Alibi | by Robin Babb | January 10, 2019
If you’ve visited Vinaigrette, the salad-centric restaurant on Central, then you’ve eaten the greens that Erin Wade grows at Los Portales, her 10-acre farm in Nambe, just north of Santa Fe. Wade grows almost all of the greens used in Vinaigrette’s salads, and some of the other ingredients too. She also owns the restaurant.
“Farmer and restaurateur” isn’t the most common job description, but in the twenty teens having only one job is increasingly passé—not to mention economically difficult. The Vinaigrette in Albuquerque is only the tip of Wade’s multi-city restaurant chain: There’s Vinaigrette locations in Santa Fe and Austin, Texas, as well. Her breakfast restaurant and retail concept, Modern General, has locations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque (new last year), and her newest creation, The Feel Good, has one location in Albuquerque. The term “breakaway success” comes to mind.
The path that Wade has taken to this unique business model was also anything but common. She grew up in Washington state and went to Harvard for undergrad, where she got a degree in English. After graduation she got wanderlust and enrolled in the Istituto Marangoni, a fashion school in Milan. Before she shipped out to Italy, though, she spent a fateful summer in Santa Fe, working in the costume department at the now-defunct Shakespeare in Santa Fe. Like so many transplants now living in New Mexico, she didn’t expect to love it here. But after a year in Milan, Wade says, “Santa Fe just kind of called me back.”
In 2003 Wade came back to New Mexico and moved onto the land her family owned in
Nambe, now the Los Portales farm. The house and the land were both in rough shape, and she immediately got to work setting up the garden and repairing the house. But the land had other things in mind.
“When I got here, everything broke and went wrong,” Wade says. “I came here to find answers on the land in a way, but I brought this very American attitude of ‘we’re going to fix this up, we’re going to do this right away.’ Which isn’t very New Mexican.”
Through plenty of trial and error, she learned that farming requires months and years of patient observation and note-taking. Plants don’t grow overnight, and 300-year-old adobe houses are temperamental. But after a couple of years Wade got the house rebuilt and the notoriously dry New Mexico soil began yielding reliable crops of vegetables.
In 2005 she first got the idea for Vinaigrette. But initial idea to execution doesn’t often happen overnight, and Wade had learned about taking her time from the experience with the family farm. Besides, she didn’t exactly know where to begin when opening a restaurant.
“It took a while because I didn’t have any experience. People think, ‘oh, you just started growing lettuce. And you're like, what do we do with this? Let’s start a salad restaurant.’ And it wasn’t that at all,” she says. “It was more synergistic than linear.”
Inspired by her time in Italy and the relationship that people have with food there, Wade wanted to create a restaurant that was focused around wellness without being unhealthily health-obsessed. There was no fat- or calorie-counting in the Vinaigrette plan from the start, because Wade believes that real wellness is more nuanced: The heart and the mind are just as involved with food as the body. A meal should not only taste good and be good for you, it should also make you feel good. She adopts a sort of Michael Pollan-esque attitude towards food, with a healthy dose of skepticism towards any diet that involves always or never ultimatums. “So many people are eating in fear and guilt. And that isn’t good for our bodies,” she says. “Being a little bit more gentle and enjoying your food and enjoying mealtimes—that’s a part of wellness to me.” It’s this philosophy that provides the backbone for all of Wade’s restaurants.
“Vinaigrette is [built] from my own experience—diets make you crazy,” she says. “There's a dietary extremism in this country that is rampant, and it's not any better now than when I opened Vinaigrette. It's just dressed in fancier words, like detox and cleanse.”
New Mexico responded to this philosophy of hers in a big way after the first Vinaigrette opened in 2008. The chic space and the simple but lovingly prepared food made the restaurant a smash hit, even in a dining scene as saturated as Santa Fe’s. With no formal training in cooking, business or interior design, Wade seemed to have struck gold. Never one to rest on her laurels, she kept right on mining that vein.
In 2012 the Albuquerque Vinaigrette opened and raised the bar for health-focused restaurants here. The first Modern General opened its doors in Santa Fe in 2015, and then Austin got its Vinaigrette in 2016. Just last year we got our own Modern General and The Feel Good, a wine bar and curated small plates restaurant.
The new year holds many new projects for Wade, including her new Modern General Book Club. As evidenced by her home library in Nambe, Wade is a big reader, and is always ready and willing to talk about her latest read. For this club she’s put together a list of 12 enriching books for 2019 for the members to read together. On the third Tuesday of every month, members will meet at Modern General (both the Santa Fe and the Albuquerque MG will host meetings) to discuss the book over coffee. If you’d like to see the list of books and sign up for the club, check out moderngeneralnm.com.
Books have done a lot to inform Wade’s philosophy of wellness, too. When I ask her about Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, a title that’s for sale in the Modern General store, she lights up. “I’m a luddite, I really am. I have a flip phone,” she says. “I feel a groundswell of talk about it [social media addiction], but we need to get it more out in the open. Because we’re addicted to that shit hard.” Of course, as a business person with sales to make, she feels conflicted about her company’s use of social media as marketing. “I want my customers to be happy. And I don’t know if keeping them engaged on their social, on their phone, is happiness.”
Beyond the book club, bigger projects are on the horizon too, says Wade. “There are other things I want to do that are not just restaurants—they include farms, agriculture sustainability and eating retreats. There's all these other things that I'm thinking of in terms of, well, if we're solving problems about sustainability and wellness, what other things can we address?”