A dining table in the back room of Pepperhead restaurant is layered with handwritten notes on a yellow legal pad, Post-Its from a local printer and a single sheet of bond paper creased where it was folded to fit in a chef’s pocket. It bears a slight oil stain in the center. Three master chefs scribble notes about exotic recipes and treasured ingredients with individual enthusiasm and energy, comas, exclamation marks, crossed out ideas and arrows inserting a reduction sauce above a line item on the menu and a wild game meat below.
Pete Montaño, Luke Hubbard and Brandon Shubert were meeting to wrap up the collaboration event, “Montezuma’s Table – a Progressive Gourmet Dinner,” which closed two premier Cortez restaurants to the general public on Saturday night, March 12, and accommodated seating for the fine dining event to benefit The Nest Child Advocacy Center.
Culinary-arts discussion finally turned the attention of the three master chefs to the aesthetic consideration of their desert offering — color, form, shape, spice, sweetness, weight and delicacy, and texture — soft and hard, rippled and smooth — aroma, the bitterness of Mexican chocolate, the flourish of Java Caramel Sauce and the allure of Bischochito with kiwi, mango and chili.
“There’s a little chocolate here, some reddish-yellow, lime and leaf green and cream white,” said Brandon Shubert, Executive Chef at Stonefish Sushi & more. He drew a small circle representing a plate, adding contour lines for the nesting desert components – chocolate, leaves, lime shapes, sauce, layers of color inside a shot glass.
“It looks good. It works for me.”
Hubbard, executive chef at Pepperhead, said, “We’ll definitely be losing our Saturday night business, but to me it shows our commitment to the community. We’re doing it for the best cause and we want to do something for the cause that Cortez doesn’t get a chance to experience very often.”
Montezuma’s Table was a five-course progressive gourmet dinner. It began at 5:30 at 34 W. Main, where guests were served hors d’oeuvres and select fine wine — ceviche, gazpacho shots, southwest bruschetta, rolled lobster lolly pops in sweet chili sauce and assorted sushi. An hour later, patrons moved on to Stonefish Sushi & More, 16 W. Main.
“It’s an exclusive opportunity to stretch our wings as chefs, to express our gourmet culinary artistry for the benefit of child advocacy,” explained Shubert. He and his wife Mel opened Stonefish Sushi & More in June 2010 and are delighted with the community response and acceptance of their restaurant. “Both our restaurants, Stonefish and Pepperhead, are theme-oriented and as chefs we are always focused on the fine art of repetitive food preparation and quality. But, this opportunity is expansive, a chance to create on a different level. I have been a professional chef for over 18 years and it’s wonderful to think that creating a fine dining menu and that cooking it will benefit the children and families in the community.”
At Stonefish dinner patrons dined on carpaccio, a chili seared scallop with a citrus reduction and a timbale ratatoulli. The elegant appetizer course was followed by roasted butternut soup with papitas where color of the soup matched the interior butternut color of the walls in Stonefish.
Hubbard described the responsibility as a shared preparation. “Each of us will be collaborating with the other chefs, sharing our skills. Brandon’s favorite may be the soup, but I am looking forward to preparing the carpaccio, the raw beef tenderloin sliced extremely thin and pounded to the thickness of parchment paper served dressed lightly with chili infused oil. It is a dish focused on the exceptional quality of the meat and we will do nothing that could burst the flavor in it.”
Leaving Cortez at age 21, Hubbard studied with a Chef de Cuisine in Seattle. “I began working in the kitchen for Pete [Montaño] in his first Cortez restaurant. When I got into the business I never thought it would be for life,” he explains, “but now, after Seattle and coming home to Chef for Pepperhead, it is a real passion instead of just a career.”
Tess Montaño, Pete’s daughter and co-owner of Pepperhead, is the event coordinator for the revolving dinner. She knows the value of a nurtured childhood, “My dad has always been in the kitchen cooking. It’s part of my childhood, my life. ‘He’s a “Green Eggs and Ham’ kind of father.” As a board member of The Nest Child Advocacy Center, she cherishes a healthy relationship with parents.
