Garcia incorporates such meats as beef tongue and pork belly. That authenticity, says Pulsifer, is crucial to the hotel’s mission of providing a true cultural experience.

“We can have all of these beautiful things that come out of the village, but if you really want to complete a guest experience, to know the traditions of what you’re trying to represent, the food is a critical part of it,” he continues. “It has to be traditional, as if your mom, your grandmother, or your aunt made it.”

At the hotel’s grand opening last fall—attended by Chimayo townsfolk, including the local priest—Heritage executives presented elders with a check for $2,300, seed money for an ongoing philanthropic project.

“We donate a percentage of our room profit back to the Chimayo Cultural Preservation Association,” the corporate VP explains. “It’s used for their Los Maestros program which connects the elders and the children to teach the children the traditions of the village. Not only do we contribute, but we encourage our guests to match our contribution at the front desk.”

The master bedroom and an adjoining balcony of a unit at El Coazon de Santa Fe offer views of the northern New Mexico mountains. (Photo: Robert Reck)

Also new on the lodging scene in downtown Santa Fe is the El Corazon de Santa Fe Residence Club, a mixed-use property that’s part of the Fairmont Heritage Club collection. The 73-condo El Corazon combines whole and fractional ownerships, and vacant units can be rented by the night through Fairmont’s website. The developer put nearly $3 million into renovations, including new furnishings, following the re-branding by Fairmont in November, 2011. The property reopened in mid-February.

“They took it from a four-star to a five-star, which is a mandate for Fairmont,” says Sales Director John Dixon.

A Southwest-style fireplace is an inviting focal point of a unit at El Corazon de Santa Fe. (Photo: Robert Reck)

Ground was broken in mid-May on a four-story parking structure for Drury Hotel’s first entry into the Santa Fe market. The Texas-based company is converting the former St. Vincent Hospital into a 182-room hotel scheduled to open early in 2014. The adjoining Marian Hall is also being renovated for use as an upscale, 30-room boutique hotel, also to be operated by Drury. The 1904 building that once housed the hospital’s heating plant will be transformed into meeting space.

The former hospital, a pink brick structure, occupies much of a city block in an enviable location near the city’s historic cathedral.

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