Food for Thought: A Chat with Cochineal's Executive Chef
The Scout Guide West Texas celebrates businesses from Midland to Marfa, and when we set out to Scout the tiny enclave with an international reputation that is Marfa, we knew including Cochineal in Volume 1 was a must.
Helmed by husband and wife team of Executive Chef/Owner Alexandra Gates and Partner/Owner James Harkrider, Cochineal embodies The Scout Guide’s mission – with a distinctly Marfa flair. Casual yet refined, Cochineal blends an innovative approach with a staunch loyalty to its West Texas roots.
Cochineal’s story, however, begins in New York City, where Executive Chef/Owner Alexandra Gates cut her teeth. Bypassing formal culinary school to work with New York’s most illustrious female chefs, the self-taught gourmand first tasted Texas when her husband brought her to Austin. There, she served as the executive chef at the storied Hotel Saint Cecilia for seven years. From the capital city to West Texas, her culinary and creative pursuits manifested in Cochineal, where her work at it’s helm earned her the title of 2020 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas and most recently an invitation to be a featured chef at the 2022 Beard Awards Reception Ceremony in Chicago.
The Scout Guide West Texas: Before we dive into how you built Cochineal into Marfa’s premier culinary outpost and the catalyst behind your critically acclaimed cuisine, can you give a little background on how you got your start in the kitchen?
Alexandra Gates: I actually didn’t get a culinary degree. My original creative focus wasn’t in food, but in art. So, you know, I moved to New York to be an artist and worked in restaurants to support myself while doing that. I did everything from washing dishes, to hosting, serving, and bartending. I always felt that the kitchens were run by men and it didn’t dawn on me until I worked for some really strong female chefs in New York City that I could do this and that it can also be a creative outlet. That’s when I started switching over to being more on the other side of the walls and in the kitchen.
The Scout Guide West Texas: Did you always have a passion for food or was it totally newfound while working in New York restaurants?
Alexandra Gates: I feel like I learned a lot about food and was exposed to a wide variety of foods, even as a child. When I would visit my grandparents in Switzerland, my grandfather would spend his mornings fishing while my grandmother was always in the kitchen cooking. I’d go shopping with her to pick up all the elements for our meals. We’d go to the baker for bread and the butcher for meat and the farms for the eggs and the milk. We’d pick berries to make dessert. I loved her simple way of cooking utilizing very organic, local ingredients. Just watching how she did things was really how I learned to cook.
“I ALWAYS FELT LIKE THE KITCHENS WERE RUN BY MEN AND IT DIDN’T DAWN ON ME UNTIL I WORKED FOR SOME REALLY STRONG FEMALE CHEFS THAT I COULD DO THIS.”
The Scout Guide West Texas: Cochineal is known for preparing dishes with only the freshest, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Do you think that time with your grandparents informed your style of cooking?
Alexandra Gates: Well everything my grandparents or even my mother cooked were all from local purveyors, so the thoughts of having everything shipped in seemed very foreign to me. That’s where I think I gained my perspective for maintaining locally sourced ingredients as the basis for my cooking.
The Scout Guide West Texas: How do you think that translates to the menu at Cochineal?
Alexandra Gates: The menu at Cochineal is European-inspired while incorporating West Texas ingredients. I’m very particular about the ingredients I use in the food we serve. I make sure the meats don’t have any hormones and that we are using organic, locally grown vegetables and herbs. I prioritize knowing where the ingredients are coming from and exactly how they are sourced.
The Scout Guide West Texas: Marfa is a long way from New York City. What brought you here and what inspired you to take the entrepreneurial leap with Cochineal?
Alexandra Gates: My husband is a West Texan and he brought me down to Marfa for the first time probably in 2008. I instantly fell in love. As we were visiting, we got to know some of the locals and that’s when I met Tom and Toshi Sakihara who owned this great little restaurant that we would come to eat at for several years. They eventually wanted to kind of step away from the restaurant so they asked my husband and I if we wanted to take over. We were coming pretty close to an idea of what we wanted this project to look like and then I was diagnosed with cancer. So treatment lasted a year and then after my final treatment, I felt like it was now or never!
“I PRIORITIZE KNOWING WHERE THE INGREDIENTS ARE COMING FROM AND EXACTLY HOW THEY ARE SOURCED.”
The Scout Guide West Texas: The risk you took certainly had incredible awards. Marfa has a really unique landscape and culture, how do you think that has influenced your cooking?
Alexandra Gates: Marfa is kind of a strange dichotomy. It’s a small dusty ranching town but it has high art at the same time. It’s not like a huge city where you can order something and have it the next day. Something might not be available so you have to be willing to go with the flow and shift the menu based on what you do have. Living in Marfa can feel like being on an island in the middle of the desert. I don’t want my ingredients going through a lot of distributions or traveling very far, so I have to be willing to be flexible and shift the menu based on what I do have available.
The Scout Guide West Texas: For those wanting to taste what you create, what can diners expect when they come to Cochineal?
Alexandra Gates: We offer fine dining in the desert which is something that is really intriguing and fun to offer diners, because it also plays into the whole dichotomy of Marfa. Our space is refined, offering stellar service while in an upscale yet inviting atmosphere. When you come here, nothing is ever the same. Our daily evolving menu is ingredient driven, changing based on what’s available, so the food we serve our diners is always going to taste better and be the freshest possible.
The Scout Guide West Texas: You’ve been named a 2020 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas, which is an incredible honor. What were your first thoughts when you found out you have been nominated?
Alexandra Gates: I didn’t know that James Beard was even paying attention to such a small town, which is really nice to know! I consider my kitchen right now to be my dream team. We’re more of a family and we always have each other’s backs. I really think that’s a big reason why I became a semifinalist.
The Scout Guide West Texas: It seems like your grandparents played a huge part in shaping who you are as a chef. What do you think they would say if they could see you now?
Alexandra Gates: I think both my grandparents would be impressed. My grandfather would be licking the plates because that’s what he always did and my grandmother, I think she would be very proud.
Visit Cochineal at 107 West San Antonio Street, Marfa. Open most Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays by reservation for Prix Fixe seasonal menu. To make a reservation, please view dates and instructions here.