Derek Rugsaken, Gaibi Rugsaken & David Bancroft, Owners of Southeast by Southwest
Derek Rugsaken, Gaibi Rugsaken & David (DJ) Bancroft
Owners of Southeast by Southwest - A Popup Dinner Series
Playing with flavors, ingredients and techniques
Derek: Muncie, Indiana Gaibi: Bozeman, Montana David: Santa Fe, NM
What made you start Southeast by Southwest, and how long has it been running?
Derek: My Dad immigrated here from Thailand in the late 70s and I grew up working in my uncle's restaurant, the first-ever Thai spot in Muncie, Indiana in the mid-90s. Cooking was always a big part of life in both my Dad’s and Mom's families, and every social event involved copious amounts of both Thai and midwestern American food. Toward high school age I became more interested in cooking and had the chance to try my hand in the kitchens of both the restaurant and my house. Sadly, my uncle Jay who taught me much of what I know and brought Thai food to central Indiana, passed away a few years ago, but I'm so grateful for the experiences I had with him. His son, my cousin Pete, currently owns the #1 Thai restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana for several years running and continues the tradition out there.
Southeast by Southwest really started in my mind around 2006 when I heard about a secret dinner club in the DC area, located in someone's basement in a residential neighborhood where one Thai man and his faithful assistant served a luxurious, pre fixe Thai menu to a few lucky guests a few nights per week. I kept up cooking Thai food when I could, and learned a lot when I moved to Thailand for a year and a half with my wife and son in 2008. When we moved back, I started getting positive feedback from friends about the food I was making, which in turn made me more confident, so I invested in getting the flavors right. All this time, the idea of the underground dinner club stuck with me until finally we started throwing these dinners two years ago.
What were your professional journies to get to where you are today?
Derek: I work full time as a behavioral family therapist in Santa Fe and Espanola, Gaibi is a doula with Tewa Women United, an artist, and a yoga teacher, and DJ is a full time hemp farmer and consultant on all things hemp and CBD in New Mexico. All of us have work that is completely separate from the popup events, and bring inspiration from our individual journeys into Southeast by Southwest.
How often do you host pop-up dinners and how can people find out about upcoming events?
Derek: We average about one event per month, but have done as many as 4! The best way to find out about our events is to be on our mailing list, which you can request by emailing us at SoutheastbySouthwest@gmail.com.
Tell us about your Alto event last month - how did you come up with this idea, and how did the community respond?
Derek: Alto is a collaboration between DJ and I. It probably started when we decided to try putting pinon sap into a short-path distillation system and produced an incredibly fragrant pinon essence. Short-path distillation is a process often used for cannabis to extract and separate volatile and medicinal compounds from cannabis, but we hoped it could also be used to extract for culinary purposes (it can). After doing that, we started thinking more about the spectrum of flavors and aromas in the NM wild and different ways they could be experienced. This lead to a conversation about developing a tasting menu of small bites inspired by the farmers and natural world of New Mexico, starting with a dish comprised only of hemp sprouts and extracts. DJ brings his own expertise in terms of hemp, extractions and isolating flavor and aromatic compounds. My skill set is more in classical cooking, with a special passion for preserving and fermentation. We also take inspiration from contemporary chefs who push the boundaries in terms of flavor and technique and are always looking for new ways to provide our guests with novel dining experiences. Our first Alto event featured a spherified local apple cider and a tangerine terpene fog. We are working on edible helium balloons for our next event! So far the response has been very positive which has been relieving to us, because it represents a lot of risk from a culinary perspective.
How has Southeast by Southwest evolved since you started it, and what are your future plans for it?
Derek: The events have evolved organically, inhabiting a variety of public and private venues across Northern New Mexico. We have found that setting is very important for these events and having intimate, warm spaces in which to showcase the food is crucial to the experience. We have had the pleasure of working in some very magical and private spaces throughout the state, and their very gracious hosts. We threw a fundraiser for the illustrious Moving Arts Espanola last fall, which is an organization that provides opportunities to youth for engagement in the arts. We remain wide open to possibilities and collaborations, and look forward to what the future holds!
