A Toast to Taos
‘Cooking is art. Cooking is about hand, about heart, it’s not about exactness. I’m not a baker. Baking is a science.’
As we’re listening to Chris Maher introduce himself and his Cooking Studio Taos, his little girl walks through the room carrying a bunny rabbit.
‘We had two rabbits’ Chris says, ‘and thought they were both girls. Next thing you know we’ve got four bunnies.’
Cooking Studio Taos is no ordinary cooking school, and Chris Maher no ordinary chef. He’s a TV and movie actor and you might have seen him in Hill Street Blues, 24, The West Wing, Law and Order or in Taxi. But his passion for food and cooking led him to build his own home in Taos, New Mexico, which he designed himself so he could teach cookery classes there. You soon understand why the slogan for the school is ‘Cook. Eat. Laugh. Learn.’
Groups gather, Maher talks them through the menu he’s planned, people split into pairs to do specific tasks, and a few hours later everyone sits round the huge dining table and eats what they’ve cooked. Wine and conversation flow in equal measure, but it’s Maher’s personality which drives proceedings. He was born and grew up in Alexandria in Egypt, and later lived in Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York.
‘I didn’t want to grow up to be a chef,’ he says, ‘I wanted to be an actor, go in the movies, act on stage. All my family was in medicine. I worked on cadavers for a week, then put on my coat and left. I went to New York and had a lovely job at the Tavern on the Green. I’d been cooking by the time I was at high school. I found I could cook better than the other guys in the Tavern kitchen.
‘I studied acting at the Playhouse in New York. I made my first film when I was 22, went to the Cannes Film Festival, got another role, worked in a soap opera called Another World which kept me in New York for 18 months or so. Then I got fired. I was reading the scripts one day and discovered I’d been shot! So I went to LA and got some jobs there, working on Hill Street Blues, Taxi and some other series.
‘I also started teaching cookery while I was in LA. I’ve never taught in my professional kitchens. I taught in my home, I taught in my student’s homes. That’s where people actually cook, in a home kitchen with no fancy professional gadgets.
‘Choosing to live in New Mexico was an accident. In the fall of ’88 I’d just finished producing a feature film, which took a year of my life, and I decided I wanted to go to the desert. I got a bunch of AAA maps. I went to Sedona, and didn’t like it. I went to Santa Fe, and it was like an adobe Rodeo Drive. I then came to Taos for one night, it became 2-3-4 nights. I met a realtor who sold me this land. In 1993 I started building.’
Maher’s tales have served as the perfect appetizer, and now it’s time to start cooking the New Mexican menu that Maher has devised and bought all the ingredients for: Green Chile Stew, Seafood in Red Chile Sauce, Rice with Noodles, Cilantro Vinaigrette over Greens, and Biscochitos. I’m handed one of the easier tasks, the greens and vinaigrette, and soon I’m chopping shallots and garlic, roasting a jalapeno pepper, and learning how to blend olive oil and vinegar with chopped cilantro.
Chris Maher wanders round the kitchen, checking on the progress of the different dishes, offering advice, solving problems, finding utensils, mopping up spills, telling stories, and being the remarkably calm eye of the storm that swirls around his kitchen. Food processors whir, pans bang, there’s the clatter of clams and mussels, and a walk round the table provides the unmistakable smell of green chili, the salty aroma of red snapper, and the spicy tang of cumin and coriander.
‘The green chili stew recipe tonight uses both cumin seeds and cumin powder,’ says Maher. ‘That’s because the seeds pop in your mouth and you get that great cumin taste, but the powder imparts the flavor evenly throughout the dish.’
It’s just one of many cooking tips that are, similarly, spread evenly throughout the evening by Maher, who opened a restaurant in Taos when he first moved there.
‘I spent $472,000 renovating it, it got an AAA 4-Diamond rating, and was James Beard nominated. Between Santa Fe and Taos we have some really good restaurants, but the best food in Taos now is right here in this house.’
We eventually put that to the test as we sit around the beautifully candlelit table and tuck into the dishes which zing with the feisty flavors of New Mexico. Every one is a winner. People even praise the cilantro vinaigrette. Glasses are raised and toasts are made, to Taos, to food, to wine, to friendship. The food and wine may only last one night, but the memory of the evening will last forever.
For details of Chris Maher’s cookery courses and his summer schools for adults and children, visit the website: http://cookingstudiotaos.com