By Lucy Herrman
Taos has so much to offer visitors in the summer: Hiking, biking, river rafting, ballooning, gallery hopping, live music and most important of all, exquisite dining. The number of restaurants offering excellent culinary experiences usually exceeds expectations, especially for a small town like ours. We have an abundance of dedicated chefs and cooks in restaurants of all kinds to satisfy every type of appetite.
For a really unique fine dining experience, with an intimate feel, you may wish to try the Secret Supper Club, a monthly pop-up dinner offered by one of Taos’ most respected chefs, Chris Maher. Chef Maher came to Taos many years ago to open a restaurant, Momentitos de la Vida (now known as Sabroso), which received six 4-Diamond Culinary Awards under his guidance. Although self-taught, Maher is a James Beard-recognized chef. He’s cooked for many luminaries, including the Dalai Lama and President Clinton. After he sold Momentitos de la Vida, he retreated for a year and a half to Los Angeles — where he had a long, successful career as an actor. But his passion was food, and Maher soon returned to his true loves: cooking, Taos and Valerie, although perhaps not in that order. Together, Chris and Valerie Maher created Cooking Studio Taos, a lovely culinary world of cooking classes, Secret Suppers and more — all in a beautiful setting.
Maher’s monthly Secret Supper Club is attended by local Taoseños and visitors alike. Held in a different location each month, usually a historic Taos home or other fascinating venue. The secret location is not revealed until the morning of the dinner, and the menu is kept under wraps until you walk in the door.
When you arrive, you are greeted by Valerie Maher as she hands you a glass of wine. A printed menu describing that evening’s gourmet five-course dinner awaits at each place at the long communal dining table. Attendees stake their chairs and then mingle with the other guests, with time to get to know each other.
You discover that some guests have been to several Secret Suppers. Others come every month. And a few are trying it for the first time. By the end of the evening, all present agree: What a great way to make new friends and have an excellent meal in the process.
For those who want to go one step deeper and get their hands into the action, you might want to take an in-depth cooking class with Chef Maher. In addition to the Secret Suppers, he conducts a cooking school, sharing his extensive knowledge and sheer enthusiasm.
The cooking school is located in the Maher’s lovely and rustic Arroyo Seco home. The adobe has an inviting old-world atmosphere and is lived in and loved by the Mahers, their son Milo, and their dogs. Classes are conducted in the main kitchen around a generous center island. A large vintage stove is against the wall. Students work around the island with plenty of workspaces.
In good weather, classes might be conducted outdoors in their second kitchen where a wood-burning pizza oven resides. An organic vegetable garden is located next to the patio, and their chickens (currently 16) preside. The Mahers are dedicated gardeners, and in season, many of the ingredients used in the class are grown right in their own garden.
Weekly classes offer a variety of cuisines from New Mexican to Italian, from Moroccan to Thai, from French to Spanish. During the course of a five-hour, hands-on class, each student contributes to the process of preparing a meal they will later consume, having learned the recipes, techniques and theory.
And should you arrive in Taos wishing for a private class for your family or group, the Mahers will expertly tailor one to your tastes and likings — a wonderful experience in togetherness. In addition, during the summer, Cooking Studio Taos offers a week-long Cooking Camp for kids ages 8-16. Your children can take all the classes or drop in for one.
In researching this article, I had the pleasure of attending Cooking Studio Taos for a Moroccan class. Among the students were visitors from New York, Denver and Santa Fe, as well as locals. As the food writer for The Taos News, and a former cooking teacher myself, I take pride in my cooking knowledge. But I love watching how other chefs do things, and quite frankly, I always learn new techniques.
The class gathers in the living room, sitting on comfortable chairs and sofas. Each student holds the recipes we will be preparing that day. “Chef Chris” goes over them one by one, explaining the process and answering questions. He talks about techniques and ingredients (especially unusual ones), and shares anecdotes from his past. Once everyone is comfortable with the recipes and have all questions answered, it’s time to get cooking.
Unlike many cooking schools, where one watches a teacher at the front of the room prepare all the recipes under a large mirror, Cooking Studio Taos has you elbow deep in the process itself. Few shortcuts are allowed. Every dish and almost every condiment are made from scratch. As each student team labors at working on its dish, peering curiously at what the others are doing, Valerie Maher serves some wine to pass the moments from preparation to finished fare. Each student cleans up their own mess at the counter and washes their own dishes.
Pretty soon, the food is baking or bubbling away for its last few minutes of cooking. Valerie Maher and some of the students set the enormous, square dining table. More wine is poured and dinner is served. By now, everyone is a friend and busy exchanging contact information, promising to text or email photos of the day’s activities.
All have shared a memorable time, gained valuable knowledge and eaten a remarkable meal. Most will want to join another future class. Many will return to attend a Secret Supper Club dinner. But all are caught under the spell of Chris and Valerie Maher’s personal culinary world at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Lucy Herrman of Taos is regular contributor in The Taos News of all things food and is an accomplished cook.
Cooking Studio Taos and the Secret Supper Club
Arroyo Seco, New Mexico