Chef David is a Spanish import—born in Madrid and raised on the soulful and rustic food prepared by his grandmother. Chef Huertas devoted his life to the cuisine of his homeland, and for the last 15 years he has applied his formidable energies to sharing this treasure-trove of unique flavors and traditional recipes to “Santa Fesinos” and traveling visitors. “I live with the philosophy that good food made really well is delightful to anybody, anywhere,” he says. “I always cook with feeling. It’s way beyond simple chemistry. When you cook with love, you’re immersed in the process itself and not guided by anything other than how it feels.”
As a child, David grew up traveling the world with his parents, tasting a variety of foods in foreign countries. From frog at tiny roadside stand in the Andes to floating restaurants in Hong Kong, he was exposed to a vast array of exotic dishes. When it came time to enroll in college, he wanted to experience living in the United States. Following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled as an economics major and was predestined to a long and rewarding career in finance.
Middle America, for all its charms, dealt him one unexpected misfortune— the cafeteria food was inedible. “Everything tasted metallic and like cardboard and it had no flavor,” he says. “And it didn’t matter, you could salt or pepper it, there was just nothing to it.” His occasional reprieve was a do-it-yourself omelet bar, and soon, he began cooking on a toaster-oven in his dorm room, preparing meals for his roommates and then an ever-increasing number of hungry friends. As the word spread, the demand for David’s cooking quickly exceed the supply, and David began charging $5 a head. He also made a point of insisting that there always were more girls than guys at every meal. Grinning mischievously, he insists, “The ratio was important!”
“I made paella and other traditional recipes, too. I started imitating foods I was exposed to when I went to some of my roommates’ homes during short vacations. My family was across the Atlantic Ocean and I didn’t want to fly there for just three days.”
In-between his junior and senior years, David wanted to investigate other avenues for his career. He landed an internship at the Villa Magna Hotel in Madrid, where he worked in every hotel department, from reception to housekeeping, dishwashing, line cooking and accounting. “What I really enjoyed was the kitchen.” he says. “It was awesome. The camaraderie of the cooks, the way they all worked together, and the fact that they were working hard to make people happy–it was an inspiring dynamic.”
After graduating from Kenyon, David went to Cleveland. Leaving the world of finance behind him, he began looking for work as a Chef. He got his first opportunity at Sausalito, an Italian Mediterranean restaurant. He helped the owner open a second restaurant, Players. When offered the opportunity to open a third, and much larger restaurant, David felt torn. Though he enjoyed the quick rise in his new career, he also felt that it wasn’t just about turning tickets and making money. He was in love with cooking, and wanted to deepen this relationship. Eventually he declined the offer and instead enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.
Upon graduation from the CIA, he was offered a dream job. He was contracted by a Venezuelan company to open a series of restaurants in South American capital cities. But right before he was to begin working, his grandfather passed, and David joined his family for a time here in Santa Fe. Shortly after arriving in New Mexico, the Venezuelan economy collapsed, and the position evaporated. David stayed in Santa Fe. He went to work in a series of acclaimed Santa Fe restaurants, honing his skills as a mercenary chef. He worked at The Bishop’s Lodge, the Italian eatery La Traviata, SantaCafe, where he briefly worked with celebrated chef Ming Tsai, and then he helped to launch the Double A Restaurant.
When the Double A closed, David returned to Spain and worked in restaurants in Córdoba and Madrid, focusing on classical Spanish foods. As he began to contemplate his next move, he realized that Santa Fe had no truly traditional Spanish restaurant, and he decided to return and open El Mesón as an authentic Spanish eatery in 1997. Today El Mesón has an established reputation as one of Santa Fe’s restaurant gems. In 2000, David and his wife, Kelly, expanded to include an Andalusian-style tapas bar with an extensive list of wines, sherries, and live entertainment.
“This is a small restaurant that has a very definite personality and characteristic,” David says. “Like a great Jamon, a fine wine, or a perfectly aged cheese, a great restaurant improves with time. After 20 years, I feel like we are just hitting our stride.”