Your career in the New Mexico restaurant community has been going on for close to 25 years now. How did you get started?
I started as a butcher’s apprentice at 14.
Here in town?
No, it was actually in Farmington. I‘ve cooked, I’ve washed dishes, waited tables ... I did all that up into my early twenties. From there, I decided to go to chef school, so I moved to San Francisco. I was there for about three and a half years.
At the California Culinary Academy.
Correct. I was very successful with that—I graduated second in my class. From there, I was a chef for some wineries. I moved to Los Angeles ... and, you know, a year in L.A. was about 11 months and two weeks too long for my taste. (Laughs)
How did you end up in Albuquerque?
I had some friends who said, “Hey, why don’t you move back? Let’s try to do a restaurant.” It took about a year to get off the ground. In the meantime, I helped open the Nob Hill Café [where Scalo is now].
Why not just start your own place out of the gate?
I had to move back under that guise because you don’t just walk into a bank and say, “I’m going to open a restaurant. How about some money?” They would say, “... right.”
Of course. So how did you get the money, then?
It took about a year to get together. We started with a little lunch place Downtown called the Sixth Street Grill. It was only open for lunch and into the early evening. [Interesting factoid: Tom’s Sixth Street Grill was the first place in New Mexico to carry Guinness beer on tap.] But we were lucky enough to be within close proximity of the bank, so a lot of the bankers were our customers. After a year or so of creating relationships with those guys, they realized that, maybe, we might have it together enough to not be too big a risk for them. One of the bankers in particular took a big leap of faith on us, and we’re still friends to this day. We owe him a lot. Everything, actually. (Laughs)
And then came Scalo.
About two years after that we did Scalo, which is what I originally moved back to do. That was the dream restaurant. About two years into that, another friend of ours moved to Santa Fe. We hooked up with him and that’s when we did Pranzo. That went very well. And two years later we did the first Il Vicino. So that’s been about 15 years now, and about every year and a half to two years we do another one. Steady, conservative growth.
Where did the idea for Two Fools Tavern come from?
It was an idea I was kicking around for a while. I had been a long-time customer of O’Neills [Pub, former tenants of the Sig’s and Two Fools Tavern space]. This was my favorite watering hole ... I mean, I lived five blocks up the street. I had a standing Thursday happy hour with the boys and this is generally where we’d come. We supported it even when it was Sig’s. I’m also fortunate enough to get to travel around, and I’m Scotch-Irish, so I’ve got this soft spot for a real, traditional pub-type atmosphere. Every time I found myself in one, I’d go, “Gosh, I wish I could do one of these in Albuquerque!”
So what happened?
Eventually, a space became available next to Vivace, where the new wine bar is now. I knew it was time. I had started goading Sig [Lindell, co-owner of Sig’s], who’s a friend of mine, and I’d day “You know, if running your place ever became unfun, give me a call.” I didn’t think it’d ever happen, but it didn’t matter. We went through all the negotiations with signing the lease over the Vivace place. About three days before the lease was finalized, Sig called up and said, “Hey, I want out.” We thought it was such a better opportunity over here, so we were able to switch gears and lease this place instead.
Looking around, the transition from Sig’s to Two Fools Tavern hasn’t been entirely obvious. I think that may confuse people.
We’re slated to do a major remodel in the final weeks of June. We thought originally we would operate as Sig’s until we did the remodel, but it became apparent it would be more of a liability than we had given credit for. That’s why we yanked the Sig’s sign out there and slapped $150-worth of our own vinyl up. We wanted to let people know we’re new and we’re here. It is changing, just not as quickly as we’d like.
But Ellie [Seelow, former Executive Chef of Gold Street Caffé and, most recently, Executive Chef of Sig’s] is still in the kitchen, right?
Ellie is still here. We took over the majority of the old staff, too. We felt that we really needed to change the menu, however. The food needed to complement the place better ... there are things people want to eat when they’re drinking a beer. It’s not chicken Parmesan, you know?
What you’re serving, though—lavash crackers and melted gruyere and whatnot—is definitely not traditional pub fare.
No, it’s not. I think if we went traditional on all fronts we would scare people off.
Like mushy peas and haggis?
(Laughs) Come on! We can do it in other ways. Like we’ve kept the fish and chips, and that’s still the hands-down, No. 1 seller in this place. We’d be crazy to change that. This is a transitional time for us, and lots of things will change with the new menu [after the remodel]. We’re going to have fun with it, but there’ll be a section for more traditional pub fare. How well it’ll sell, I don’t know. I mean, everyone loves to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, but are they going to eat it on August 12? Or for Cinco de Mayo? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.