What are your personal philosophies on food and diet?
Derek: At the core of our mission is to throw these events as responsibly as possible, with everything from food to tableware to the disposal of waste. We source as many of our ingredients as possible from local farms and producers, and base our menus on the availability of these ingredients. As of 2019, we no longer serve meat (with the occasional exception of seafood) at our meals. This decision was consistent with our value of sustainable practices, and encouraging what we know to be most supportive of our planet as a whole. Cultivating relationships with our local growers has given me a deep respect for the ingredients, and the work it takes to produce such high quality produce in this area. I try to prepare the food in a way that showcases the integrity of the ingredients and does justice to all of the hard work our farmers invest to bring this level of quality to our tables. We have found that our venues are a very important part of this experience
What advice can you give to novice home cooks?
Derek: Firstly, I would say that practice is everything, and cooking as much as one possibly can is a great way to hone your skill. I would also advise that home cooks rush to read Samin Nosrat's "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat". I firmly believe that it helped me produce more delicious food, more consistently by explaining the bare fundamentals of cooking.
What's your favorite thing about what you do?
Derek: Hands down, it’s about bringing out the joy in people and providing them with an experience that nourishes their whole person. And if we can offer a bit more consciousness to our diners in terms of appreciating the ingredients and where they come from, that’s an added bonus.
What's the most challenging thing about your work?
Derek: I think the most challenging thing is that all of us have other primary jobs, and pull these events together in our off-time. It’s a labor of love for sure, but sometimes that means squeezing a few extra hours into the day.
What advice can you give to budding creatives and entrepreneurs in Santa Fe?
Derek: Two things that have helped us along are perseverance and a willingness to connect and adapt. Believing in what we love and continuing to do it, even when it is very challenging, has been essential to our journey. Secondly, we have been inspired by connecting with other growers, makers, and doers in the community whose enthusiasm and vitality feeds our own. Just being in the presence of other people pursuing excellence in their own path inspires me to reach further and strive harder in what I do.
What makes Santa Fe special to you? What is/are your favorite thing(s) about this place?
Derek: I admire the richness of this city and the many, many gems to be discovered here, if only one has the patience to go looking. Like a flowering cactus in the desert, this city is raw, vital and beautiful. There is a frontier spirit to the makers and doers here, which has only been emboldened by the arrival of Meow Wolf and its ripples in the community. And even beneath that, there is a tangible depth and groundedness that emanates from the mountains and the many spiritual traditions converging here.
DJ: As Santa Fe is my hometown, I didn't really appreciate it for what it was, but after traveling the world and coming back, I learned to appreciate what a unique culture we have here. And now that I am an adult, I feel that I am a part of Santa Fe culture, as well as a product of it. 505 por vida!
If you could change one thing about Santa Fe, what would it be?
Derek: We all agree that the thing we would most like change is accessibility for people of all income levels and social strata to participate in the many facets of this wonderful city. I know that there are many people and organizations working to make this possible, and a number of options already exist that are free or low cost to the community. I would like more than anything to see this trend continue to grow. Seeing the ravages of addiction on this and surrounding communities in the state, we really believe that the antidote is social belonging and connectedness.
What are you passionate about outside of this business?
Derek: Outside of cooking, I have a passion for people and helping the underserved and disadvantaged in our community. I currently sit on the advisory board of Moving Arts Espanola where high-quality arts classes are provided to children at accessible costs. It’s inspiring to take part in a dynamic organization that is literally saving lives through the arts. It’s like a dream.
DJ: We are also trying to look at new ways to bring healthy, lovingly made food to those in our communities who have least access to it. It’s crazy that access to healthy, naturally-grown food is an issue of economic privilege and it’s something we'd like to address directly. Stay tuned! Gaibi: I am passionate about my work with the Yiya Vi Kagingdi doula program at Tewa Women United. As a doula it is my great honor to support families through the transition into parenthood. I think, for all three of us, of our work is about strengthening community and building connections in this diverse landscape.
At the end of the day, why do you do what you do?
Derek: At the heart of everything I do is a desire to share the richness of this life with others. Life is too short to waste away in loneliness, I believe we should celebrate together!