Cherie Montoya was a nonprofit genius who had worked at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and New Mexico AIDS Services, but she had no experience running a restaurant.
However, that didn’t stop her.
Their award winning Farm & Table restaurant is now 10 years old and doing well. The same goes for the on-site farm, which supplies some of the items on the menu, and an adjacent gift shop rumored to have been a Camino Real stagecoach stop.
What is the most unexpected thing about starting out in the hospitality industry?
“Every day I feel like something is going to break,” says Montoya. “How big things. One of the fridges isn’t keeping the temperature, and that’s no small matter. It needs to be taken care of now. If something doesn’t break, something’s wrong. Especially after 10 years here.”
Montoya, who grew up near her North Valley business, is leasing 2 acres of the 12 acre lot her father bought years ago to prevent a proposed 40 home development on the property.
Montoya and her partner, Danny Lopez, have made the most of the rural views: The large patio dining area overlooks the farm, and there are separate raised platforms with tables set at the edge of the field — a holdover from the pandemic days where social distancing was the norm.
Montoya’s approach to Farm & Table is similar to some of the principles she learned while working at nonprofit organizations. This includes sticking to your vision without “mission drift” and building a team that can work together.
It was that team spirit that supported Montoya after a bike accident last winter when she fell on her face and injured a cranial nerve. Her sight from the injured eye might return one day, but in the meantime “there’s been so many limitations.”
“The work is hard, but we have a team,” she says. “Especially with my accident, I feel like we have each other’s backs and that’s really reassuring to know.”
It’s the 10th anniversary of the restaurant. Has the business developed as you imagined?
“Yeah right. I’ve been in the nonprofit world for so long, and in that world you don’t change your vision. It’s the golden rule. I just wish more for-profit companies thrived on those philosophies because it makes so much sense. If So you decide what you want to do, is it valuable. It’s not like, ‘I need to make some money. How am I going to move things around and make more money?’ It’s not like that at all. The essence of what it is, as with any nonprofit, must remain the same. You know where you’re going and you honor it. So what we are today is exactly what we were 10 years ago were, only better.”
And what is the vision?
“The vision honors… locally grown produce, everything from berries to nuts. We get pecans from Mesilla Valley, we get berries from Corrales, but also get the protein as much as possible. There are a few ranchers who keep their proteins here in New Mexico. Of course we can get things from other places, but it (the vision) honors where we are, our local economy. It highlights our friends, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. It’s awesome, and it’s delicious, and it’s doable. It’s expensive, but that’s our thing.”
If it’s grown locally, why is it expensive?
“If you go to the farmer’s market and compare the price of the kale to the price of the kale at Smith’s, it’s going to be about four times as much. Sometimes more. It’s more expensive because we don’t mass produce under horrible working conditions. We don’t make cheap groceries and spray the hell out of them so they can survive the thousands of miles they have to travel to get to the grocery store. When you help hardworking locals grow food, it just costs more.”
What’s your favorite part of the job?
“I think it’s everything. It never feels like going to work. It’s a beautiful place, the food is great. As soon as we open, people come in – they’re celebrating an anniversary or a birthday, or they’re bringing their friends who are visiting from out of town. It’s a really cool vibe. I really love that.”
What are your plans for the business?
“When my last farmer (who leased the property) left, I decided to take over the farm myself and change the concept to a permaculture farm that focuses on the future, rather than shooting something immediately. This will be our third year. We have planted many different types of fruit trees and nut trees and berry bushes and many perennials. So this is long-term.”
How do you spend your free time?
“I like to just walk along the ditches and acequias. And ride a bike, but of course I haven’t done that for a while. I love being outside and my new thing is going to Chicago. My daughter is at the art institute there.”
What is a difficult thing that you have learned from?
“You curate an idea. It’s this nice idea – if it works that way. But we all know that things don’t always go that way. There is a magazine called Edible. It’s about our restaurants and food professionals dedicated to local cuisine. So when I get an award from them, I think it’s very special. My chefs got these best chef awards, and there’s this… thing that happens right after that. They get it and they go. So that’s happened to every single chef. And every chef I’ve had, I adore them. I always miss her, but I don’t feel like a limb has been chopped off. I think that’s the beauty of Farm & Table – there’s never just one person. It’s such a collective.”
What are you most proud of?
“That we made it to 10 years. I was the only person who stayed here from day one. It was hard. I pride myself on simply having a good reputation and being respected by my colleagues.”