Executive Chef Marc Quinones’ energy is infectious. I mean, how else could a husband and father of three boys not only be a marathon runner, but also a full-time chef? The man lives and breathes a perfect balance of adrenaline and endorphins. And good food.
Proudly flaunting Puerto Rican flair and heritage, his passion translates into a uniquely personal culinary experience if you happen to find yourself on a journey through the desert. From New York City, Los Angeles, Kona, and New Orleans, Quinones now calls Albuquerque home at The Hotel Andaluz. And after stints on Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen Season 19, he’s now one of the leading chefs behind New Mexico’s growing and coveted culinary scene.
We sat down with Marc for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity - read the full interview and get to know him below:
People around you, music, books, travel - where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“I would say I draw inspiration from my emotions. How I'm feeling that day: am I feeling nostalgia? I might be thinking about my mom or grandma. I might be feeling edgy and thinking about what's trending in the industry. I'm very in the moment.
Once I lock into a thought process or recipe, I hone in on it. That focus is derived from so many different factors: I’m a father of 3 boys, marathon runner, and I’m working all the time. When I've had endorphins released the dishes might be different. My food is dictated by my moods.
I look at myself as a student of the craft. The educational component inspires me; I do the research and I like to follow chefs all over the world. I have my own private library of over 500 books. I’m always taking a student-first approach, and I love the idea of learning throughout the process.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“My love of cooking started when I was eight year old, and I made a turkey with my Mom for Thanksgiving. I always want the wings; we went to the store in the Bronx where they’d sell them. My Mom taught me my first marinade. She’d grab a cup and add ingredients by the back of a spoon. I still viscerally remember doing it for the first time.
I'm blessed to say I've only ever done this and worked in this industry, I just feel so fortunate.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“I'm super hyper by nature. I'm out on a morning run around 4:30 or 5 a.m. and doing up to 90 miles a week. I don't run with music - that's my time to decompress and think about the team, and think about dishes.
I might wake up thinking about beef ribs and then start working through any details; that thought process happens when the sun is coming up over the Sandia mountains. That’s where and when the ideation starts, but also, when I’m on the line with the team. I’m cooking and thinking about other variations and how to make it different - it’s also impromptu.”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“Plating is an art, and it’s also something spiritual and very organic for me. It’s not that I’m good or bad at it. When I'm plating - I’m honing in on my senses: what do I smell in the air? Are my shoulders tight? How am I feeling in this moment? And then I let it flow onto the plate.
It’s about letting it come naturally from your heart; I’m constantly plating in the moment. There are certain dishes I'll sketch out, but usually I’m in the moment. The first time I’m plating a new dish ends up being the final plating of it. It's very elemental and a big deal for me.
I grew up in the Bronx. I was there last month, and you smell the different foods and cultures, and see the low hanging skies, feel the breeze. I get lost in the clouds very easily. I'm a dreamer - that's just who I am. That's the most honest way for me to present my food - it can't be too scripted.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“If I'm writing a menu and hit that wall I’ll pull out old recipe books from restaurants from all over the world. I'm a big note taker - I might bring out something I worked on 15 years ago. I seek out what can get me over that wall. It’s typically memories - I go back to my roots to get new inspiration.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“I have to give you context. I'm a Puerto Rican Dominican male, and I was working in a New York City restaurant. At the time I wanted to be an executive chef, and I learned that if you want it - you have to get that piece of paper - that proof, the credentials. Actual culinary school.
Some people don't need that. You can be a great cook, but I learned I needed to go to school and excel. I came from the school of hard knocks. I was a dishwasher, did prep - it was a long hard road, so when my chef told me that - I went to school. I had a 4.0 at the Cordon Bleu. I wasn't going to do this to half ass.
My advice is that it’s all relative to what's available to you at that time of your life. It’s not cut and dry. I needed culinary school at that time in my life, and because of that, I can walk into a meeting and feel confident about my voice. I would be remiss if I didn't give school the credit for how I hold myself in meetings.
But from a straight cooking perspective - you don’t need school. You won't learn to be a badass line cook. You just have to do the work. There are just so many factors, and often I resent school since I'm still paying for it - but I needed it at the time.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“It's all about flavor all the time. You take a Puerto Rican kid out of New York City who now lives in the southwest in New Mexico, and I’m a massive level 10 foodie. I have a platform where I can take risks because I’ve spent time researching my culture and background.
I love Spiceology; I've used Spiceology in so many different recipes - from South American lobster to making a marinade for a pork chop. I'm such a believer in Spiceology because I use it everyday. It's in the confidence in the quality - I live that and it’s not hyperbole.
The local farmers market is just five blocks away, and we’re there every single week. The bounty here in New Mexico from a produce and protein perspective - we very much deserve a seat at the table with the other major cities. We’re so proud of our local vendors and you can see and taste that throughout the menu.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“I'm competitive with myself. I've done Food Network, Hell's Kitchen, Great American Seafood Cookoff on PBS - and I love the idea of being able to put forward my best.
But that takes precedence over beating a chef. If I have the chance to tell my story or inspire someone - it's just so much deeper than beating a chef. I'm just trying to tell my story. It's not a rivalry - it's an opportunity to inspire others. Without hope and luck I wouldn’t be here.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Black pepper. Say you're making a mustard vinaigrette. You have great ingredients, fresh everything, but where’s the black pepper? A lot of times people say ‘where's the salt?’ The right amount of black pepper at the right time can make a dish - a lot of it is timing and good quality.
Good black pepper will smack you on the palate, and it’s nasal and toasty. You can tell when the chef put it in the dish at the right moment.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“Fresh garlic. Growing up, the base of anything tasty for me started by grabbing the pilon, garlic, salt, black pepper, oregano - and I'll stop there for propriety (laughs). That right there is the beginning of a beautiful conversation. And that’s been true over and over in my career - when I start that conversation with fresh garlic and mash it up and add elements - it's served me quite well.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“If you want to peel fresh ginger - ditch the peeler and use a spoon to scrape it. The skin comes right off.”
What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?
“Engaged. Don't worry about your accolades. We have an obligation: what we do is for the people. It doesn't matter where your restaurant is at - don't just take care of people when they're in your restaurant - meet people in the community, at farmers markets, wherever you go.
Every conversation, every checklist - needs to start and end with the people in your community first. The guest. You have to. They're the ones uplifting you. Go to those festivals, markets, schools - those are privileges. Shout out to the tremendously talented chefs in New Mexico, I feel proud to be a part of this community.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“I’m making fried chicken wings,rice, and corn - Puerto Rican style with sausage and ham - it's so good.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“My signature pork belly dish. It's a dish that's inspired by my Mom that truly transforms the pork and beans - it's been on my menus for more than 10 years. It’s really a play on pork and beans - and you're getting my love song to my mother.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Albuquerque?
For breakfast head to Vic’s Daily Cafe. Chef Vic is just a force - they've been open for decades and everything is scratch made.
Get lunch at M’Tucci’s - Jon Haas is just a weapon in the community. Having some of his fresh pasta for lunch will set me up for dinner