Taos, New MexicoAs any one of its many loyal fans will tell you, the best way to experience the Trading Post Cafe in Taos, N.M., is from a high stool at the oak and latillo counter that anchors the room. There, you can dip ladles into jars of flavored olive oils (and pieces of fresh, crusty bread into that), ogle bowls of bright tomatoes and lemons, and, best of all, enjoy a spirited discourse with owner-chef René Mettler as he orchestrates the evening's meal.
"It's like show biz here at dinner," Mettler explains with infectious enthusiasm and a boisterous laugh. "The pots are banging and the knives are flying. People really eat it up."
That's not all they eat. Nightly, Mettler, along with partner Marco Barbitta and a flamboyant kitchen crew, serves up generous portions of Northern Italian, country-style cuisine on colorful "circus china," Mettler's 800-piece collection of granite, ceramic, glass and tile plates, platters and bowls.
While dishes such as penne arrabbiata, bisteca Fiorentina and ossobuco Milaneselend a definite taste of Italia to the menu, influences from other cultures show up as well, most often on a list of specials that can number 15 per evening: home-cured gravlax with Japanese soya noodles and pickled cucumbers, rabbit paté with Dijon aoli, Creole pepper shrimp and striped bass with stir-fried vegetables. "I cook for the people," Mettler explains. "If someone comes in and asks for something special, I'll make it for them if I can. If I cooked only for myself, no one would come."
At 56, Swiss-born Mettler's resumé reads like a culinary travelogue. For more than 40 years, he held executive chef and chef garde manger positions at world-class restaurants from Switzerland to London, Wailea to St. Croix. It was a life he loved, until a trip through Taos five years ago inspired him to settle down. "My wife and I thought we would retire," he laughs. "But here was this wonderful old trading post, where the community used to gather. We created this restaurant from scratch and filled it with the work of local artisans. Now it's everybody's place."
But as much as Mettler enjoys hob-nobbing with the crowd, his true passion is his food. With a flourish, he sprinkles herbs over a plate of chicken Vesuvio, and squeezes puffs of mashed potatoes from a pastry bag. "It's important how you present things," he says. "People's eyes light up when you do it right, and they're happy before they even take a bite."
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