When you walk into the Castañeda Hotel in Las Vegas, NM, it’s impossible to miss the handwritten sign spanning the doorway of the dining room that reads, “We are Las Vegas Strong.” If you walk a little farther across the lobby and through the white double doors into a dining room normally reserved for private events, you will see the bustling heart of a movement aimed at bringing relief to a community reeling from the uncertainty and devastation caused by the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire.
The combined wildfires have burned more than 200,000 acres of forest near Las Vegas for more than a month, and the city quickly became an epicenter for welcoming evacuees and coordinating firefighting efforts. Inside the historic Castañeda Hotel, Bar Castañeda, owned by chef Sean Sinclair and his wife Katey Sinclair, opened its doors to serve free meals to first responders and evacuees.
The buffet is open from 2 to 6 pm seven days a week, although when I was there, I noticed the kitchen team preparing food for firefighters who couldn’t make it there until after 8 pm when their shifts were over. There’s a collective energy and determination among the staff at Bar Castañeda, and their plan is straightforward — as long as there is a need, they are going to feed everyone they can, no matter what.
They are collecting donations (feedlasvegas.com) to keep the buffet and food delivery efforts going, and 100 percent of donations are going to feeding and supplying families in need.
Mo Vigil helps serve food Sunday to firefighters and evacuees at the Castañeda Hotel. ‘We’re not just feeding people,’ Vigil said. ‘We want them to feel taken care of and treated with dignity and respect.’
When my friend Katie and I arrived Sunday afternoon for a volunteer shift, the first person we met was Mo Vigil, who gave us the lay of the land, showing us the flowers that had been donated by a local florist to hand out to mothers in Celebration of Mother’s Day, how to make coffee, what areas needed sweeping and how to serve people when they started coming in. “We’re not just feeding people,” Vigil said. “We want them to feel taken care of and treated with dignity and respect.” She spoke with such kindness and a striking sense of responsibility, I assumed she was managing the operation. She explained to us that she was a server in the restaurant and came back to check on us throughout the day whenever she could.
What started as a buffet feeding 100 people has grown rapidly as more find sanctuary here and the need for delivered food increases. Two servers, Jackson Revell and Justin Woodlee, have been delivering breakfast and packed lunches each morning to the airport for arriving firefighters, the incident command center at Luna Community College and the water treatment facility.
Amber Quintana, who lives in the neighborhood and has been using her days off to volunteer in the dining room, said, “We have had a lot of time to prepare [being out of the evacuation zone], and this means we have a lot more mental space to help here. It’s a privilege to do something that is providing connection and a meal when so much is out of our control. With everything that is going on for so many, you still hear a lot of joy in this room.”
Bar Castañeda is serving or delivering an estimated 600 to 750 meals a day, but it expects that number to increase significantly thanks to the outpouring of support across the state, including from other local restaurants and businesses like Heritage Hotels, which is working to help it create deliverable meals on a large scale.
And Bar Castañeda is not alone. Although it is having to adapt daily to increased and changing needs, there is a robust support and coordination effort among groups like World Central Kitchen, which has set up operations at the Santa Fe Community College, and the Las Vegas New Mexico Community Foundation, which is focusing on the future and what it will take to rebuild devastated areas.
Chef Sinclair talked to me about Bar Castañeda’s transformation. “When we started this restaurant three years ago, we were making tacos out of a food truck. Now, and almost by accident, because of our incredible team, we have put together a grassroots humanitarian movement that’s making a tremendous impact. For someone to walk in who has just lost their home and to be able to take away the horrible feeling, even for a moment that’s the power of food.”
He said a fire platoon leader pulled him aside in recent days and told him that in 28 years on the job, he has never experienced this type of community effort to help take care of first responders.
Josh Loseke, Bar Castañeda’s chef de cuisine, was running the show in the kitchen Sunday, and while they were regularly restocking the buffet with pan after pan of spaghetti bolognese, roasted vegetables, bowls of salad, freshly baked rolls and warm, just-out -of-the-oven cookies, I noticed they also had a steady stream of tickets coming in from the restaurant out front. Loseke had been working 15-hour days since they opened the buffet and hadn’t taken a day off since it started, but he didn’t flinch when I asked him what this has meant to him.
“I love what I do and I love our team,” he said. “Over the past week, I’ve come out of the kitchen to restock the buffet and had guests hug me with tears in their eyes. I’m going to walk out of this experience a better boss and a better person.”
The damage from these fires extends to local businesses, too. As business has slowed across the region, restaurants still need to pay their staffs. So Bar Castañeda has partnered with other local restaurants to prepare and gather food for those in need. Bar Castañeda is reimbursing them for labor and food costs, which helps these restaurants pay their employees.
When I asked Allan Affeldt, owner of the Castañeda Hotel, how they decided to take this all on, he said, “It was a simple decision. We have a hotel and a restaurant, so what are you going to do when your community is in crisis? You house people in need and feed them.
“There is a spiritual element here, too. People need a meal and someone to be kind to them.”
With each new person I talked to Sunday, a common sense of ownership and community emerged. I started to understand how a fine-dining destination like Bar Castañeda could mobilize to feed hundreds of first responders and people in need every day.
This week I am thrilled to share the recipe for one of Bar Castañeda’s signature dishes, Frontier Green Chile Stew. This recipe is easy to make, delicious and makes a whopping five quarts, so there is plenty to share, which feels appropriate given the generosity of the team it comes from.
To donate to the restaurant’s tireless work, visit feedlasvegas.com. For more information, to sponsor a day of meals and for volunteer opportunities, email [email protected]
Bar Castañeda’s Frontier Green Chile Stew
Makes: 5 quarts; Total time: 1 hour
2 pounds of 80/20 ground beef
1 head garlic, finely diced
3 large russet potatoes, diced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
3 cups roasted Hatch green chile, peeled, seeded and diced
6 cups of chicken or beef stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepare: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, sear the ground beef until it’s cooked through and browned. With a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a bowl and reserve. Carefully remove all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered beef fat in the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and sweat them in the pot for around 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Now add the tomatoes, green chile, cooked ground beef, potatoes and stock. Bring stew to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender, around 30 minutes. In a separate bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water to make a slurry. Slowly pour the slurry into the stew and simmer for five minutes to thicken. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Marianne Sundquist is a chef and writer who in 2020 co-founded Stokli, an online general store. Find her on Instagram @chefmariannesundquist, and email her at [email protected]