“The food culture is the most basic language we share,” she said. “It is the best way to nourish the children in our community.”
When Montaño presented the idea in a recent board meeting, action happened quickly. “It’s fantastic!” said Rose Jergens, executive director of The Nest. “The idea of connecting a culinary feast to benefit child advocacy will open the possibility of educating and reaching a different group of supporters. We provide a nurturing environment for safe transitions as we begin to replenish abused children whose childhood has been robbed. This event opens doors to support that we have not accessed before.”
The Nest is the hub of child-abuse investigation, treatment, management, prosecution and review. The agency works closely with the police department, sheriff’s office and the district attorney. But the team at The Nest is not driven by prosecution.
“Our internal focus at the center is treatment,” said Jergens. “In the early 1990s when The Nest began, most of the investigation was done inside the law-enforcement facilities. At times the Child Advocacy Center had to rent motel rooms to interview victims because it was less emotionally harmful than the police department building.”
Over the years, and with the strong support of board members and community benefactors, The Nest has evolved. All services are offered under one roof at 140 N. Linden, a home environment that provides toys, books, peace and healing resources as well as an opportunity to work with therapists specializing in childhood and abuse.
“The Nest helps to stem the tide of child abuse in our community. I saw the need from it’s inception when I joined the board,” said Montaño. “Now, my daughter carries on the family tradition of community involvement. It was her idea to cut the chefs loose with this progressive evening.”
Shubert said it was great to be asked to join the team, great to collaborate with other professionals.
Montaño agreed. “Even though I consider myself more of a ‘foodie’ than a chef it is an opportunity to let the people around Cortez learn about the exquisite quality of food that can be prepared by local chefs. It’s here and we get to do it to benefit children.”
The final two courses were served at Pepperhead. The entrée course included elk loin roast in a pinot noir balsamic reduction sauce and chorizo stuffed prawn dressed in cilantro cream. “We’re also making baked Flamenco Roll, a favorite dish from Spain, consisting of the classic Cajun spiced Tasso ham rolled around white asparagus, sliced and drizzled with a béchamel sauce.
Ten days before Montezuma’s Table, Montaño said, “Really, it’s an artistic culinary collage – three chefs, three sets of eyes unifying a Southwest spin on recipe traditions of Italy, Spain, Cajun country, the forest and the sea. It has been a blast so far to work with the team. It is so exciting to order the food. It feels like Christmas.”
Montezuma Partners, LLC provided the first location, dubbed, “The Vacant Space,” for the event while Art Juice Studio Design provided the custom menu and graphic services. In addition, local food and liquor vendors, Sysco Food Service, Shamrock Food Service, Let It Grow, Seven Meadows Farm, Dolores Brewery and Republic National Distributors, made it possible to dedicate the entire ticket price to The Nest.
The number of $100 reserved tickets was limited due to the seating capacity of both restaurants. The group expected to sell out and hand a big check over to feather The Nest at the Child Advocacy Center.
And they did, three days before the banquet.
According to Shubert, “The people who purchased tickets did the right thing by contributing their support to The Nest; now we’re doing the right thing by providing them with the ultimate dinner, exceeding their expectations and setting new precedents. It’s where it’s at in Cortez. Collaboration with Pepperhead has been a fresh and progressive experience.
One unidentified, silver-haired gentleman lingered long after desert and coffee to compliment the three chefs, the sommelier, Jeff Mobley, event coordinator Tess Montaño and the staffs of both restaurants. He told them each that in all his years living in Montezuma County there has never been a meal as gourmet or excellent or rare as this. “Thank you,” he said.
For information on the restaurants contact: Pepperhead, 44 W. Main St. (970) 565-3303, and Stonefish Sushi & More, 16 W. Main St. (970) 565-9244. To learn more about The Nest Child Advocacy Center visit: www.nestcac.org