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Luminaria chef brings world-class experience home to his native New Mexico

December 5, 2018

When executive chef Sean Sinclair turns out a dish at downtown Santa Fe’s Luminaria Restaurant, he’s drawing on skills honed at a beloved Albuquerque eatery, a resort-town hot spot — and one of the world’s best restaurants.

But his true inspiration? That comes straight from the heart.

“At home, I’m always cooking for somebody I love,” said Sinclair, 30, while sitting in the lobby of the Inn and Spa at Loretto, the imminently Instagrammable 136-room hotel that houses Luminaria. “Everybody knows I’m the chef, so when I’m cooking at home, the pressure’s on in that way: that I’m aiming to impress, that I’m aiming to make something delicious and impactful. So I take a lot of inspiration from cooking at home and apply it to the restaurant, and then it kind of conveys that message of love.”

December finds Sinclair settling in as Luminaria’s executive chef, a position he’s held since March. He was working as chef at Sweet Basil, a popular modern American restaurant in Vail, Colo., when Jim Long, founder and CEO of Loretto owner Heritage Hotels & Resorts Inc., reached out about the Luminaria job opening.

Long was a regular at Albuquerque’s Farm & Table, where Sinclair served as executive chef from October 2013 to early 2015.

“I wasn’t really looking for a job,” said Sinclair, a New Mexico native who had planned to put down roots in Colorado with wife Katey Sinclair, whom he married in 2016. “But it was such a good opportunity and good fit for me, and a chance to be back home in a high-profile place.”

After spending a couple of weeks observing, Sinclair began “hitting the restart button,” reworking the restaurant’s many offerings: breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, bar and banquet menus among them. The Loretto restaurant has been in its current incarnation as Luminaria since 2008, when it changed names (from Baleen) and concepts.

Luminaria’s dishes reflect Sinclair’s training at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore., a knowledge of New Mexican cuisine, and an appreciation for local and seasonal ingredients that blossomed at Farm & Table and has grown along with his career’s evolution.

“We’re doing beautifully executed, simple, farm-driven food,” he said. His clever thematic twist: food that “feels like Santa Fe,” nodding to the unique culinary landscape rather than replicating classic dishes.

“Not everything everything needs to have red and green chile on it to feel like it’s a New Mexican item,” he said, pointing to a summertime, Japanese- and Mexican-inspired offering of hamachi with aguachiles in which the cucumber and jalapeño juice was poured onto the fish tableside, and complemented with avocado and tortilla strips. The crispy Brussels sprouts ($14) on the current menu (Sinclair changes it according to season) pairs a honey gastrique, cranberries and grapes with a sprinkling of Chimayó chile powder.

Originally from Tijeras, Sinclair started his restaurant career as a 16-year-old line cook at the now-closed Chama River Brewing Co., breeding ground for brewing greats including Ted Rice of Marble Brewery, La Cumbre Brewing Co. president and master brewer Jeff Erway, Toltec Brewing brewmaster Kaylynn McKnight and John Bullard, head brewer at Bosque Brewing Co.

After high school, Sinclair had a brief stint at the University of New Mexico before Chama’s chef suggested a different option: culinary school.

That’s just what he did, drawn to the magnetic pull of Portland after his desert upbringing. Upon graduation, he returned to Albuquerque and began working at Farm & Table, where he was quickly promoted to executive chef.

“They just saw a bunch of potential in me,” Sinclair said. “I was probably in a little over my head as far as being a chef goes, but I’ve tended to do that in my career: jump into a position that’s maybe a little more than I can chew and then figuring it out and doing a good job.”

Better than good: Farm & Table was named best restaurant in New Mexico by USA Today during his time there.

The Albuquerque restaurant has played a role in his life in more ways than one: He’d just been promoted there when he met his future wife, Katey. They got married at the venue. And they even rescued their pit bull, Marigold, there — the tiny, ownerless pup was wandering the grounds during the Marigold Festival.

“I embraced that local movement and the farm-style cuisine, and at the same time I was trying to up the ante and bring the best food I could,” Sinclair said of his time there. “Then it was just time to go. I was ready for something a little bigger.”

He found it.

Sinclair took on the role of sous chef at The Inn at Little Washington, a storied restaurant tucked into the Virginia countryside that recently became the Washington, D.C., area’s first three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Under the leadership of chef and founder Patrick O’Connell, the classic American-style restaurant serves an impeccable experience that Michelin’s third star signifies as “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

Sinclair puts it in perspective: “There are 50,000 restaurants in Denver,” he said. “They’re the 100th restaurant with three Michelin stars in the entire world.”

During his time at The Inn at Little Washington from 2015 to 2017 (living with his wife in the tiny town of 125, whose grid was surveyed by a young George Washington), the AAA five-diamond restaurant attained its initial Michelin two-star ranking, and he witnessed a masterclass in culinary refinement.

“The day that I walked into that place I was seeing the most beautiful cuisine executed at the highest level that I had seen to that point in my life, and I feel like from the day that I started to the day that I left, I left a completely different restaurant, we refined it that much along the road,” he said.

Sinclair, who is as a rule generous with his gratitude for the personal and professional influences who have taught and supported him, saves some of his most effusive praise for O’Connell.

“I’m going to tell stories about working at The Inn at Little Washington until I die, to young cooks in my kitchens,” he said. “It was so transformative for me. It was such an amazing experience, and there’s no way on Earth I’d be in the position I’m in with everything I have without having worked for Chef Patrick.”

O’Connell called Sinclair a naturally gifted, resourceful chef with a refreshing can-do attitude. “He’s a natural problem-solver who seems fearless in the face of obstacles,” O’Connell said. “He would have been right at home as a pioneer in the Old West. We will be watching his progress and observing his bright future with great interest.”

The lesson that proved most lasting from his time at The Inn at Little Washington: endless evolution.

“The food is this thing where you have this idea of perfection that’s not real, but you’re going to wake up every single day and run at it head down, knowing you’re not going to catch it. But that’s what you do every single day,” he said. “That’s what it taught me: to ever refine. When you’re happy with something, how can you make it that much better?”

Though his career has taken him from his native New Mexico to culinary school in Oregon, high-pressure positions in Virginia and Colorado, and then to Santa Fe, home for Sinclair is with wife Katey, a fourth-grade teacher at Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary School.

“She’s a constant inspiration,” Sinclair said. “She pushes me but she grounds me. … It’s amazing to be married to your best friend. We’ve literally never been in an argument.”

That’s the kind of love Sinclair uses to inspire his Luminaria cuisine: transcendent. His goal is to make the kind of food that takes you to another place and time.

“That emotion is our gift as chefs to the world, if we can do it,” he said. “But getting to that point where you can do it regularly is hard, and that’s kind of where I drive from. That’s what I want to offer people is just a little peace of mind. If I can offer that in little bits and pieces, then I’m doing my job right.”

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