Kitchen manager Janet Malcom
When Arturo and Florence Jaramillo opened the Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante in Arturo’s grandparents’ home in the small Río Arriba County village in 1965, Cheryl Alters Jamison writes in Rancho de Chimayó Cookbook: The Traditional Cooking of New Mexico (1991), their goal was to serve “meals like those Arturo had as a child, using old family recipes,” such as carne adovada, posole, tamales, and sopaipillas. “Meals that were unfamiliar to non-Hispanic guests.” More than 50 years later, the restaurant is still meeting that goal by delivering those signature traditional dishes, cooked fresh every day. That’s partly because Florence Jaramillo, affectionately known as Mrs. J, is still setting the standards and managing the front of the house, and partly because kitchen manager Janet Malcom has been doing the same in the back for close to 28 years.
The kitchen manager is the critical but often invisible person at the heart of a successful restaurant. He or she is responsible not only for overseeing all the food preparation, but also for maintaining and repairing equipment, ordering supplies, as well as hiring, training, scheduling, and supervising cooks and other kitchen staff — that’s about 15 people at Rancho de Chimayó — and seeing that they follow mandated health and safety techniques. If the owner is responsible for the philosophy, menu, and standards for a restaurant, the kitchen manager makes sure those marks are hit on every single plate, every single day. Her quarter-century association with the restaurant started out as a summer job, Malcom said. “I remember working like a week, and making sopaipillas and then doing the grill … and just kind of gradually learning every component” of the kitchen operations, eventually taking over as full-time kitchen manager.
One of her major contributions was standardizing the recipes for key dishes while respecting the spirit and ingredients of the traditional family preparations on which the restaurant was founded. “Nothing was really written down,” Malcom said of her early days at the restaurant, which won the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics Award in 2016. “I’m the one that refined the recipes and wrote them down so that as new people come in, they are learning to prepare things the same way.” And that’s an important part of the consistency customers and critics look for when they are evaluating a restaurant. Before she took that on, cooks were likely to make the sopaipillas, for instance, in whatever way they thought best, following such vague guidelines as making the batter extra stiff.
Hiring, training, and supervising kitchen workers is another key part of Malcom’s job. Malcom opens for breakfast on the weekends, but otherwise works evenings so she can schedule new employees to work beside her, teaching them what they need to know until they get comfortable with their responsibilities. Teaching comes naturally to Malcom. She has been doing it for more than 40 years — in the restaurant kitchen as well as classrooms. (The past six years, in fact, she’s been the principal of Chimayó Elementary School.) The school is just down the road from the restaurant, so she doesn’t spend much time commuting between her two full-time jobs. And she is able to use some of the skills that make her an effective educator in the kitchen.
The hardest part of managing the kitchen is dealing with staff. “I would say it’s a lot like dealing with the kids,” Malcom said. “During the day, I’m dealing with actual kids, and in the evening, it’s with adults that act like kids.” Malcom credits her ability to plan and focus on what needs to be done — as well as her strict work ethic — to growing up on a small farm in La Madera, and the routines she learned in high school as a boarder at the McCurdy School, which is associated with the United Methodist Church in Española. “We grew up on a farm where we always had chickens and lambs and pigs to feed,” she said. Her parents also owned the small grocery store that served the town. “And it placed a lot of responsibility on us as we were growing up.”
In high school, Malcom learned to follow a strict routine: “We had to be seated by a certain time for dinner, had to be ready for study hall,” she said. “Everything was like clockwork, everything had to be on time, and that’s kind of how my parents were. You don’t just sit around. You get up, do what you’re going to do, and just keep going.” It’s that unquestioning sense of responsibility that makes it possible for Malcom to work two jobs and succeed at both.
“Janet can be tough, but tough in a way that’s constructive,” Mrs. J said. “She’s taught everyone in the kitchen that cooks now, and she works with them … She knows what’s good and what isn’t — and that’s what’s important.” — Patricia West-Barker
“She’s taught everyone in the kitchen that cooks now, and she works with them ... She knows what’s good and what isn’t — and that’s what’s important.”