By the time you read this, chef Joel Coleman will have been gone from gastropub Fire & Hops—a restaurant he co-founded eight years ago with partner, Josh Johns—for roughly one month. Coleman says it’s a little weird to have nights free for the first time in a storied career that spans four states, innumerable restaurants and more than two decades, but that long hours and a bit of ennui had taken their toll. then, a trip to Hawaii in January, where he grew up and which he still considers his “grounding place,” made it clear that it was time to move on.
“Someone recently commented about how Fire & Hops was such a big part of my life these last eight years, but it was my life,” Coleman tells SFR. “When I look back and think of all the things that suffered from it? The relationships that suffered? I still love it, I don’t think I’m ever not going to be a chef, but there’s a point where it’s not worth it. Some days it feels normal, other days it feels like I’ve given up a baby.”
Fire & Hops will go on with Johns managing and under chef Austin “Gus” Emery, and that’s a good thing. Still, Coleman’s departure is kind of huge. This is America, after all, where we’re conditioned to believe the best things that will ever happen to us will generally arise from so-called meaningful employment; where the term “dream job” implies our dreams are rooted in labor. For a chef/owner like Coleman, though, the dream can only sustain hundred-hour work weeks for so long. Even so, it can’t have been easy to walk away. Fire & Hops has been consistently popular in Santa Fe from the moment the doors opened in 2014, and for Coleman to put his own emotional well-being first is, frankly, courageous. And fans need not fret.
As we speak, Coleman is figuring out how best to take on private chef gigs; maybe two a month, he says to avoid burnout, and he already has some lined up for later this summer. Perhaps more exciting, at least for folks not in the market for private cheffing, is that he’s putting the finishing touches on the Railyard location of his La Lecheria (500 Market St., Ste 110, (505) 428-0077) ice cream shop for a Friday, May 27 opening.
Longtime locals will no doubt remember when Coleman opened La Lecheria’s first location on Lena Street in 2016, and then the Marcy Street outpost in 2018. That original location is gone (it’s The Bread Shop now), but Marcy Street lives on; the Railyard location would have opened ages ago if not for the pandemic. And it’s about time, too. That damn La Lecheria sign’s been up for years and, honestly, it’s nice to get something in that zone that isn’t another brewery. Like, breweries are awesome, but the Railyard has become the de facto beer district and we have enough choices now.
The intriguing thing about La Lecheria, anyway, is in Coleman’s creative take on flavors. Oh, sure, you’ll find the standby items like at any ice cream shop—your chocolates and vanillas and such—but Coleman likes to get weird, and it often works, even when you don’t think it will. His green chile variety has become legendary and even appeared on the Food Network show Man vs. Food. Further, Coleman says, he’s been dabbing with a red chile honey flavor, a type made with sesame paste direct from a Japanese company that literally only makes sesame products, a miso butterscotch blend and any number of sorbets, like a blood orange and vanilla and a raspberry vanilla. Soon we’ll be able to sample a parmesan cheese ice cream and a buffalo blue cheese variety—and then there’s the POG sorbet, a take on one of Coleman’s favorite Hawaiian flavors made with a mixture of passion fruit, orange and guava.
“I have a plan for something called the Adventure Series,” he says. “I’m not talking about shock value, but fun things, a little more out there, like maybe black garlic or Cholulua or maybe something with cashew milk, because even if you’re not vegan, maybe you don’t want dairy. There will never be a sugar-free ice cream, though.”
Coleman also says you might soon see La Lecheria flavors in New Mexico Whole Foods locations, and that while Opuntia and Sky Coffee have espresso covered in the Railyard, his new location will serve up coffee from Java Joe’s and tea from Artful Tea. It could be, too, that you’ll find pastries and other snacks on offer once he gets a chance. One of La Lecheria’s employees is a great baker, Coleman says. If all that wasn’t enough, Coleman has his sights set on a delivery/service truck from which La Lecheria could finally accept the myriad special event invitations it’s always receiving. Given the shop’s proximity to Violet Crown Cinema, the Farmers Market and the upcoming AMP Railyard Summer Concert Series, a lot of things are possible (hello, ice cream after a movie), and Coleman seems energized.
“A good chef wants to move forward, and I’m glad people love those dishes from the past, but…” he says trailing off. “Just because I don’t have a restaurant anymore doesn’t mean I don’ t love cooking or that I love food any less. Part of me thinks it was inevitable to move on, that I could have found more balance. The possibilities are endless now.”