It’s a perfect August day in Northern New Mexico when we arrive at Cooking Studio Taos in Arroyo Seco. There are three of us and we’re there to take a cooking class from Chris Maher and learn about his philosophy of life first hand. Maher, whose family emigrated to Toronto from Egypt when he was almost nine, has been passionate about food for as long as he can remember.
When we arrive we are greeted by Chef Christopher Maher and his wife Valerie. Before we go into the sun-filled kitchen to cook, Maher tells us about himself. His parents lived comfortably in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean and had a household staff, he says they weren’t considered wealthy. His became interested in cooking watching Yousef, the family chef, cook and even accompanying him to the markets in Alexandria. His mother and grandmother, both accomplished cooks, encouraged his love of cooking, sharing their love of good food with him.
Two of his older brothers are physicians and that was the path his parents expected him to take. He had other ideas. Chris wanted to be an actor but his parents were vehemently against this. During his second year of Medical School in Toronto he hung up his lab coat, walked out of school and went to New York City where he joined the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. This eventually led him to Los Angeles and a career in movies and TV. To pay the bills in New York City he took a job at Tavern on the Green, the iconic Central Park eatery which closed in 2009. He worked first in the kitchen, and then became a server. It was there that he met restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who later founded the Myriad Restaurant Group (that includes Tribeca Grill, Nobu and many other celebrated restaurants). Nieporent, a Cornell Hotel School graduate, was assistant manager at the time and helped Chris gain an understanding of the restaurant business.
Chris has had an active acting career with a wide range of roles. He’s appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows. His roles have included parts in West Wing, Hill Street Blues, JAG, Law and Orderas well as a wide range of roles in movies, including Men Who Stare at Goats, and Executive Decision.
His entry into the restaurant business was almost by accident. A cake that he baked became so popular that he eventually had to open a bakery in Los Angeles, later expanding to the full range of bakery goods. As that became more successful, he took a hiatus from acting and opened Chris Michael’s Fine Dining in Beverly Hills,
Over his career, there have been several bumps along the way, including a six-month stretch of homelessness. He uses these experiences for team-building and motivational seminars for executives, which he combines with cooking instruction. He will soon be off to Toronto where he will teach a cooking class/teambuilding seminar to a group of corporate executives.
The focus of today’s class is Italian Cuisine. Each of us is given one of three recipes to prepare. It’s all very hands on. One of us makes a mushroom risotto, using wild mushrooms that Chris has foraged from the nearby mountainside. Another prepares grilled artichokes, first brushing them with a delightful mixture (using tarragon from his herb garden) while I prepare tegamata di salsiccia, a sausage, pepper and fennel dish enhanced with Pernod. Once the chef is satisfied with our knife skills, he turns us loose. His style of teaching is to guide and encourage. He wants people to enjoy the experience as much as he does.
When it comes time to grill the artichokes, Chris takes us out to see his well-equipped outdoor kitchen. He also has a fire pit in which he recently cooked a young goat using the classic pit roasting method. I’ll sign up for that assignment!
As though their life isn’t busy enough Chris and Valerie own a company that produces a line of salsas and dips under the name Caleb and Milo (their two sons), which you can find in Whole Foods. Sprouts and other area markets.
If you love to cook, this is a wonderful way to have an enjoyable experience, meet a genuine character and learn something new in the process. Sitting down and enjoying the fruits of your labor with good conversation isn’t bad either.
Chef Chris Maher graciously shares his recipe for grilled artichokes:
Grilled Artichokes with Tarragon Mayonaise
4 large artichokes (or 8 small)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 T. dried oregano leaves
1 heaping T. of sea salt
1 t. thyme
1 t. of crushed red chiles
Trim the leaves of the artichokes, removing the spiky tips of the leaves. Cut off the stems on the bottom.
In a pot large enough to hold the artichokes, fill half way with water. Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Once water is boiling, add the artichokes leaf side down if possible.
Place a heavy plate over the artichokes to hold them down and return to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer, keeping artichokes on heat for roughly 45 minutes.
Drain the artichokes and hold the artichokes with a towel to remove the center leaves and choke (usually purple-ish in color). With a spoon, scrape all choke from the heart of the artichoke. Be careful not to damage top of the heart while doing this.
Cut artichokes in half lengthwise. Mix the tarragon mayonnaise:
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon tarragon (fresh best, dried if not available)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
Blend all ingredients together and generously brush the sauce onto the artichoke halves and grill lightly on both sides. Serve hot off the grill.
Author’s note: I was a guest of the Cooking Studio Taos. Their generous hospitality has not affected this post in any way.