It’s been called the “Harvard of cooking schools” and has been credited with having “changed the way Americans eat” by no less than the James Beard Foundation. World-reknowned French chef Paul Bocuse calls it “the best culinary school in the world.” It has trained more than forty-thousand culinary professionals and counts among its distinguished alumni such Food Network luminaries as Tony Bourdain, Anne Burrell, Cat Cora, Sara Moulton and Todd English.
In the culinary world, the Central Intelligence Agency is known as “the other CIA.” The CIA is the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a not-for-profit culinary school which confers Associate of Occupational Studies (A.O.S.) degrees in either Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts. Students don’t just receive hands-on training, they spend over 1,300 hours in the kitchen or bakeshop. At its Hyde Park campus, the CIA operates five public restaurants in which students acquire experience in both back-of-the-house kitchen and front-of-the-house management skills.
A degree from the CIA doesn’t just open doors to exciting possibilities, it confers upon its graduates credentials that are universally respected throughout the vast culinary community. The CIA also offers a three-tiered American Culinary Federation (ACF) certification entitled Pro Chef, each tier recognizing skills obtained in the kitchen as well as in the classroom. The pinnacle of achievement and highest level of of certification is as a Certified Executive Chef, a title which signifies the bearer is not only well versed in multiple culinary disciplines, but in advanced personnel and financial management aspects.
Albuquerque is home to at least two CIA graduates–the high-profile celebrity chef Jim White and Certified Executive Chef Michael Christensen, Jr. who, despite very impressive credentials, has a much lower profile. If you’ve never heard of Chef Christensen, it’s because he’s relatively new to Albuquerque, having been somewhat of a wayfarer for more than a decade before settling in the Duke City. For nearly a dozen years he served as a chef for a multi-location casino corporation before taking a job with the 66 Casino.
During his day off, Chef Christensen began an off-premises catering operation that eventually became Chef’s Elegant Catering, serving Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the surrounding area with a full-service catering business offering custom menus for all occasions–from casual to formal. The custom menus are thematic, showcasing the chef’s tremendous versatility in preparing surprisingly varied dishes: Italian, French, Southwestern, Mexican, Cajun, Nouvelle, Vegetarian and more. Ask him what type of food he specializes in and he’ll answer “delicious.”
In March, 2009, Chef Christensen launched Chef’s Bistro, a relatively small restaurant ensconced in the timeworn Sequoia Square shopping center about a mile north of I40 on Coors Boulevard. It’s minimally visible (if at all) from Coors. In fact, even driving into the pock-marked parking lot serving the shopping center, you have to look for it. Befitting the 60s style shopping center, the restaurant’s signage is rather humble, hardly the type of marquee you might expect for such a credentialed chef.
Then there’s the menu. You might expect that with Chef Christensen’s pedigree, the menu would be replete with expensive haute cuisine served in an elegant milieu by a nattily attired wait staff. Instead, it’s just the chef and his son Michael serving a breakfast and lunch menu (open 7AM – 2PM Tuesday through Sunday) that’s surprisingly simple, the antithesis of what you might expect. Specializing in New Orleans inspired po’ boys, a few New Mexican entrees, burgers, classic American breakfast entrees and a number of “lighter side” specialties, it’s the quintessential American diner, no major surprises.
Okay, so the menu and the ambience aren’t exactly what you might picture from a classically trained chef, but you should set your expectations high anyway. There’s a reason Chef Christensen earned all those gold medals festooning the restaurant’s walls. There’s a reason he achieved the highest level of certification possible from the American Culinary Federation. The proof is in the eating.
On Saturdays and Sundays, featured fare includes a New Orleans specialty with a Chef Christensen twist–Bananas Foster (a dessert consisting of lengthwise sliced bananas sautéed in a mixture of rum, brown sugar, and banana liquer, then served over ice cream) served over French toast. The entree, three pieces of French bread battered in a cinnamon batter topped with Bananas Foster and a dusting of powdered sugar, is one of the bistro’s most popular.
Having lived a Mardi Gras parade’s bead throw from New Orleans for eight years, we were thrilled to see a number of Po’ Boys on the menu. Po’ Boys are a Crescent City staple, the city’s version of a submarine sandwich (but some would say, infinitely better). The term po’boy originally referred to striking streetcar conductors then eventually to the austere sandwiches they ate while on strike. Po’ Boys are constructed with meat or seafood which is overstuffed into Louisiana French bread and served either dressed (lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise) or naked.
If you’ve never had a Po’ Boy at one of New Orleans’ prolific pantheons of Po’ Boys (roast beef from Mother’s Restaurant and shrimp from Johnny’s Po Boys for example), you owe it to yourself to try Chef Christensen’s rendition. If the Big I is any indication, he does New Orleans proud. The Big I is a foot-long (or more) French loaf of bread grilled with Cheddar cheese, a thick hamburger patty and green chile. You can add bacon for a pittance.
Two things make this an intriguing Po’ Boy. First, Chef’s Bistro participated in Governor Richardson’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge and was selected for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail so he obviously knows about green chile cheeseburgers. Secondly, a good French bread makes an excellent canvas for meat and ingredients. This is a very good Po’Boy slash green chile cheeseburger, a delicious departure from the conventional beef on a bun burger you can have anywhere in town.
All sandwiches and burgers are served with crinkle cut French fries, black bean salad or for fifty cents more, sweet potato fries with a “special sauce” very reminiscent of the classic French remoulade served throughout the Deep South. The sauce is intended for the fries (which are terrific), but goes very well on the Big I, too.
If your hankering is for New Mexican food, Chef Christensen won’t disappoint here either. The carne adovada and eggs breakfast–two large eggs cooked any style on the side of freshly cooked carne adovada and black beans with fresh home-style potatoes and a tortilla–is surprisingly good and not just for a Wisconsin born chef. The marinated pork is tender and cut into small cubes which are smothered in a dark red chile devoid of cumin, which helps explain its delicious purity. It’s also very low in salt which means you can salt to taste. The chile is of medium piquancy with that addictive flavor New Mexicans love. It shouldn’t have surprised us that a Certified Executive Chef wouldn’t serve chile without having perfected the recipe. The fresh home-style potatoes are a worthy accompaniment, flavored with parsley, rosemary, pepper and other seasonings.
Chef’s Bistro is very reasonably priced, offers generous portions and provides a pleasant dining experience. You’re in great hands with a CIA trained chef.